Aerial Invasion 



When Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds premiered in 1963, it accomplished two things. It launched the vengeful-nature category of films, and it provided the perfect image of nature gone awry. As birds attacked children on a playground and invaded a house through the chimney, audiences watched in horror. Our happy-go-lucky feathered friends shouldn’t be behaving like this.

However vengeful birds might be, without a director to nudge them on, they’re unlikely to get organized and launch an attack. But images of Hitchcock’s circling flocks are bound to arise as you drive the highways of Davidson County. It’s that time of year again: Starlings are forming into vast congregations, whirling in the air like the tornado in The Wizard of Oz. At night, you can hear them settling in the trees, bickering with each other and crapping on everything around them.

Most of the year, starlings are like dust motes. They’re everywhere, but they go unnoticed until they form a large enough mass to attract attention—and at the moment, they’ve definitely got people’s attention.

Showdown at the Substation

If, during the past week or so, you’ve heard what sounds like gunfire coming from Nashville Electric Service’s central substation downtown, you can rest assured that terrorists have not taken over our electrical utilities. You’ve been witnessing the commencement of this year’s battle against starlings. Since Monday, Nov. 9, NES and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency have been working together to disrupt the starling flocks without harming them.

“We have a lot of bird problems at the substation, mainly with starlings,” explains Tim Hill, communications supervisor at NES. “For some reason—probably the heat the substation generates—it’s a roosting place for the starlings. They flock there at night.”

Which explains the recent disquiet in the vicinity. “Starlings don’t like to be where there’s a lot of noise,” Hill explains. “We’ve tried a variety of things, like squawk boxes, scarecrows—everything we could think of. Right now, we basically fire an unloaded shotgun shell that has a sound similar to a firecracker explosion. What we’re trying to do is disrupt the roosting pattern. We fire it off at a variety of different times—at dawn, at dusk, different days, whatever it takes to get them to start going away. The TWRA has used this in several situations around the state, where they’ve had similar problems, and they’ve had pretty good success with it.”

Wherever starlings gather, people try to run them off with increasingly violent shouts of “Shoo!” But if you drive downtown, you can see huge numbers of them perched on the wires that hang over the river. Are the birds finally aware of their own unpopularity? Maybe they hang out over the Cumberland because they’re not bothering anyone there.

Why are starlings so unpopular with NES in particular? Because the birds aren’t merely a nuisance or an occasional problem—they’re a major annual headache that costs time and money. In late 1997, for example, as the birds began to gather at their favorite cold-weather haunts, much of downtown Nashville was without power for more than half an hour because of the starling invasion.

“It’s not so much the birds that cause the problems,” Hill says. “It’s the waste that the birds leave. We’ll get hundreds and thousands of them at a time. The birds sit up on the steel girders and supports on the top of the substation. Usually, they don’t get down in the transformers, because they’re smart enough to know that if they do, they’re going to get killed. [But] when we get a good rainstorm, the waste will go down into our circuit breakers and cause them to trip open. Sometimes they’ll burn out.”

Although most starling deterrents have been only moderately successful, NES is determined to continue the battle. “We’ve tried just about everything,” Hill says with a sigh. “It’s a problem that we’re probably going to have to continue to work with through the years.”

Waste management

By far the most common complaint about these birds is the astonishing amount of waste matter that their flocks produce. Naturally, all that excrement—splashed over cars and sidewalks like so many paintball scars—creates an unhealthy environment. One famous but little-understood side effect is the increased risk of histoplasmosis.

Histoplasmosis is an infection, usually but not always in the lungs, caused by the spores of the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum. The spores are tiny enough to float in the air. Because they require moisture and warmth, and prefer darkness, the human lung is an ideal environment in which to encourage their growth.

When the spores enter the lungs, they settle into the tissue and basically take root. The cells multiply, and soon the spores are reproducing wildly. Eventually, they may wind up in the bronchial tubes or other parts of the respiratory system.

Histoplasmosis is thought to be the cause of what Midwesterners used to call “summer flu”; it frequently has been misdiagnosed as some other respiratory infection. The sickness occurs all over the world, in temperate and tropical climates, but it’s especially common in river valleys—such as the one surrounding the Cumberland River in Middle Tennessee. Studies indicate that more than 80 percent of the population of the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys test positive for exposure to histoplasmosis.

“Histoplasmosis,” says Janice Nolen, program director of the Tennessee chapter of the American Lung Association, “is endemic throughout the Central and Southeastern U.S. I’ve heard people say that if you’ve ever spent any time in Memphis, for example, you’re bound to have some evidence of histoplasmosis in your lungs. You could test almost everybody in Nashville, and you would find evidence of it.”

The spores aren’t created by bird dung, but merely encouraged by it. “The spores are carried by the organic, fertile droppings of the birds,” Nolen explains precisely, though she quickly resorts to technical jargon: “In other words, the spores thrive in bird poop.”

Most people who inhale the spores of the fungus experience no problems at all; they learn of their exposure only when they have a blood or skin test for an unrelated reason. Other people, though, can develop problems ranging from mild to severe.

There are three forms of histoplasmosis. “The acute form of it,” Nolen says, “is like a mild case of the flu, and it’s not very serious.” Usually, it results in a couple of weeks of illness, and then it clears up by itself. But there are other forms: “If you have a chronic form, it’s more like having tuberculosis.”

Like most fungal infections, histoplasmosis is particularly dangerous to the very young and the very old, and also to people with deficient immune systems, such as those undergoing chemotherapy or infected with HIV. “If they have some of those problems, which make them more vulnerable,” Nolen admits, “then the disease could indeed be life-threatening.”

There is no question that starlings en masse are noxious pests. However, for the record, not everyone hates them. They are fascinating animals for a number of reasons. In fact, to counteract the negative publicity, there’s even a nonfiction book titled Arnie, the Darling Starling, about the Disney-esque misadventures of a beloved household pet.

The name “starling” comes from the star-like speckles on the birds’ breasts. Some people, especially in Europe, consider the birds beautiful, pointing to their iridescent feathers. Detractors respond by comparing the starling’s iridescence to that of an oil spill in a parking lot.

Starlings also have other virtues. For one thing, their menu includes vast quantities of grubs and harmful insects. In some places, starlings themselves appear on the human menu and are even considered, when well-prepared, a gourmet dish. (If you know of any local chef specializing in starlings, please inform Scene Food Critic Kay West.)

Not every species of starling is as adaptable as the one that has overrun North America. In fact, over the eons, some specialized so narrowly that they died out when civilization threatened their niche. One such starling lived alongside the dodo in the islands of the Indian Ocean and became extinct in the mid-19th century. One surviving group of starlings includes two African species called oxpeckers. Oxpeckers must have sinned in a previous life, because in this one they spend their days eating ticks off the backs of grazing animals.

Today, there are 100-plus species of starling around the world, including glossy, golden-breasted, and wattled. Many are not considered pests at all. One European starling, proudly bearing the splendid name of Rosy Pastor, times its nesting and migration to follow the periodic eruptions of locusts. The gray starling, eastern Asia’s version of our common starling, is one of the chief predators on the region’s hated rice-stem-borer. This has led to the bird’s current status as a protected species, an honor to which our own populous starling need not aspire.

Starlings are noisy birds, and usually not in ways that people find charming. Melodious songbirds they’re not; we’ve all heard them bitching at each other as they saunter across a lawn or hold public meetings in trees. Whatever the noises are for, they sound suspiciously like gossip and name-calling. But when starlings want to, they can demonstrate a talent much revered in Nashville—the ability to imitate other creatures’ songs. Like their cousin the mynah, starlings are talented mimics.

Although scientists debate why this is a useful adaptation, it isn’t surprising that starlings imitate other birds. But the imitations don’t stop there: Starlings have been known to mimic bells, cars, saws, approaching footsteps, and even complete sentences, such as “I have a question!” and “Does Hammacher Schlemmer have a toll-free number?” They also imitate music. One starling in a laboratory regularly performed a medley of the William Tell Overture and “Rock-a-bye, Baby.”

One of the more outrageous stories in the annals of starling-dom comes from this bird’s ability to imitate music. On a spring day in 1787, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart passed a pet shop and heard someone inside whistling a few measures of his latest composition. He was surprised, mainly because the concerto in question had not yet been performed in public.

He rushed into the pet shop. The whistler was a starling, sitting in its cage and blithely singing away. Naturally, Mozart bought the scruffy diva on the spot. He took it home and transcribed the notes the starling kept singing. Except for a single flat note and some grace notes the bird had seen fit to omit, the song was identical to the first five measures of the allegretto from Mozart’s concerto-in-progress.

Where had the starling heard the music? Presumably from Mozart himself, who was fond of pets and pet shops and who had a habit of whistling and humming to himself. However, a couple of commentators—presumably the sort of people who worry about grassy knolls and crop circles—have made the straight-faced suggestion that, contrary to his own diary entries, Mozart actually bought the bird only after stealing the allegretto from it.

Mozart kept the starling and enjoyed listening to it, and when it died three years later he gave it an elaborate funeral. During that time, he also worked intermittently on one of his less appreciated works, usually called A Musical Joke. For centuries, music scholars agreed that the work was a parody of uninspired composition and inept performance. But a few years ago, two scientists suggested that the shifts in harmony, the irrelevant virtuosity of certain passages, and the awkward stops and starts were all characteristic of the song of a starling. There is no denying that Mozart worked on the piece precisely during the time he lived with the starling and that he finished it immediately after the bird’s death.

Of all the many possible reasons that starlings might be in North America, they are actually here because of a single passing reference to them in a play by Shakespeare. And they are mentioned in that play because of their ability to mimic other creatures.

In Henry IV, Part 1, the title character warns Hotspur not to speak the hated name of his enemy Mortimer. When the king leaves, Hotspur angrily swears to Worcester that he will come up to his highness while he’s asleep and yell the name in the royal ear. Then Hotspur utters the remark that—thanks to a strange chain of cause and effect over the centuries—led to starlings covering your car with droppings last night:

“I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak

Nothing but Mortimer, and give it him.

To keep his anger still in motion.”

For hundreds of years after Shakespeare wrote it, Hotspur’s idle threat had no more effect on the real world than did the rest of literature. Then, in the late 1880s, the three lines about Mortimer and the starling came to the attention of the wrong group of people—the Acclimatization Society, which was headed by a prosperous New York drug merchant named Eugene Schieffelin. Schieffelin and his cohorts had chosen—among all the hobbies in the world—to devote their time and energy to importing into the U.S. every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. Someone should erect a statue to this man, merely so that starlings could anoint it in their own charming way.

Granted, we shouldn’t judge these misguided souls with our hard-earned 20/20 hindsight. But there is no denying that the Acclimatization Society ignored the ecological information already available to them about starlings—that, for example, the birds had been introduced into New Zealand and, within only two decades, had increased their population to the point of wreaking agricultural havoc. Scorning such cautionary tales, Schieffelin’s bird corps had to follow a dream. Even their failure to introduce other species such as nightingales and skylarks didn’t faze them.

Like many other great American immigrant success stories, the history of the starling in this country begins in New York City—not on Ellis Island, but nearby. On a fateful day in the first week of March 1890, Schieffelin and friends introduced 40 pairs of starlings into the city’s new public space, Central Park. Later they released more. During the summer, birders found the first nest. Although it sounds too good to be true, all sources agree that the first nest was under the very eaves of the American Museum of Natural History, on the edge of the park.

Soon the first few scattered nests merged into a bustling colony. By the next year, there were starlings on Staten Island, and five years later they were established in Brooklyn. It took the birds several more years to spread across the New York area, but finally some of them decided to immigrate further inland.

Apparently they found God’s country to their liking. During the Depression the birds accompanied the migrating Okies westward. They reached the Rockies in the ’40s. By 1959 starlings’ manifest destiny found them strutting along the Pacific coast—probably complaining, like Alexander the Great, that there were no more empires to conquer.

Why were starlings so successful from the first? There are a number of reasons. As you can see with a glance outside your window, starlings are aggressive birds, swaggering gangsters who aren’t shy about pushing other birds around. Frequently, when they find a home they admire, they don’t hesitate to throw out the tenants and move in themselves.

Starlings produce at least two broods per year, each with several young. This allows their rate of reproduction to outpace that of their competitors, thereby insuring against the hazards of a new environment. They will nest almost anywhere (attics, barbecue grills) and eat almost anything—from insects, which constitute about half their diet, to the tortilla chips flung to them at outdoor restaurants.

Obviously, these birds are hardy creatures. Even the muscles that operate their beaks are stronger than other species’. Most birds efficiently snap their beaks shut on whatever they’re after, be it insect or seed. But a starling can actually snap its beak open with great strength, turning its mouth into a handy tool that can pry open seeds or dig after insects in the soil.

Only three other species of animals—all originally native to Europe—have, like the starling, been introduced into practically every corner of the earth. These include two mammals, the brown rat and the house mouse, both of which were accidentally transported across the globe, and one other bird, the European weaver finch, which we call the house sparrow.

Years ago, a magazine branded the starling “an avian Attila the Hun.” Coming to the New World equipped like lean, mean survival machines, starlings have indeed wowed the locals with their aggression and persistence. It’s easy to imagine the native birds furtively watching the newcomers and muttering, “There goes the neighborhood.”

In its battle against starlings, Nashville Electric Service can find encouragement in one local success story. For years, starlings plagued the campus of Vanderbilt University, with their infestation reaching a peak around 1994. But the last few seasons have turned up far lower numbers.

Don Hughes, supervisor of pest control at Vanderbilt University, thinks tough measures in recent years have finally had an effect. “When they came in in ’94, there were hundreds of thousands of them. Where they came from, I don’t know, but we had the job of getting rid of them. With the number of birds that we were dealing with, and the size of the campus, it was pretty involved.”

The methods weren’t Pentagon-worthy, but they were reasonably high-tech. “We used propane gas cannons,” Hughes explains. “They don’t shoot a projectile; they just sound like a cannon when they go off. They have timers. You just set it for the frequency of the rounds being fired. Plus, we used pyrotechnic devices—bird bangers and screamers. They’re fired from a little pistol-like device. You fire it up into a group of birds in a tree, staging to go to a roost. Or you can fire it just above the treetops, when they’re coming in. There are no live rounds fired; it’s all noise.”

Incidentally, after their apparent success, Vanderbilt lent the air cannons to NES. Tim Hill says the utility company hasn’t purchased its own air cannons simply because “they’re so darned expensive.”

The Vanderbilt campus appeals to starlings for a variety of reasons. “When the weather turns cold and all the trees lose their leaves,” Hughes explains, “then the starlings are going to find somewhere that’s warm. Our problem on the campus was the magnolia trees; they keep their leaves year-round. Plus, the buildings around the campus sheltered the starlings from the wind and kept the elements off—just an ideal habitat.”

A couple of years ago, the density of starling droppings in some areas around Vanderbilt necessitated the relocation of several assigned parking spaces. Some people whose spaces lay under favorite starling haunts were coming down with histoplasmosis. Don Hughes is determined to prevent that from happening again.

“It’s not a one-time thing,” he says. “This time of year, we start checking all the likely habitats.” Like cops determined to prevent loitering, Vandy’s pest-control people keep an eye on the birds around campus, watching for any tendency to flock. Hughes chuckles. “It’s just harassment is what it is.”

Whatever it is, it seems to be working. And it’s unlikely that Vanderbilt or NES will be sued for violating starlings’ right to assemble in public. If ever there was such a thing as a public nuisance, starlings qualify for the title. Still, it’s sad that the birds’ unpopularity derives from their splendid success in adapting to modern urban America. After all, they didn’t stow away on a refugee ship; they were brought here on purpose.

Which leads us back to the idea of commissioning a statue in honor of Eugene Schieffelin, the idiot who released the starlings in Central Park only 108 years ago. It’s worth considering. We can never have too many reminders of how foolish it is to tamper with nature before we understand how it works.


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