A murmuration of starlings

The latest from Team Trash

Welcome to Team Trash, a newsletter about the places where humans and wildlife meet. I'm Bethany Brookshire, science journalist and author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains.

One of the things I love most about this newsletter, and also about my work in human-wildlife interactions, in how readers (ok, my parents), now send me every single article they read about animals. And the latest is a lovely piece in the NY Times about the starlings that, every winter, migrate to Rome.

I mean, go there for the murmurations, the thousands of birds wheeling in mesmerizing patterns over the Eternal City. Then come back. I'll wait.

The article points out both the beauty and the amazing mess these birds can create. The starlings have been swirling over Rome for a century now. They shift spots where they roost at night, and so different parts of the city get treated to the stunning views.

And then the birds settle. And poop.

The problem is that the birds come to Rome in the winter because there are still crops there, olives and fruit, etc. The city itself is paved, so tends to be warmer than the countryside. But where birds roost, they shit. And the slimy mess gets over everything. The next day the birds move on to fly and poop elsewhere.

To deal with this, Romans go out in hazmat suits (for the poo), and play starling distress calls over bullhorns to haze the birds, to get them to go elsewhere. This works! It's a great way to get a lot of birds (the ones that have distress calls, not all do!) to move them from places you don't want them to be.

I love this, because I love when humans use good old fashioned ingenuity to solve a problem, instead of traps, poisons, and everything else they often do when birds cause them the least bit of trouble.

You might think that it's a horrid thing to poison a bunch of starlings who just have a high fiber diet. I mean, when you gotta go you gotta go! But starlings and many other birds have been poisoned in the past for their toilet habits. Heck, how many people have seen Canadian geese pooping on the grass and boiled over in rage? (We're gonna come back to those geese some day I promise.)

One thing really struck me, though. These starlings aren't NEW. They've been migrating to Rome for more than a century. In all that time, people cursed the poop on benches and the poop on sidewalks. They close streets because the birds will literally bury them in poop. They'll haze the birds with bullhorns in an effort to change the birds' behavior.

But they won't change their own. 100 years of starlings. 100 years of starling poop. Now they're on nearly 30 years of bullhorns (which, again, are working! I love them). All this time everyone has focused on controlling the starlings. No one has focused on finding out what they eat, and controlling their food supply.

There are ways to prevent starlings. Why are the starlings here? The food in the countryside. If the olive groves and fruit were protected, the starlings would go elsewhere. In this case, olives are harvested in fall, so are the pomegranates. The food the starlings are finding? Those are leftovers, gleanings that aren't worth protecting. Clean them up, and the starlings will find easier pickings.

I imagine the bullhorns are cheaper anyhow.

One sentence in particular caught my eye. "But what’s become increasingly evident, amid attempts to manage the birds, is that the starlings have more say in the matter than the people do."

Yes, the starlings currently seem to have the upper hand (er, wing). It reminds me of many other stories of human-wildlife conflict, where humans desperately try to grasp for control, and animals wriggle free. But no matter how our feathers get ruffled, we can't seem to change our focus. We can't seem to try to change ourselves.

Where have you been? 

And is it reading about how trilobites used to fight for mates using little tridents attached to their HEADS! I mean, it's too precious. Tiny little ancient sea cockroaches dueling it out for love. Love this story from Riley Black.

If you're a journalist...and especially if you're not, you might enjoy this piece on unconventional characters in writing. Because yes, writers use characters, and if you're writing not fiction, you are using real people and things. When you read a long feature where there's a scientist who's getting kind of a hero treatment, maybe they're a wunderkind, or unsung, or perhaps sketchy? They have become a character in a story about their science. I have a lot of thoughts about this, not all of them good or useful. But most of my characters are not people at all.

Are you looking for something a little different from your newsletters? May I recommend Emily Willingham's newsletter The Understory? She's spending a year writing 52 poems. They tend to be short, and each is a thoughtful little moment of peace in your week.

Is anyone else really loving working to lo-fi medieval music? Someone brought it up on Tiktok and I LOVE IT. Pls send lists.

Where have I been?

I was delighted to interview Adriana Barton this week for Science for the People. Her latest book Wired for Music explores the role music plays for people, within our brains, our bodies and our cultures. She's a professionally trained cellist as well as a science writer, and her book showed both the joy of music, and how it can sometimes cause pain.

Are you in Boston? I will be! On March 20, I'll be giving a talk at Harvard's Science Center! I'd love to see you all there.

Oh and I'm live-tweeting the Odyssey now. Including the world's oldest AITA.