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America's Most Unloved Bird: The Hungry Starling - 2003-08-24

The blueberry and raspberry harvests are winding down across the northern U.S. and in Canada. Workers in the berry fields are racing to pick the fruit off the bushes before flocks of voracious starlings can. The birds are a non-native pest unwisely imported from Europe a century ago - and one of the most successful alien invaders of all time.

Each year, Jerry Dobbins must do battle with a feathered plague in order to harvest anything from his many hectares of fields in the flat bottomlands by the Columbia River.

The sun-tanned farmer steers us down a dusty track in his pickup truck. "See that flock coming up out of there," Mr. Dobbins says, honking the horn of his vehicle.

Tall bushes hang heavy with blueberries on one side; on the other, row after row of raspberries. Soon we stop and roll down the window.

Those are bird alarms you hear among the blueberries. Loudspeakers broadcast random noise all day long to spook flying foragers. Mr. Dobbins says some days a worker with a shotgun takes aim to reinforce the message. "A few birds have to die for that noisemaker to be effective," he says.

The dead birds are all European starlings. But the farmer says it's them or him. "If we didn't do anything, we'd lose 90 percent of it. They'd eat all the blueberries." When asked if they would otherwise have to go into a different business they replied saying, "Yeah. Yes."

When loud noise and bird shot fail, that's when a large wire mesh trap comes in. These fluttering starlings have maybe a day more to live before Mr. Dobbins gasses them with carbon dioxide.

"You know, I know I don't like to kill God's creatures. I mean, I wish we could just chase them away. Unfortunately, we can't. We have to use all the tools that are there for us," he said.

After the lethal gassing, the dead birds are kept around to attract new victims, like the decoys that lure ducks to a pond. Carcasses carpet every square inch of the trap floor. The stench is overpowering.

The iridescent black birds are now one of the nation's top feathered pests according to USDA Animal Damage Control Regional Director Roger Woodruff, who adds, "Literally, this species causes millions of dollars in damages in this state every year."

Legend has it that starlings were first brought to this country in the 1890's by an eccentric New Yorker who wanted to populate his surroundings with all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare's plays. For the starling, check Act One Scene Three of the first part of King Henry the Fourth.

The birds spread coast to coast over the ensuing century, and now number in the hundreds of millions. Last year, federal agents made but a small dent when they killed about 145,000 starlings nationwide.

"They're very, very susceptible to CO2 [carbon dioxide]. It is a very quick and humane method. It takes about two seconds. They're unconscious almost immediately," Mr. Woodruff said.

He said starlings are not a protected species and no federal permit is needed for landowners to exterminate them. His agency staff focuses its efforts on berry farms, dairies and feedlots and airports, where birds and jets can be a deadly combination.

Hit at high speed, a bird can puncture the metal skin of a plane. At least twice recently, jetliners have made emergency landings in Portland and Seattle after colliding with flocks of starlings on takeoff. The starling threat at Seattle's airport has decreased since trapping began. However, every now and then, unknown airport employees secretly open the doors to the traps and release the birds due to die.

Other than those anonymous do-gooders, starlings seem to have few friends. Bird lovers tend to hate them because starlings push out native songbirds and take over nesting areas favored by bluebirds and wood ducks. But the starlings' rare defenders make the case that they're clever, good singers and mimics, and can even be taught to talk - and perhaps most importantly, these European imports provide an abundant food source for native species, like the peregrine falcon.