By Mike Stark
Monday, September 7, 2009
SALT LAKE CITY -- The next time the sky darkens with a flock of noisy, unwelcome starlings, blame Shakespeare -- or, better yet, a few of his strangest fans.
Had the Bard not mentioned the starling in the third scene of "Henry IV," arguably the most hated bird in North America might never have arrived. In the early 1890s, about 100 European starlings were released in New York City's Central Park by a group dedicated to bringing to America every bird ever mentioned by Shakespeare.
Today, it's more like Hitchcock.
About 200 million shiny black European starlings crowd North America, from the cool climes of Alaska to the balmy reaches of Mexico's Baja Peninsula. The enormous flocks endanger air travel, mob cattle operations, chase off native songbirds and roost on city blocks, leaving behind corrosive, foul-smelling droppings and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage each year.
And getting rid of them is near impossible.
Last year U.S. government agents poisoned, shot and trapped 1.7 million starlings, more than any other nuisance species, according to new figures, only to see them roaring back again.
"It's sort of like bailing the ocean with a thimble," said Richard Dolbeer, a retired U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher in Sandusky, Ohio, who spent years trying to figure out ways to keep starlings -- which he calls "flying bullets" -- and other birds from causing problems at airports. Federal aviation officials say they have caused $4 million in damage since 1990.
After the starlings' introduction, they quickly expanded west, taking advantage of vast tracts of forested land opening up to agriculture and human development, Dolbeer said. By the 1950s, they had reached California and nearly all parts in between. Today, the starling is one of the most common birds in the United States.
Starlings are also responsible for the deadliest bird strikes in aviation: a 1960 civilian crash in Boston that killed 62 people and a 1996 military cargo plane crash that killed 34 in the Netherlands. Since then, there have been close calls, including a Boeing 747 that ran into a flock in Rome last fall. No one on board was killed, but the badly damaged plane had a rough landing.
Those kinds of scenarios are why wildlife biologist Mike Smith has been tweaking a series of traps used at Salt Lake City International Airport, where there have been 19 reported starling strikes since 1990. The traps use dog food to attract a starling or two. Hundreds more soon follow, driven by their innate desire to flock with each other. He once caught 800 in a single day.