Ben Hasty/Reading Eagle
Ben Hasty/Reading Eagle
READING, Pa. (AP) – It starts with a just handful of birds.
Like clockwork, a half-hour before sundown, the flock swoops over the fields along Hampshire Road, curving and turning in unison as if controlled by one mind.
Then another small flock joins. Then a group of a hundred. Then hundreds of thousands, maybe a million.
In minutes, the rural Cumru Township neighborhood is transformed into the likes of a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” The loud whoosh of thousands of little wings echoes over the houses as the sky blackens.
“I just cleaned all these cars today and in the morning they’ll be covered in poop,” says Scott Payne as the birds swarm over his driveway.
He’s not kidding.
The birds will spend the night packed like sardines in patches of bamboo across the road. When they shoot out of the thicket in a single torrent in the morning, it will – as if some biblical plague were unfolding over Payne’s house – rain guano.
“In the morning when they leave, it sounds like a gasoline fire is going off,” Payne said. “And then they swirl around all over the houses and poop on the way.”
Payne gets hit regularly. So do his kids. He cleans the cars and power washes his house and driveway multiple times per week.
But what worries him the most are the flulike symptoms he’s started to feel since the birds arrived in August. He’s getting tested for fungal diseases that spread through bird droppings.
The problem Payne and his neighbors face is the European starling, a foreign bird that was brought to North America in the 1890s and, free of the checks and balances of its natural habitat, proceeded to take over the continent.
Despite efforts to stop the birds, considered a nuisance to homes and farms because of their large numbers, voracious appetites and tendency to defecate on everything and everyone, they seem to keep coming back.
The starlings have roosted in Payne’s neighborhood between August and winter for the last few years. He and neighbors noticed their arrival coincided with the growth of several patches of bamboo in the neighborhood.
“That’s the only place they roost,” Payne said. “They don’t roost in the pine trees. They roost in the bamboo.”
The connection makes sense to Harris Glass, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services office in Harrisburg, Pa.
Glass responds to complaints about wildlife from all over the state. He said many of those calls are about starlings.
“When we get these phone calls, the first thing I ask: ‘Is there a patch of bamboo around?’” he said.
The quick-growing trees make a perfect place for flocks of thousands of starlings to roost in cold weather, Glass said.
“When they get together in that thick vegetation, they can regulate their temperatures to survive,” he said.
If the roost is removed, the birds will go elsewhere, Glass said. But you can’t force somebody to remove bamboo from their property.
So the other option, he said, is for the USDA to find out where the starlings eat during the day and spike the food with a bird-specific poison.
That was tried in Cumru several years ago and, according to several residents and farmers, seemed to hold off the starlings for a while. But they’ve come back stronger.
Some Cumru residents are proposing limits on bamboo as a solution. They asked township commissioners at a meeting last month to consider banning the planting of new bamboo plants.
Haverford Township, Delaware County, passed a similar ordinance last year that prohibits bamboo within 40 feet of roads and holds property owners responsible to stop their bamboo from spreading to neighboring properties.
Township officials, at the meeting, said they’d look into the Haverford ordinance and see whether something similar would work for Cumru.
But, township Manager Jeanne E. Johnston said, just keeping the plants away from roads wouldn’t limit starling roosting. Banning bamboo outright would be difficult, she said, because an ordinance would have to specifically list each of the thousands of species.
Trouble for farmers
Hampshire Road residents aren’t the only people frustrated with the starlings. When the flock leaves there in the morning, it heads west to the Spring Township farms across Route 222.
“They come into the barns and eat the feed,” said Carl Eberly, a Goose Lane dairy farmer. “If we get snow yet, they’re going to be packed in by the hundreds.”
He estimates the starlings eat $30 to $40 of feed each day, maybe more, picking through to get the best pieces before his cows can. Then, as if to add insult to injury, they contaminate what’s left and dirty the barn with their droppings.
“They’ll sit on the pipes and poop right in the steer feed,” said Jim Balthaser, a neighboring farmer.
Both farmers said they noticed a drop in starlings after the USDA poisoned them. But the numbers now seem to be greater and the birds are hard to scare off.
“You can shoot at them and it scares them away for a half a day and then they start testing you,” Eberly said. “It’s a battle.”
It’s a problem that farmers in Berks have faced for the years, said Sheila Miller, county agricultural coordinator.
The noise, stench and mess are nuisances, she said. But the real trouble are the diseases that the starlings can carry and spread to farm animals.
“They’re very dirty birds and they chase away beneficial birds as well,” she said. “Too many birds in one place is not healthy for the person or the animals.”