Starlings overstay their welcome

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Starlings may be America's most hated bird. Airports dub them "feathered bullets." The agriculture department gasses them in buckets. Even most bird fans can't muster warm feelings for them.

"I don't think anybody likes killing birds," says Washington state farm advocate Henry Bierlink, "but I think we're getting over it when it comes to starlings."

The European starling was brought to America in the early 1890s by an eccentric Shakespeare fan determined to introduce all the birds mentioned by the Bard on American shores. He released 100 into New York's Central Park, launching one of the most successful alien-species invasions ever documented. Today, the shiny black birds have ousted bluebirds, woodpeckers, and other cavity-nesters in every state but Hawaii, and their numbers - estimated at more than 200 million nationwide - have grown to rival America's human population.

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In the northwest corner of the 48 states, farmers in Washington's Whatcom County are tired of losing their blueberry crops and dairy feeds to mobs of starlings and are taking aim at the aggressive birds.

"There's times when there'll be 3,000 of them flying around. It'll just be a black cloud in the sky," says dairy farmer Jason Vander Veen. Starlings are his farm's biggest pest: They feast on the grain he sets out for his 700 cows. "At times we can see cows lying in their stalls, and their backs'll be all speckled white from all the droppings," he says. A flock of 1,000 birds can consume up to a ton of feed per month and contaminate several more.

Local farmers, with help from the county government, hire trappers from the US Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services to get rid of the birds. On a recent morning, behind Mr. Vander Veen's barn, a starling trap - a six-foot chicken-wire shed with a narrow slot in the roof - held about 30 starlings, feeding on the corn inside. Once a week, a trapper gathers the birds into a five-gallon bucket and gasses them with carbon dioxide. According to Wildlife Services, this method is quick and humane.

Mr. Bierlink of the Whatcom County Agriculture Preservation Committee estimates the program has killed 250,000 starlings since it began five years ago. Nationwide, Wildlife Services kills more than a million a year.

Whatcom County bird lovers actually criticize farmers for not doing enough to fight the birds. While Vander Veen has gone to the expense of covering his feed bunkers with tarps and tires, many dairy farmers still store feed in uncovered piles, providing a starling smorgasbord.

Physician and amateur naturalist Patricia Otto traps starlings on her 100 acres of Whatcom County woodland. She aims to keep the aggressive birds from driving away the wood ducks that nest in high boxes she has erected around her property. Washington has 25 species of cavity-nesting birds; their habitat - old forests with big, dead trees - has dwindled. Starlings have taken over many of the remaining cavity-bearing trees and nest boxes.

"In our county, historically we had bluebirds and purple martins, and neither of those are here anymore since the invasion of starlings and English sparrows," Otto says. "We could lose other cavity nesters if we don't control starlings."

Starlings thrive in urban habitats as well. At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the dense-bodied birds pose a serious safety hazard. This past fall, a Boeing 737 had to make an emergency landing there after hitting a flock of 100 starlings. Wildlife Services trap about 4,000 a year there.

But officials' main focus is making the airfield less attractive to birds by removing vegetation that bears fruits, nuts, or berries, as well as by hazing starlings with a half-dozen different noisemakers. Port of Seattle biologist Steve Osmek considers the effort a great success. "In the late '70s, we were looking at flock sizes of about 100,000 birds," he says. "Today, 5,000 birds is the largest flock size we'll ever see."

Though eradicating the ubiquitous species is impossible, starling-stoppers do hope to peck away at the estimated $800 million in damage the birds cause annually.

Biologist Bud Anderson, with the Falcon Research Group, agrees that the starling invasion has been a disaster for many native species. But he says starlings are not all bad, ecologically speaking. He's studying peregrine falcons' comeback in Washington state since the phaseout of the pesticide DDT. "We're looking at 30 pairs of peregrines and in virtually all those nests we see starlings as one of the main prey items," he says. "Starlings are helping bring back peregrines."

"Regardless of how we feel about starlings, they are very good at living in the environments we make," says Wesley Hochachka of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. "They like us."

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