At first, there were no birds, just a cloudy sky spitting rain at the corner of Ninth and F streets NW.
I’d been told that they come at dusk, thousands of starlings in a great flock.
“It’s like they’re doing flight patterns,” a homeless woman named Susan had told me a few days earlier. “It’s neat to watch.”
Susan’s been living on the streets for 10 years, first in Maryland and for the past eight months in the District, spending her days just outside the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.
“They call me the Queen of the Smithsonian,” Susan said.
She’s come to know the people who travel that stretch of Ninth Street, the busy office workers, the maintenance folks, the cops and parking enforcement officers, the other homeless people . . .
And the birds. “It’s like watching an air show,” Susan said. “It’s beautiful. I mean, it makes a hell of a mess, but it’s beautiful.”
So it does. In spring and summer, starlings pair off. They scatter across the city and start their own little starling households. But when breeding season is over, in the fall, they come together again. Dozens become hundreds. Hundreds become thousands. Thousands become tens of thousands.
“There’s a big advantage to living in a big group when you’re not breeding,” said John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “You are 10,000 or 50,000 pairs of eyes.”
The spectacular pulsating clouds of starlings are called “murmurations.” “Those are anti-predator formations,” John said. “They ball up as tightly as possible when a falcon is chasing them. One of the reasons they can move around like that is that they are incredibly attuned to what everybody else is doing. They can make very sharp movements as if in unison. There is no cosmic command for all of them to turn right at once. They just have a really fast reaction to what the next guy is doing.”
Of course, it’s likely that what the next guy is doing is pooping. The starlings have chosen to nest in trees that line the east side of Ninth Street. The droppings are fierce. A savvy entrepreneur could open a guano mine there. Or put down a canvas and create an avian Jackson Pollock masterpiece.
“You don’t want to walk through there, and you don’t want to park there at night,” Susan said. Some pedestrians open their umbrella as they brave the block-long stretch.
The Downtown Business Improvement District is aware of the issue, said the BID’s Rachel Hartman. The BID met with the D.C. Health Department to discuss it.
There is also a colony of starlings on what’s called Reservation 172, a sliver of green at New York Avenue and H Street NW. Those trees are cared for by the National Park Service. The Gallery Place trees are the District’s.
Rachel said they’ve discussed netting the trees or pruning the branches to make them a less desirable place to roost. The District’s Urban Forestry Administration has dealt with starlings in the past by spraying an eye-irritating fog into the trees for several nights in a row. It worked temporarily, but the birds came back the next year.
John from the ornithology lab suggests having a falcon fly in their midst — “which would be exciting,” he said. “What that would do is bust up their reliance on that as a safe place. Now, it will just push the problem to somebody else, of course.”
Starlings are an invasive species. About 100 were brought from Europe in the 1890s and released in New York’s Central Park by a man who thought that every bird species mentioned by William Shakespeare should have a claw-hold in the Americas. It worked for starlings. Today, there are more than 200 million in North America.
I did not know this about starlings: They are incredible mimics. “Not quite as good as an African gray parrot but in that same league,” John said. People with pet starlings report that they can reproduce the sounds of doors slamming, police sirens and other noises of human civilization.
On Monday night, I stood in the shelter of the Gallery Place Metro entrance and looked up past the escalators at the darkening sky. Then I saw them: a few birds, a few more. They darted and pitched with acrobatic abandon. When I’d reached the street, I saw that they were moving west, toward a construction crane that towered over F Street.
They landed on the crane, spread themselves along the jib and perched on its cables. The thousands of spiky black birds looked like iron filings drawn to a magnet.
And then, driven by some inscrutable bird ESP, the flock moved east to the trees near the Smithsonian galleries, where they settled in for another night in their adopted homeland.
As if we needed any more reasons the National Zoo should name the panda cub after Elvis Presley, Arlington’s Mary Reynolds weighs in with additional unimpeachable logic.
“The black-and-white coat of a giant panda serves as camouflage in its native snowy, rocky China,” Mary wrote. “Elvis Presley’s white jumpsuit outfits with sequins, metal studs, jewel-encrusted belts, bellbottoms, capes and gold medallions were perfect camouflage for Las Vegas.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.