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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Starlings & Humans Collide

European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
Image Credit: Lloyd Spitalnik

If you live in the Pennsylvania, I don’t have to tell you that it’s winter time. And just like every winter, birds from more northern areas have flown south. For some North American birds, “south” means South America. For others, it may mean the tropics, or perhaps Florida and the Gulf Coast. And for some hardier birds, “south” may mean New York or Pennsylvania.

Moreover, among those birds that winter in Pennsylvania, some may not be migrants at all, but rather year round residents. These resident birds may be joined by their feathered brethren from slightly further north. In some cases, large flocks of birds may gather, such as flocks of crows, blackbirds, or starlings.

The reasons that these birds flock in the winter are several-fold. More birds mean more eyes to look for hungry predators like Cooper’s Hawks or Owls. There also appear to be advantages in find food. In some cases, these flocks can be quite large, numbering from a few hundred to a few thousand birds – perhaps tens of thousands. As you can imagine, this some times causes problems for people, the solutions for which are not always pleasant.

Last week in State College, PA, the USDA found it necessary to exterminate several thousand European Starlings that were said to pose a safety risk to airplanes taking off and landing at the University Park Airport. As it turns out, in 2006, a plane taking off from the airport struck a flock of starlings and sustained some engine damage necessitating its return to the airport for repairs. Fortunately, no one was injured in the incident, but the potential for such remains.

In an effort to prevent another bird-plane collision, the FAA ordered that a “wildlife assessment” be done and any problems identified be dealt with as required. As it turns out, the agricultural fields surrounding the University Park Airport are popular winter roosting sites for large flocks of European Starlings, as well as other birds. As a result of the wildlife assessment, it was determined that several thousand starlings needed to be exterminated.

This past week, that plan was put into action. According to a report in the Centre Daily Times, the feed tainted with a pesticide was fed to a flock of between 15,000-20,000 starlings on January 27th. The pesticide used was DRC-1339, which contains the toxic substance 3-chloro-4-methylbenzenamine hydrochloride. The toxin reportedly kills the starlings within 1-3 days after ingestion.

Proponents of the use of DRC-1339 state that the birds die in a manner that in “non-violent” and “apparently painless”. They sight the absence of convulsions and spasms in support of this claim. According to Cornell University, the pesticide kills the birds by causing uric acid to accumulate in the kidneys and blood vessel, resulting in the death of the birds from “uremic poisoning and congestion of major organs”. To put it simply, the kidneys become necrosed and the birds are not able to eliminate wastes which subsequently build up in the bloodstream. The birds become listless, experience breathing problems and organ failure, and eventually succumb to heart failure.

That doesn’t seem “non-violent” and “apparently painless” to me. In reality, it’s not a very pleasant way to go!

Personally, I have mixed emotions about the whole thing. Certainly, nobody wants to see an airplane crash due to a collision with birds. From that standpoint, it was obviously necessary to do something about the starlings at the airport. That being said, other non-fatal methods should have been tried. I have not heard or read that they were. If these methods were tried and shown to be ineffective, was there no more humane way to put the birds down other than poisoning them and causing their organs to fail?

Perhaps there is no easy answer to this problem, but we, as humans have bought these problems on ourselves. We too often resort to the most-convenient or expedient method of pushing problems under the rug, rather than addressing them at their root cause. The European Starlings are not native to North America. They are European birds, as the name suggests. We introduced them here. We have destroyed the habitats of their competitors, leaving behind the fractured habitat in which they thrive. And we detest them.

This starling situation reminds me of something Terry Tempest Williams wrote about starlings she once observed during a Xmas bird count feeding at a Salt Lake City garbage dump. Her account can be found in her wonderful book, Refuge

"I don't want to like [starlings]. They are common. They are aggressive, and they behave poorly, crowding out other birds. When a harrier happens to cross over from the marsh, they swarm him. He disappears. They want their trash to themselves."

"Perhaps we project on to starlings that which we deplore in ourselves: our numbers, our aggression, our greed, and our cruelty. Like starlings, we are taking over the world."

She continues,

"What makes our relationship with starlings even more curious is that we loathe them, calling in exterminators because we fear disease, yet we do everything within our power to encourage them as we systematically erase the specialized habitats of specialized birds."

The symmetry of starling flocks takes my breath away; I lose track of time and space. At the dump, all it takes is the wave of a hand. They rise. Hundreds of starlings. They wheel and turn, twist and glide, with no apparent leader. They are collective. A flight of frenzy. They are black stars against a blue sky. I watch them above the dump, expanding and contracting along the meridian of a winged universe. ."

When viewed through the lens Tempest Williams provides, Starlings don’t seem so bad – certainly not worthy of senseless extermination. Actually, anyone who has seen a newly molted starling in the spring will realize that the birds are actually quite beautiful. Watching a large flock of them in flight leaves you breathless.