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The Nation | DISPATCH FROM BREESE, ILL.

Invading Birds Have Town Up a Tree

Nuisance: Citizens have used everything, even a cannon, to shoo away the thousands of noisy starlings. To no avail.

January 26, 2002|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BREESE, Ill. — This trim farm town on the prairie turns creepy each day at dawn and dusk.

Just before sunset, the sky convulses. Black clouds race toward town. They swoop in over the high school and, suddenly, it's clear: Each cloud is really a dense flock of birds, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of starlings descending on Breese to roost for the night.

At dawn, look up and there they are--starlings clustered by the hundreds in every tree, packed in so tight that bare winter branches look like feathered pillows.

The droppings slick sidewalks, cars, cows and swing sets white. Some patches of grass look as though they've been dusted with crumbly snow. And the noise! The chirping. The chattering. "My husband is hard of hearing, and even he complains of it," confided 73-year-old Dolly Niemann.

This is a town under starling siege. And the birds are winning, big.

"I used to go out with buckets to wash [the droppings] off," said Raquel Strubhart, a mother of three. "My neighbor said I might as well give up, because the birds will always beat you."

In the three months since the starling swarms arrived, Breese has tried just about everything to shoo the birds away.

First, the Police Department bought a small cannon and fired off boom after boom. All that did was chase the birds a few blocks down the street. Chief James Hummert next tried firecrackers. The starlings barely winced.

On their own, residents have tried setting out balloons painted to look like predators or clapping pieces of lumber together to make noise. Town officials won't let them hunt the starlings, for fear that Breese soon would be bristling with guns. Instead, locals throw rocks at the birds or shine bright lights in the trees where they roost.

Still, the starlings come.

In desperation, several local farmers last week paid the U.S. Department of Agriculture to spread poison where the birds feed. The result: Thousands of dead birds dropped from the sky over Breese throughout the weekend, thudding to the ground in such numbers that one man thought for sure the town (population 4,020) was under biological assault.

One elderly woman picked up 117 pounds of dead starlings in her yard, Hummert said. Others reported shoveling dozens of carcasses into the trash. On the lawn of one vacant house near City Hall, more than 100 dead birds still carpet the grass--and others hang upside-down from the trees, their claws frozen in a death grip around the bare limbs.

Yet for all the carnage, the poison "didn't put a dent" in the starling infestation, Hummert said. "Not even the slightest dent."

Starling invasions actually are nothing new to Breese. Huge flocks of the birds pass through every winter as they migrate south along the Mississippi River. Usually, the birds continue farther south, looking for a warm factory smokestack or a steamy power plant to use as a winter roost.

This year, however, the balmy weather apparently has persuaded the birds to tarry here. And they have found the town quite hospitable--the odd cannon blasts aside. The high-protein cattle feed set out at dairy farms all around Breese makes for a perfect starling buffet. The birds gorge themselves during the day, then return to town to roost in trees, huddling in clusters for extra warmth.

Other towns along the migration route, from central Illinois on south, also have reported starling woes this winter, said Kirk Gustad, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's wildlife services office in Springfield, Ill. "It's a significant problem all around the state," he said. "There can be anywhere from a thousand birds in a flock to a couple million."

No one's counted the birds in Breese. All they know is, there are way too many.

The other day, Jim Dumstorff filled the bird feeder at his cabin a few miles north of town. Within a half-hour, the feeder was invisible under a swaying ball of starlings. And the lawn--about the size of a football field--was swarming with thousands more. "The ground was black," Dumstorff said, still astounded.

The European starlings that have taken over Breese are pretty little birds, their dark feathers streaked with shimmers of metallic purple, green and gold. But their droppings can cause respiratory disorders if inhaled. And residents say they cannot scrub the droppings away fast enough. They clean a car or a toddler's plastic slide and by the next morning, it's splotched white again. The city's public works department doesn't even attempt to keep the sidewalks clean. "We're waiting for the rain to wash it all off," Mayor Donald Maue said.

In a last-ditch effort to get the upper hand, some in Breese have taken to chopping down the gracious old trees that provide such cozy roosts. A local church recently cut down 17 Bradford pears because too many worshipers were being splattered with droppings on their way to morning services.

"So many beautiful oak trees have been cut down in this town," lamented Dumstorff, who owns the Breese Lawn and Garden store. "It's sad, but what can you do with these dang birds?"

More poison might be one option. The toxin the USDA uses breaks down quickly in the starlings' bodies, so the carcasses pose no danger to animals or humans. But when the infestation is as bad as it is in Breese, poisonous pellets only go so far.

"It kills all of 'em that eat it," Gustad said. "But the next day . . . it will look like we didn't do anything." Often, he said, there's just one real solution: "Tolerate the birds." After all, they should fly back north come spring.

Or so folks in Breese dearly hope.

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