Rome under attack……..from starlings.

TOPSHOTS Starlings fly in the sky of Rome at sunset on January 27, 2015.  AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTEFILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images

Starlings fly in the sky of Rome at sunset on January 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTEFILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images

While many Romans worry if and when their city will be attacked by ISIS fanatics, the immediate concern for many is whether their clothes or cars will be ruined by the massive onslaught of guano or bird droppings that for the last two months has been raining down on parts of the Italian capital.

Every year hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, for the most part starlings, have flocked to Rome where they nest in the trees along the dual-sided Lungotevere river highways, one running north, one running south. They are attracted by the warmth of the city and the relative freedom from predators, but while they may be safer Rome’s inhabitants, and their possessions, are not.

On several occasions this month and last, after motorbikes and some cars skidded dangerously, traffic on these highways had to be temporarily stopped while squads from AMA, the sanitation department, arrived to hose down the streets and get rid of the insidious mix of excrement and the winter fallen leaves that made them even more slippery. (As Rosie Scammell wrote charmingly in The Guardian on November 22,  it’s a good thing the most recent James Bond film, Spectre, was not filmed in this season or Bond’s Aston Martin would have skidded out of control).

For weeks now as dusk approaches,  passersby have been charmed and hypnotized by the birds’ murmuration patterns, sometimes assuming forms that seem to include messages directed at us humans.  I myself once saw an exclamation point float by above Ponte Sisto.

A murmuration of starlings above the  the small village of Rigg, near Gretna, in the Scottish Borders. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday November 25, 2013. The weight of the resting birds on power lines caused some power localised power outages in the village. Still one of the commonest of garden birds, its decline elsewhere puts it on the Red List of endangered species. See PA story ENVIRONMENT Starlings. Photo credit should read: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Gretna, Scottish Borders, 2013


The birds’ synchronized flying has fascinated scientists . “More analysis is necessary to prove this definitively, but our results suggest” that starling flocks are a critical system, a University of Rome physicist said not long ago. According to the researchers, the “most surprising and exotic feature” of the flocks was their near-instantaneous signal-processing speed. “How starlings achieve such a strong correlation remains a mystery to us”, one was quoted as saying.

So far the city’s attempts to limit the damage by using “dissuader signals”, broadcasting bird distress calls, have proved ineffective.  The Rome daily, Il Messaggero, estimates damages this fall from the excrement have amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars, but claims that the Hitchcock-like attacks have affected tourism would seem to be greatly exaggerated. My advice? Keep a small, folding umbrella with you at all times when you go out.

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