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Rome and the starlings

Dagmar Breitenbach (dpa)December 26, 2015

When in Rome, do as the Romans do - these days, that means hide under an umbrella. Millions of starlings have converged on the Italian capital, and their droppings are not only a nuisance, they're a health hazard.

Rome plagued by starlings
Image: Getty Images/AFP/G. Bouys

A "stormo di storni," as some Italian media are calling the phenomenon, is quite spectacular to behold. Around dusk, black clouds of millions of starlings swirl above the Eternal City in magnificent formations.

Flying in from northern Europe, the small dark white-speckled birds began to converge on the city earlier this month. Rome seems to have become a favorite roosting spot for the noisy lot.

Unpopular visitors

The annual seasonal sight of flocks of birds dancing in the skies is seriously marred, however, by the huge amounts of smelly, blackish-white of droppings.

Parked cars and benches are coated, pedestrians cower under umbrellas so as not to be soiled, piazzas stay empty, and if it rains just a little, the droppings and the rain create a slippery mess on the often cobblestoned streets that can lead to serious traffic accidents.

Italien Staren-Plage in Rom ARCHIV
man with umbrella, birds overheadImage: picture alliance/dpa/S. Dobel

Bird aerobatics

This Christmas Eve, sections of streets along both sides of the Tiber River were temporarily closed off due to a slimy film of bird droppings, leading to traffic chaos in the historic center.

During the day, the migrating birds gorge themselves in olive groves in the countryside. But to roost at night, they return to Rome, where it is warmer and they are safe from predators.

Not too successfully, annoyed Roman authorities have tried various strategies over the years to drive the mega-clouds of birds from the city, including falcons, scarecrows and acoustic electronic systems, and most recently, recordings of starling distress calls played from loudspeakers and via megaphones in hopes the sounds will startle the birds - up, up and away from the city.