Sturnus Vulgaris descended on the city and Romans flee by the thousands. Check out this You Tube video.
No it’s not a nuclear Godzilla type monster trampling buildings or a zombie virus craving Italian brains. Its the European Starling (Sturnus Vulgaris), an 8” long black bird with white speckles, orange legs, strong feet and a voracious appetite.
The European Starling also has one of the most beautiful of all bird songs and the ability to mimic anything from birdcalls to human voices. According to legend, Mozart taught his pet starling to sing the allegretto theme (the 3rd movement) of his Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major.
In the late 19th century, the American Acclimatization Society set a goal to introduce to the US environment, every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare.
The Starling made a 16th century appearance in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV’ when Harry Percy (Hotspur), son of the Earl of Northumberland contemplated driving King Henry crazy by teaching starlings to call out the name of his brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer after Henry refused to pay the ransom to get him out of prison.
In 1890 and 1891, the Acclimatization Society released a few hundred starlings into New York City’s Central park. Today the US starling population has surpassed 200 million.
In late October as the weather in northern Europe gets colder starling populations migrate south towards northern Africa. It can take anywhere from 4-6 weeks for the migration depending how cold it gets.
Rome is not only in the migration path, it has enjoyed a geographical microclimate that has gives the residents warmer winters than the rest of central Italy. Add in the warmth of the city population, electricity and gas, restaurants, automobiles, trams, and other man made comforts and the starlings can now afford to delay the migration and enjoy a holiday in Rome. Unfortunately, over 5 million of them come all at once.
They descend on the evening sky in graceful swarms, a geometric aerial ballet that looks like a science fiction computer animation. They arrive in shapes of cyclones, wire frame balls and anthropomorphic creations. Check out this YouTube video. People look up and marvel as they see them coming in from the countryside where they’ve just eaten twice their weight in olives, cattle feed and insects.
Yes, they’re beautiful in the distance but as they get closer, the beauty turns to horror.
By the time Sturnus Vulgaris arrives to the Tiber River the digestion process has run it’s course. The beautiful aerial dance turns to a deadly deadly rain of poop. Roads, sidewalks, statues, monuments, cars, scooters, bicycles, outdoor cafes, churches, roof gardens, bus shelters, nothing is safe. The forage in the countryside has filled the bellies of 5 million birds and by the time they reach Rome, it’s open the hatch time.
The birds weigh barely 3.5 oz but they consume half their weight each day. Let’s see, that’s 1.75 oz of food per starling multiplied by 5 million starlings. Even if they absorb half of the nutrients that still leaves close to 275,000 pounds of bird shit falling from the sky in a very short period of time. In past years, the Lungotevere Boulevards along the Tiber River have been closed during the migration because of all the accidents from the greasy guano. We’re talking biblical plague proportions.
The song of the starling might be poetic and lyrical but the song of 5 million of them is deafening. But as bad as the noise might be, it’s nothing compared to the deadly projectile poop.
The Peregrine falcon is the natural predator of the starling. For a while the city tried to combat the starlings with balloon shaped falcons but the balloons just got tangled up in the tramlines. Banging on pot and pans proved mildly successful but the armies of pot bangers was always too small.
Finally Rome figured how to fight back. Enter the Legions of the Nemesi Falco, the Falcon Scourge, a small army of HAZMAT suited superheroes armed with portable loudspeakers shrieking the bloodcurdling cries of the Peregrine Falcon and Sparrow hawk.
Tree trimmers attacked the Plane trees of the Lungotevere avenues along the Tiber River and removed branches and leaves the starlings relied on for safe cover.
Rome spent over os to combat the annual attack. That was until 2013. The recent election of Spring 2013 put the budget approval behind schedule. So did the deficit-cutting budget restraints that have reduced many of the country’s social services.
And so, in November 2013, the starlings came, just as they had come before. 2013 was also one of the best olive crops in many years. The birds were well fed, their stomachs overflowing with gastric juices. Soon the Tiber River was in sight, only this time there was nothing to stop them. Just like the Senate refused funds to placate Alaric and the Ostrogoths in 408, the modern Senate refused the funds to fight the Starling horde. It was only to pay the Legions of the Nemisi Falco, but the Senate refused. The result was a literal shit storm.
Finally, after the first attack, the money was released and the superheroes once again donned their white HAZMAT suits and armed themselves with trombone shaped falcon horns.
Author’s note: I’d like to thank all the wonderful photographers who have provided the photos for this piece. I don’t know them by name. I found their photos through the internet. I have made all my photos available through the Creative Commons Attribution.