SALT LAKE CITY — The temperate weather of the last few weeks has given wing to thousands of European starlings that are blackening the skies in the Jordan River area.
It is not an uncommon phenomenon this time of year, explained one wildlife official, but the birds' numbers are capturing added attention because the warmer weather has more people out and about and able to take notice.
"The big concentrations of large flocks tend to come in the winter," said Mike Linnell, Utah state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services. "They like to feed off the seeds of those Russian olive trees along the river."
The starling is alternately something to be admired and loathed.
On one hand, the male starlings are fantastic decorators and start building nests to attract female partners. Mated pairs are usually monogamous, good parents, and the birds are skilled at mimicry, duplicating the sounds of other birds and even humans. They also stand out with with synchronized aerial ballet maneuvers and have feathers that shimmer with a splash of star-like dots.
The bad news is that they are extremely aggressive and chase off native song birds. Because their flocks are so large — as many as 1 million — they pose deadly threats to airplanes.
Linnell said farmers wage war with the starlings on a routine basis because they are gluttonous pests who ruin crops.
"We have a lot of problems at dairies and at feed lots," he said.
The starlings are not native to North America, but have easily taken over the country, he added. "They are very invasive. ... They are everywhere you go in the United States."
The birds have a curious genesis in the United States, introduced in 1890 to New York's Central Park by a drug manufacturer who thought every songbird Shakespeare wrote about should roost on American soil. The initial 60 pairs have now grown to more than 200 million birds and are found in every state in the continental United States as well as Alaska.
"It would have been difficult to forecast all the problems they would cause," Linnell said. "Back then, no one cared about invasive species."
The birds have been linked to an $800 million problem, from spreading noxious seeds, destroying crops, ruining homes, cars, buildings and just about everything else with highly corrosive droppings.
Linnell said it's been impossible to eradicate them, but it is not due to lack of employing novel and creative methods over the years to reduce their numbers.
An article by John Lienhard from the University of Houston details some of the failed attempts — such as a 1948 effort in Washington, D.C., where folks tried to run them off with artificial owls. The starlings were not fooled.
Lienhard noted that people tried to broadcast the starlings' alarm call to get them to move and have used chemicals, high-energy gamma rays and even Roman candles. In 1931, the U.S. Department of Agriculture even put out a recipe for starling pie.
It didn't take.
"Someone has this notion to let some birds loose," Linnell said. "and look where we are now."