Rome’s bird crisis

December 6th, 2008 | by Ainsley |

Rome may play host each year to hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world. However, there is one group that is no longer welcome in Italy’s famous capital.

Perhaps it was the ignominy of hundreds of them forcing a Ryanair jet into an emergency landing at Rome’s Ciampino airport.

But now the Eternal City has now declared war on…the humble starling bird. A mobile specialist squad has been employed to use noise-emitting machines to scare away millions of the creatures that traditionally descend on the city every autumn.

At sunset more than a dozen operatives, cloaked in white protective suits and masks, use the devices to send out a shrill, ear-splitting din –a recording of the birds’ distress cry amplified by a factor of several hundred.

Welcome news for millions of inhabitants and visitors fed up with the menace the starlings pose.

No respecters of history and tradition, the birds have defaced hundreds of city monuments with their excrement.

They are such a nuisance that when their numbers are at their greatest, sometimes reaching five million, pedestrians cower under umbrellas for fear of a sickening plop while drivers hide parked vehicles under plastic covers.

One visitor from London, Matthew Baird, complained: “As much as I love coming here, at times it can resemble a wartime aerial bombardment. And they leave their calling cards everywhere.”

Rome’s anti-starling unit costs the city €120,000 every autumn and is run by the Lega Italiana Protezione Uccelli (Lipu) – the Italian League for the Protection of Birds. Its noise machines have 12 different sounds, using a different one every day.

Team leader Giovanni Albarella explained: “It’s about tricking them into making them think they are in danger.” Lipu has also mounted some of the machines in trees to further ward off the birds.

Not surprisingly, his team haven’t exactly got the most pleasant job in the city and need the masks to keep the stench of the starlings’ filth at bay.

The scale of the problem was brought into stark relief with November’s Ryanair scare, when a Frankfurt-Rome flight carrying 166 passengers made a hurried landing after around 200 of the birds were sucked into its engines.

Other cities around the world have also been left in flap by the problem of huge flocks of birds. New York used a noise-emitting device to scare them from Times Square a couple of years ago while London went back to nature, using hawks to try to kill off Trafalgar Square’s infamous pigeon population.

Other cities in the US and Europe have tried other measures of extermination with varying degrees of success, including dynamite, poison and shooting.

However, Rome decided in the mid-90s that the answer lay in ushering the birds from the city’s streets and into its parks and surrounding countryside.

Mr Albarella explained: “Killing them doesn’t work because they are quickly replaced by others. But we have not got a magic wand and we can’t make them vanish.”

However, as Romans wakes to yet another layer of bird droppings defacing their city, it is clear they want more done. Soon.

Disgruntled local Maurizio Barberi grumbled as he walked along the banks of the Tiber: “They’ve never really tackled this. They need to cut back the trees.”

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