The Raven Tree

Starlings Above Rome


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Around the beginning of October is when the giant flocks of European starlings start to migrate from all corners of the European Union down to the warmth of Africa in winter.  Watching millions of birds swarming in the evening sky above the Tiber River or from the top of the Vittoriano monument at Piazza Venezia, creating ever-changing abstract shapes against the rosy evening sky is an amazing phenomenon to behold….

… Unless if you’re standing directly beneath them, in which case you are treated to a gentle rain of bird poop landing on everything that exists in this worldly dimension.  The fact that the starlings like to roost within the city trees means thick layers of poop build up on cars, streets, and sidewalks, which makes getting around a little hazardous, as well as supremely gross.  The city of Rome employs the services of Lega Italiana Protezione Uccelli (LIPU), who send people to walk underneath the trees in the evenings as the birds are starting to roost.

They carry megaphones that emit a sound (magnified to 10,000%) that is suppose to be recordings of the natural starling danger call, which, in theory, will humanely scare the bejesus the birds from roosting in the city.  This sound can only be described as the unholy union of a million cats in heat yowling off-key, plus the agony of a legion of crying babies, combining melodiously with the bitter song of all the sinners in Dante’s circles of hell.  Very soothing to the ears!

I like the humane aspect, but in practice, I’m not sure how well the recordings work, as I’ve watched the starlings leave one tree as a result of the noises only to settle down in another tree a little farther off.  They’re creatures of habit and like to return to the same places along their migration route.  They’re also persistent bastards that I’m sure I’ve heard cackle in glee as they paint cars with their gallons of poop.

In any case, I did an illustration to show all the layers of starling season in Rome.  There’s the graceful flocks swimming in the sky layer, the flying layer where seagulls and raptors that chase them around.  The human layer can be subdivided into 4 types: LIPU with their megaphone persuaders, the camera-toters (mostly tourists) who just want a good pic to post to the interwebs, the long-suffering Italians who have devised ways to go about their business without a speck of poop on them, and the other long-suffering Italians who have given up fighting the annual starling migration.