Life Is Pure Hitchcock On Block of Capitol Hill
Annual Starling Invasion Leaves Neighborhood Awash in Filth, Residents Flush With Frustration

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."

He hit the Department of Transportation, where staff misunderstood the whole situation and believed it to involve only one tree. A possible solution, suggested spokesman Erik Linden, would be "procuring a sizable net to throw over the tree." The net would keep out the birds, the birds would go elsewhere and voila! The guano would be gone.

Then Linden actually visited the 1600 block of Potomac Avenue.

"It is more than one tree," he said, sounding almost defeated. Suddenly, the netting solution had become a whole lot more expensive -- and extensive. "This is going to take a deeper investigation than we first thought," Linden said. The only solution he could outright discuss was: "We don't want to cut down the trees."

Meanwhile, the residents of Potomac Avenue are getting antsier and angrier.

The bird droppings, said James Rychner, 45, who works at the University of Maryland as director of development for the Division of Student Affairs, are "very unhealthy and quite a disgusting situation." He has lived on the block for more than five years and calls this year's starling infestation "by far the worst I have lived through." For more than three years, he added, "I have tried . . . to get D.C. government to take some action, and it has always turned into 'pass the buck' between the Department of Health, Public Works, transportation services -- each pointing to the other agencies with no action."

Shank, who four years ago bought her first house on Potomac Avenue and has unfulfilled visions of gardening in the front yard, expects that city agencies will dither long enough for the birds to fly elsewhere, as they've done every year in the past, for the fall and winter.

Late summer is prime time for great flocks of blackbirds and starlings. "The population is huge right now," says Scott Sillett, a research wildlife biologist at the National Zoo, "because you have all the adults, plus all the young who were produced who are now independent."

So even before this season ends, residents such as Shank have given up on this year and are worrying about next year. "The city needs to do something before they nest and have their babies," said the 44-year-old Department of State employee. "Because once that happens, they won't be going anywhere."

And once that happens, the residents will, again, be enduring a similar summer to this one. A summer in which the problem gets so bad -- so acrid that the stench clings to their clothes, their skin and the small hairs lining their noses -- that it will, once again, resist any short-term solutions.

Take the Public Works "flusher" truck that sluiced down Potomac Avenue midmorning on Thursday.

"Now, see?" asked retiree Betty Perkins, glaring at the orange water truck. She has lived on the street for 43 years and has watched the bird situation get worse and worse in the past few years. "What's he washing? The curb." She sounded disgusted, as if all that clumped-up, caked-on mess of fecal matter was way too copious for some quick, drive-by spray to accomplish anything.

"He washes that, and tonight, it'll be messed up again," intoned her brother, James Perkins, rocking on the front porch and looking unimpressed at the splash that did almost nothing about the feathers, feces and swarms of flies coating the sidewalk.

"Have you ever seen 'The Birds'?" asked Betty Perkins, envisioning the dark thunderclouds that hover in the sky when the starlings return to roost each evening. "That's what it's like."

Except that "The Birds," the 1963 film, is Hitchcock horror that ends with the final credits. The birds of Potomac Avenue? That's a recurring horror.

About the only silver lining is this: Bird poop, they say, brings good luck.

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