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Authors: Tristan Donovan

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As dusk becomes night, the cloud of birds departs. They've homed in on another spot in the city, away from downtown with its green laser beams and
clack-clack-clack
of wood.

The victory is temporary. Tomorrow evening the battle to keep the starlings out of downtown will resume. It's a war that will only really be resolved in the spring when the starlings finally leave the city to become someone else's problem. And come next fall, they will be back to joust with the USDA again.

Indianapolis has been facing annual starling invasions since the 1950s and, before the USDA came in, winter in downtown often felt like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's
The Birds.
Tens of thousands of starlings would gather in parks, on buildings, and on sites like the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Monument Circle. They would just sit there in the trees at night squawking, recalls Anne Maschmeyer, beautification director at Indianapolis Downtown Inc., which seeks to enhance and promote the city center. “It was just like
The Birds.
People were really freaked out.”

What the birds left behind was equally unwelcome: park benches speckled white, office windows smeared with excrement, and sidewalks slippery with waste. Some people resorted to using umbrellas to get from their workplace to their car without getting pooped on. Even the city's Christmas decorations took a beating. “They have an artificial Christmas tree made out of colored lights on the monument each year,” says Judy. “The starlings would use those trees of light to sit on and poop too. They are like Scrooge. They don't even like Christmas.”

Starling excrement is more than unpleasant to the eye and the nose. For a start, it is highly acidic. Unlike us, birds don't have bladders where the uric acid they produce gets watered down to form urine, since carrying around excess water makes flying harder. The result is undiluted droppings acidic enough to eat away limestone and copper. That's bad news for Indianapolis's historic sites, and even when the waste is power washed away, the high-pressure jets of water also scrape away a tiny layer of the structure, inflicting further damage.

Then there's the disease risk. Starling droppings teem with disease, most notably the fungus
Histoplasma capsulatum.
If the droppings are left long enough, the fungus will produce airborne spores that can cause a potentially fatal lung infection called histoplasmosis. “They did a construction project here back in the '80s, and they tore down trees that had historically been a roost for the starlings,” says Judy. “They had bulldozers in and that kind of stuff, and contaminated dust particles went up in the air and blew around the city. More than three hundred people came down with histoplasmosis. We've had private companies come in and clean up the droppings off of buildings, and that has been a hazmat clean up.”

There have been more recent cases too. In 2002 thousands of starlings roosted on the Indiana State Capitol, two blocks east of Monument Circle. The limestone statehouse—a grand mix of mock Italian Renaissance domes and pediment window hoods—was an ideal site for the starlings, which prefer Neo-Classical and Gothic Revivalist architecture because of the abundance of crevices and
ledges to nest on. Such was the festering mess the birds left behind them that Indiana's Republican leader Brian Bosma and a legislative aide contracted histoplasmosis. A cleanup crew was swiftly brought in after the elected representative fell ill.

By the time Bosma caught histoplasmosis, Indy's USDA-aided fight back against the birds had been underway for two years. Indianapolis had endured the starlings for decades but its patience finally ran out in 2000 when it hosted the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament. “It was evening and downtown was bustling. There were people everywhere,” says Anne. “Downtown was so hot with people and excitement. But there was the noise of the starlings roosting in the trees and chattering, and there were bird droppings all over the sidewalk and it was smelling. I just thought, we've got to do something.”

She got a group of downtown property owners to pool their antistarling budgets so they could call in the USDA. The USDA soon discovered one reason why the starlings liked downtown. Four and a half miles southwest of the city center lies the South Side Landfill. It turned out that the starlings were spending the day picking through garbage before returning downtown for the night.

Curt Publow, environmental manager at South Side Landfill Inc., says the birds would visit in huge numbers. “We would get hundreds, if not thousands, at any one time and they would get on the power lines and things,” he says. “If there were enough birds on the lines that all took off at once, it would cause power outages. Then there's just the waste from the birds. They huddle on equipment and we literally have to scrape the windshield off. It's pretty gross.”

So as the USDA began harassing the birds trying to stay downtown, the landfill began frightening them off during the day using shotguns and noisemaking propane cannons. “The propane cannons are automated and run all day long,” says Curt. “We've got guys out on litter pickup or other jobs and we just equip them with some of the noise makers so the noises are in random locations all
through the day. If you couple that with some actual killing, it's pretty effective.”

In downtown lethal force is a weapon of last resort. There are plans in place for plying the birds with DRC-1339, aka Starlicide, a poison that causes kidney failure in starlings. It's effective but delivers a slow and painful death for the birds, so the plan sits gathering dust. “I'm glad we've never had to push it so far that we've had to use lethal,” says Judy. “We're going to do everything we possibly can to avoid that.”

The harassment efforts seem to be working. In recent years the starlings have roosted along the canals, and when Indianapolis hosted the 2012 Final Four the chicken coop aroma of 2000 was missing. “There's never going to be zero starlings, but we can get it down to a handful here and a handful there—something tolerable,” says Judy.

But the birds are nothing if not persistent. “We still do have a handful of birds that are going to be in Monument Circle because they have learned and adapted to what we're doing,” says Judy. “On Monument Circle they have some light fixtures that look like candelabras, and the birds have learned to dive down into the candelabras. That's their bomb shelter, so they dive down into there and you cannot get them to leave. They are hunkered down in there and feel protected even if we're firing pyros right next to the candelabra.”

What must be galling for Judy and everyone else involved in fending off the starlings in Indianapolis is that the situation was entirely avoidable. As their name suggests, the European starling is not native to North America. Their presence on the continent is the fault of just one man: Eugene Schieffelin.

Born in New York City in 1827, Schieffelin was the son of a wealthy drug industry tycoon and president of the American Acclimatization Society. The society was part of an international nineteenth century movement dedicated to “improving” the
Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia through the introduction of European flora and fauna.

Schieffelin, a keen theatergoer, thought it would be just wonderful if all the birds mentioned in the plays of William Shakespeare lived in North America. So he ordered sixty European starlings from a supplier in England. When the birds arrived in Manhattan in April 1890, Schieffelin took the caged birds to Central Park and set them free. The following year, he released another forty in the same spot.

In another demonstration of starlings' taste for Neo-Classical architecture, many of them roosted on the nearby American Museum of Natural History. They stayed for three years, breeding and multiplying before starting to spread to the outer limits of the city.

After a decade of building up their numbers, the starlings moved beyond New York, expanding their range faster and faster with each passing year, and—in keeping with their aggressive nature—forcing native birds out of their nests as they went. In 1923, seventeen years after Schieffelin's death, they were spotted in Indiana for the first time. Seven years later the descendants of the hundred birds he imported could be found as far north as Nova Scotia, as far south as the Gulf of Mexico and as far west as the Mississippi.

Biologists of the time thought that would be the limit of the starlings' North American invasion. Mountain ranges and a lack of suitable nesting sites on the Great Plains would, they surmised, block their advance. They had, however, greatly underestimated the starling. Fourteen years later the first starlings were seen in California. By 1970 they were present throughout North America. Today, an estimated two hundred million starlings live on the continent and Schieffelin's name is mud among the pest controllers and farmers who must live with the consequences of his flight of fancy.

As in Europe, the starling is equally at home in cities as in the country, with the ledges and cavities of buildings working just as well for nests as trees and cliffs. Cities also provide plenty of food for these unfussy birds. They eat what we put on bird tables, pick
through our garbage, and gorge themselves on the abundant insect life found at sewage plants. And, as seen in Indianapolis, city life becomes even more attractive to them in winter as built-up areas are warmer than the open countryside.

Urban areas also helped starlings to spread. Acclimatization societies brought the starling to Australia in the 1870s, believing they would keep insect pests at bay, only to watch them become a major agricultural pest in their own right. For a while, the birds' progress west was halted by inhospitable desert, but then starlings began using the urban areas springing up along Australia's southern coast as a path west.

In response, the Australian authorities urged citizens in starling-free zones to report any sightings so they could send out squads, armed with shotguns, to defend the area.

Schieffelin's fateful decision to bring the starling to North America was not only inspired by the Bard. His other inspiration was the runaway success of an earlier European import: the house sparrow, the oldest bird on the city block.

The house sparrow has a long association with urban living. These pocket-sized birds with their distinguishing chestnut-brown backs, white cheeks and black eye stripes took to living alongside us from the moment we shifted from nomadic wanderers to settled farmers some ten thousand years ago. That's about the same time we domesticated dogs and a good couple thousand years before cats joined the ranks of humanity's favored companions.

The settled life suited the house sparrow. By all accounts they are slothful birds, rarely looking for food beyond a mile from their nests. Even the most adventurous individuals rarely travel more than four miles from their birthplace in their entire life. Not that they needed to roam far after hooking up with us. The crevices and cavities of our buildings proved to be ideal nesting sites, and the grain we gathered, stored, and spilled provided plenty of food. So
the sparrow stuck with us, tagging along as we spread out of the Middle East establishing settlements across the landmass of Africa, Asia and Europe. By Renaissance times, sparrows were a daily sight in European cities and towns.

People's attitudes to these avian interlopers were mixed. Some encouraged them by hanging earthenware pots from their roofs for them to nest in, while farmers regarded them as grain-gobbling pests. The Lutherans of Dresden even declared a ban on the birds after some dared to chirp and copulate in church during their sermons. For the poor they were—and, as we'll see, still are—a potential meal, with sparrow pie a favorite among European peasants.

Regardless of human opinion, sparrows were part of the fabric of European life by the time the acclimatization movement emerged, so they became a prime candidate for introduction to the new worlds. And in the early 1850s, a group of New Yorkers imported one hundred British house sparrows. After they were delivered via steamship from Liverpool, England, the birds were set free to go forth and multiply, and that they most certainly did. Those pioneer sparrows and their offspring fanned out from Manhattan, spreading north, pushing south, and driving west. Between 1868 and 1888 their North American range grew at an average of 118 miles per year—nearly three times faster than the American pioneers pushed back the western frontier.

BOOK: Feral Cities
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