Hordes of starlings are causing a prodigious flap in Indianapolis

As in other cities, birds annoy, threaten health

April 13, 2003|By Tim Jones | Tim Jones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

INDIANAPOLIS - Somewhere on a narrow limestone ledge overlooking the downtown streets of this city is the seat of infamy reserved for Eugene Scheiffelin.

Cushioned by several inches of bird droppings and surrounded by the incessant flapping and raspy shrieking of starlings, Scheiffelin would be forced to sit, day and night, tormented by the flying scourge he introduced to North America more than a century ago.

Such revenge would indeed be sweet in Indianapolis, but alas, the New York ornithologist has been dead since 1906, while descendents of the 60 starlings he released in Central Park in 1890 have spread and multiplied like mosquitoes at a county fair.

In Indianapolis, as in many other cities across the United States, Scheiffelin's legacy thrives - much to the dismay of civic leaders and public health officials who have repeatedly tried but failed to drive away a flock estimated to be as large as 100,000 birds.

They've tried nets. They've tried fogging and putting needles on roofs. They've tried helium balloons and sound effects of shotguns. They even cut down trees. The starlings always come back.

Determined to eliminate the health and safety risks linked to bird excrement, Indianapolis officials in January planned to poison a few thousand starlings that roost and warm themselves at a downtown steam plant. But in the face of public opposition, they backed off.

"Many people acknowledged that there were probably too many birds in the area, and that, yes, they were a health risk. But they told us we needed to develop another way than just killing them," said John Althardt, a spokesman for the Marion County Health Department, who handled most of the calls.

So the starlings, which feed in the fertile fields and trees around Indianapolis by day and settle in on the warm perches of downtown buildings at night, have won again.

"I don't know what we're going to do," said a frustrated Anne Maschmeyer, the beautification manager for Indianapolis Downtown Inc., a nonprofit civic group helping to lead the assault on starlings.

Starlings aren't the only avian invaders that are nuisances. Geese join them at the top of the list of complaints fielded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services Division - and crows are coming on strong.

"There is an increase in problems with a variety of bird species in the Midwest and nationally," said Judy Loven, state director of the wildlife division's Indiana office in Lafayette.

"Birds aren't inherently bad, but when you have overwhelming numbers, they get to be a real problem," Loven said. "Some of what we're seeing now is the results of long-term animal protection programs. People have not wanted to resort to a lethal control of the problem, and that has broad-reaching implications."

The introduction of starlings to North America is the unfortunate result of Scheiffelin's love of birds and William Shakespeare. He thought it would be good if all of the birds mentioned in the bard's works were represented in the United States.

Estimates of the North American starling population range from 200 million to more than 1 billion. The aggressive starlings have been cursed as a nuisance and a threat to native bird species, agriculture, public health and safety.

Indianapolis is particularly concerned about histoplasmosis, a potentially fatal fungus-based infection that usually attacks the upper respiratory system and that sickened hundreds of city residents in the 1970s.

The spores are common in many Midwestern soils and are, in effect, activated when they come in contact with bird droppings. When the soil is churned, as in construction projects, the spores are released into the air.

Last summer, cleanup crews scrubbed the statehouse of bird droppings after state House Minority Leader Brian Bosma and a legislative aide became ill from what they believed to be histoplasmosis spores.

Although the cause-and-effect relationship between birds and "histo," as it is known, has been challenged by some, the threat convinced city officials and some businesses that they needed to act before more problems develop.

The anti-starling program would have involved poisoning the birds inside a fence surrounding the steam plant where they roost, using an FDA-approved chemical that attacks the birds' renal systems, killing them within three days.

Opponents charged that the poisoning was inhumane and unnecessary.

"We didn't see any substantiated health threat," said Laura Simon, urban wildlife director for the Fund for Animals. "A lot of communities think that if you kill the birds, you get rid of them. But when you kill them, more birds replace them. ... Killing isn't the answer."

It was the answer in Breese, Ill., and Cape Girardeau, Mo., where city officials approved the poisoning option. But even those who endorse the idea acknowledge it is not a comprehensive solution.

After a feed lot began attracting an estimated 100,000 starlings daily to a livestock research area at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the university decided to mix poison with the feed. The starlings' droppings were contaminating the feed, compromising the research, a university official said. Thousands of birds were killed.

Tim Jones is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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