Beautiful Starling Murmurations Use Rome As A ToiletPosted: January 10, 2014
It was dusk and mildly chilly in Rome when I stepped out of Roma Termini, the city’s busy central train station, and heard relentless screeching noises from above. I looked up to see thousands of birds covering the treetops like bees on a honeycomb. A cloud of them sprang from one tree only to quickly dissolve into another. Bigger clouds of black specks curled and twisted even higher, over rooftops and looming cranes.
Starlings. Thousands of them, and just a small portion of the 1 to 5 million that overwinter in Italy’s capital.
To nature lovers, starling swarms – called “murmurations” – are fascinating and beautiful. Stunning videos of murmurations have captured the admiration of the Internet. They’re also a favorite example of swarming science, each individual bird following cues on speed and direction from its neighbors to form a massive, swirling shape in the sky.
But to the Romans, the starlings are mostly a nuisance. It just so happens that a cloud of birds rains fecal matter. So, while gawking in wonder and admiration of nature’s beauty (like I did outside Roma Termini), you run a serious risk of being crapped on (Yes, this also happened. Here’s a dramatic re-enactment).
Along the bus stops in front of the station the droppings were woefully unavoidable. It coated the ground wherever a tree was near. People opened umbrellas even when it wasn’t raining. And when it did rain, the guano formed goopy puddles of brown muck. That muck stuck to people’s shoes and got tracked into buses, which stank like stables.
“Obviously the huge quantity of guano is a problem for cars, pavements and roads,” said Italian bird conservationist Giovanni Albarella. “When it rains the guano makes the ground slippery, and it is very smelly, too.”
Alberella, who is with the Italian League for Bird Protection (LIPU), is very familiar with the starlings and their relationship with Rome. Starlings have spent winter in Rome since 1925, Albarella said, driven to the city by the destruction of the region’s reed beds by agriculture and development. Rome is an appealing alternative roosting location for them because it’s relatively warm and predators are scarce. Most of the starlings stick around from late October to late February, he added, first hanging out around the Tiber River and train station, then shifting south across the city to the business district EUR, before migrating back to northern and eastern Europe in spring.
Rome has tried solving the problem with a corps of 15-to-25 starling-startlers. Decked out in white anti-birdpoop suits and armed with large megaphones, they walked the city streets blasting a recording of a starling predator-warning call. The idea was to shoo the starlings out of Rome faster. Then, in 2013 the funding for the project stalled, possibly leading to more guano-related problems than usual this winter.
It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what the lesson here is. You could suggest that the city people are paying the price for careless urban growth that destroyed the starlings’ original habitat. You could say that the latest storm of guano means that the bird-scaring program was worthwhile. But I’ll at least say this for the Romans, even though the starlings create an awful stink, they’re not generally out to hurt the birds. The bird-scaring program was, after all, an effort to better co-exist with them, and even now many Romans are grudgingly tolerating the problem rather than resorting to birdicide – though opinions may vary depending on how recently each person got pooped on.
Personally, I see the starling dominance over Rome as yet another reason to visit. Plenty of travelers, myself included, come to Rome for the ancient history and great food and other touristy draws. Why not also get an up-close look at one of the gorgeous natural phenomenons in the animal world: a starling murmuration?
Just make sure you bring an umbrella.
(Photos and videos by Sean Treacy, outside Roma Termini, Dec. 26, 2013)