Life Is Pure Hitchcock On Block of Capitol Hill

"Have you ever seen 'The Birds'?" asks Potomac Avenue resident Betty Perkins, in reference to the 1963 film. "That's what it's like." (Bill O'leary - Twp)
By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 26, 2007

By now, the nets were to be shrouding the trees, blocking the birds -- and stopping the bird bombs.

Granted, this was a hopeful deadline. But for Capitol Hill residents on this old, elegant block near Congressional Cemetery, it's been a long summer of starlings -- "rats with wings," as Jennifer Smira calls them -- roosting in the tall, stately trees along the 1600 block of Potomac Avenue SE.

Not only have the birds been dropping a constant whitewash and turning the street and sidewalks into a slippery stinkfest, but the birds' "fecal matter" -- as the District Department of Health indelicately terms it -- makes nearly every parked car on the block look like an ambushed victim from a paintball war. Bird guano clumps trash can lids and handles. It has polka-dotted Nicole Shank's rose garden. It has meant that every time Smira walks her dog, she ends the outing by cleaning Meisha's paws with baby wipes.

Even the U.S. Postal Service has days when it won't deliver the mail.

"It's sort of like the snow, only a different thing entirely," says Postal Service spokesman Deborah Yackley. "Our carriers do have the right to determine that a location is unsafe or hazardous for them to deliver. The mess extends all the way across the sidewalk and into the street, so it's impossible for them to get to the mailbox without going through it. The customers have tried to clean it up, but it comes back overnight. . . . It's slippery. It's hazardous."

The starlings' return to the same block, year after year, is routine bird behavior. Ornithologists call it "site fidelity." Once a few birds start roosting in one place, the offspring hatched there are genetically imprinted to regard the site as home, said Cecilia Riley, president of the Association of Field Ornithologists.

Capitol Hill is not the only place besieged by birds. Huge flocks of crows have settled at various times in Fredericksburg, Hagerstown, Md., and White Flint Mall.

Dislodging them is incredibly difficult. In some places, people have built nests to attract peregrine falcons, hawks and owls; the predators can take out a few of the targeted birds but are of little use against masses. People have tried air horns and recordings of hawks screeching to scare away starlings, to virtually no avail.

"The trouble with starlings is they're incredibly smart," said Terri Coppersmith, operator of Diamonds in the Rough, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Westminster, Md. "They're precocious, and they catch on quickly that it's a fake."

For the past two weeks, staff members from the office of D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) have been pinballing from city agency to city agency, looking for solutions.

Wells's chief of staff, Charles Allen, has the telephone demeanor of a very serious man with a very serious job, but who finds himself, these days, repeating the word "poop" with increasing frequency. He's been to the Department of Health -- whose staff could assure him only that the block-long smear of bird droppings is, according to spokesman Phillippa Mezile, "a nuisance, and it could pose a health hazard."

He went to the Department of Public Works, whose staff could promise only, he said, to "get out there by the end of business Thursday [and] clean the street, clean the sidewalk."

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