European starlings return to annoy downtown 

Histoplasmosis is one concern

The Circle City has a problem, and it is splattered all over downtown buildings and sidewalks, courtesy of the European starling.

For the past two weeks, pistols loaded with pyrotechnics have served as the city’s first line of defense against the invasion of the troublesome birds, with workers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture lighting up the skies each night in an attempt to drive out the birds before they can roost.

“Most birds, if they have a successful nesting time, will come back again and again,” says Alicia King, director of the Bird Conservation Alliance at the American Bird Conservancy. She adds that each nesting time has the potential to produce up to three broods.

This could spell trouble for downtown businesses: The cost of cleanup has continued to rise, as have health concerns. Bird droppings create a fungus that can cause a condition called histoplasmosis, most commonly transmitted through inhalation of spores from the fungus. Statistics from the Indiana State Department of Health reveal that there were 110 such cases reported in 2005.

So why are the starlings attracted to downtown Indianapolis?

According to King, necessities for survival are readily available in urban settings, where birds can dine on discarded fast food and make their home on ledges or in crevices of buildings. This is particularly attractive for starlings, King says, as they are “cavity nesters.”

Humans aren’t the only targets of nuisances created by starlings. They also present a problem for native birds, who, King notes, often find themselves on the losing side of turf battles once a starling has decided to adopt the other bird’s nesting cavity as its own.

“European starlings are not protected by federal law because they’re not a native species, so there’s no law against eliminating them,” King says. “I think the key for people to remember is these starlings are not native birds and need to be treated as humanely as possible.”

According to Judy Loven, state director of Indiana Wildlife Services, the city’s Pest Bird Task Force was established in 2000 in response to the starling problem. The task force, comprised of several dozen downtown businesses, began by observing where the birds congregated, then warning building owners and advising them on tactics to keep the birds away.

Their approach became more proactive a few years ago, Loven says, after the city was “hammered” with bird droppings, resulting in the “downtown discouragement program.”

There are several methods to disperse unwanted birds, from scare tactics like lasers and loud noises to exclusion tactics like stringing barbed wire along building ledges. “Unfortunately,” King is quick to note, “many birds that are adaptable become used to these things.”

King further notes that chemical fogging and poison are also problematic for several reasons, including the fact that the use of poison “usually result[s] in a slow, painful death,” not to mention that it’s non-discriminatory and could result in the deaths of native birds.

Loven disagrees. “The toxicant our agency uses and the procedures we follow ensure that other birds won’t be exposed to this.”

While she says that the use of poison is “something we’ve discussed if harassment becomes ineffective,” Loven assures that the USDA has no plans to resort to poison anytime soon. At present, the goal remains using pyrotechnics, lasers and fake distress calls to cause the birds to splinter into smaller groups and move out of downtown, with the success of such efforts measured in terms of the cost of cleanup, public response and starling population comparisons, both with and without harassment.

In the meantime, King suggests eliminating nesting possibilities, which would in turn reduce the starlings’ chance to reproduce. This would require the city to take action on abandoned buildings, which provide birds with ample opportunities for nesting.

“The best thing to do is to try diversion tactics, bearing in mind that it doesn’t solve the problem,” King says. “It’s a hard battle to win.”

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