For years, thousands of blackbirds have carried on a most unrequited love affair with Middleburg.
This year has been the worst, townspeople say, since the birds, mostly starlings, began making a residential neighborhood on the town's western edge their annual late-summer roosting place.
They came in great numbers this year, beginning in the spring. And by late summer, when the birds flew in each evening shortly before dusk, "it sounded like thousands of screeching wagon wheels that needed greasing," said Lola Dodson, who lives in the neighborhood.
In choosing Middleburg, the birds have found a bird sanctuary, which amuses some residents, though not all. The town has been a state-designated bird sanctuary since 1976.
"The birds are getting educated," said one town resident. "They must have read these signs."
In August there were so many that the branches of tall trees sagged under their weight. A local sport is clapping hands together after the birds have gone to roost in the evening, to watch them take flight.
For residents of the birds' preferred neighborhood, though, the birds are a pest and a nuisance and worse. The people are tired of the noise, the droppings left in the morning and the potential health hazard, they say.
As one man said, "They don't look good, they don't sing good and they don't smell good. They are rude birds."
For this western Loudoun town, population 630, the unwelcome visitors have driven residents into action. While they say that town officials should take care of the problem, many have resorted to an inspired range of measures -- from post-July 4 fireworks to putting stuffed owls in treetops and banging on pots and pans.
One man went a step further. He cut the top half off his trees. "That made them leave," said Ernest Dawson, who lives on Sycamore Street. Before that, he said, "To keep them out of one tree, every night that I was home, I'd take my water hose and shoot water at them. . . . I never will get used to them. That odor is terrible."
Some residents have been using what is known as the "town cannon" -- a propane gas-operated noise machine lent out upon request by the town office. "The cannon seems to work, but it's limited in its application," said Thomas Dodson, who has used the machine several times. Moreover, Dodson said, "The cannon does scare animals . . . and that has set neighbor against neighbor in some cases."
"It's almost a civil war," said Lola Dodson. "People who have pets object to these noisemakers; they sound like a gun going off. So there you are -- the people that have the pets, and the people that have the birds."
For some, the lines are not so clearly drawn. Anna Furr said one of her dogs is scared of the cannon and the other two are scared of the birds. Furr just wants to be rid of the "hollering and squawking." In August, she said, "I took a pan and beat on an old tin washtub. That would scare them off for a while."
The town office, where formal bird complaints go, offers people use of the cannon or tape recordings of starling distress calls. Some people have played the tape, which a town official said sounds "kind of like a Martian town council meeting," with limited success. After a while the tapes seem to go unnoticed by the birds, said Mayor Loyal McMillin.
Nothing has proved effective for long, and even temporary cures merely drive the birds over to neighbors' trees.
The problem became so bad that it even came up at the town council meeting in September, but no action was taken. "I didn't have any brilliant solutions and neither did anyone else," said Town Manager Gerard Rogers.
Rogers said the problem is "like water flowing downhill. It's very hard to make it turn around." He is hoping that an early frost will send the birds on their way.
"Getting them out of town on a permanent basis is a difficult problem," Rogers said. He plans to research "some way of encouraging them not to roost in town next spring."
But as Phil Eggborn of the state Agriculture Department pointed out, once a flock finds a seasonal roosting place it rarely abandons it for another.
"There might be as many as 50,000 to 100,000. . . . They invariably roost in the same place for years," said Eggborn. "Unless something changes the area they're in, there's a better than 50-50 chance they'll be back."