On a frigid January morning in 1977, Grady Stevens lifted his helicopter into the Tennessee sky and pointed it toward the unknown. Stevens was a decorated Army pilot — he’d earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for rescuing a patrol pinned down by the enemy in Vietnam — but this mission promised to be unlike any he’d ever flown.
It was, he later told a reporter, “an unsettling experience.”
Like every pilot, Stevens had been trained in flight school to avoid birds. Sucked into engines, colliding with propellers, bouncing off canopies — birds are dangerous to aircraft and the people who fly them.
But that morning’s mission was to fly toward birds, not away from them. Stevens’s job was to spray chemicals on a 20-acre starling roost near an Army ammunition depot at Milan, Tenn.
“His low flight at 25 mph over the roost as he sprayed caused disturbed birds to fly up into the darkness,” a reporter at the Leaf-Chronicle of Clarksville, Tenn., later wrote. “An undetermined number hit his craft, many being chopped by the propeller blades.”
Stevens lived to fly again. Hundreds of thousands of birds did not.
Thad Moyseowicz of Alexandria, Va., told me of the Great Starling Cull after reading my item last week about starlings that have taken up residence in my neighborhood. The invasive birds hog our feeders.
Of course, I would never employ extreme countermeasures to combat the starlings. But that’s exactly what happened in the 1970s in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Farmers had been complaining for years about the massive flocks of starlings, grackles and blackbirds. There were an estimated 8 million near Milan and 11 million in a pine grove near Hopkinsville, Ky.
The birds ate crops and livestock feed. In 1974, Kentucky Gov. Wendell Ford (D) declared a state of emergency in Christian County, where starlings had caused crop and livestock losses of $2.6 million. Health officials had detected a rise in histoplasmosis, a respiratory disease caused by spores in bird droppings.
Fort Campbell, on the Kentucky/Tennessee border, is the home of the 101st Airborne Division, a.k.a. the “Screaming Eagles.” But the starlings meant less screaming. When the skies were black with birds, airplanes and helicopters that would have lifted off full of paratroopers had to curtail their flights.
George L. Atkins Jr., the mayor of Hopkinsville, Ky. — soon to acquire the nickname “Bird Man” — pleaded for help. A chemical called Tergitol might be the solution.
Tergitol kills starlings in a roundabout way. It strips the birds of an oily secretion that coats their feathers and keeps them warm. If the birds get wet after an application — from rain or from water sprayed on them — they freeze to death.
Some in the community were unconvinced, worrying about the effects of a chemical on the environment. Scientists pointed out that nature is complex. The birds probably helped reduce the destructive insect population.
As plans to spray moved forward, two New York-based environmental groups — the Society for Animal Rights and Citizens for Animals — were granted an injunction blocking the spraying. The indiscriminate killing of birds, they argued, was cruel.
Mayor Atkins was incensed. “If we could ship 14 million starlings to the Pentagon, or Central Park, we’d get results,” he said before boarding a plane to Washington to request that the injunction be lifted.
Atkins also asked city attorneys to draft their own injunction request: against New York City to keep it from killing its rats.
“That’s about as inhumane,” he said. “The absurdity of it!”
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which refused to block the spraying. The Army launched its helicopters.
The flocks were sprayed for several winters in a row. None of the flocks were eliminated entirely, but the numbers were reduced. Starlings stopped showing up in headlines.
I called Carter Hendricks, the current mayor of Hopkinsville, and asked how things stood today, 45 years later.
“Nothing like that, thankfully,” he said. “We don’t really have those types of issues.”
Where does that leave me? A reader named Patti suggested I switch from sunflower seeds to safflower seeds. “No starlings. No other nasty birds,” she promised.
During my research, I came across something written in 1973 by Joe D. Allen, nature columnist for the Leaf-Chronicle. He shared a hint for bird lovers weary of starlings: “Put out feed about dawn and again about an hour before dark. At those times, the starlings are coming or going from their communal roost several miles away, feeding as they go to some extent. Songbirds, roosting nearby in trees, shrubs and thickets, often arrive at feeders by the time you can see them at dawn.”
I’ll give it a try.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.