Blame that mess on Shakespeare

Published 9:17 pm Tuesday, January 19, 2016

By Susan and Biff Andrews

You may have noticed the sky going dark with small birds in the early evening or every branch of the trees in your yard alive with the racket of hundreds of small dark birds.

We can only imagine the horror of the squirrels in our yard as every one of their nests is probed by these unwelcome intruders. Our cars, the deck, the cover on the gas grill are all dotted with white droppings.

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Bird poop. It’s definitely unsanitary, if not downright health-threatening. Such deposits can carry histoplasmosis, meningitis, encephalitis and more.

The droppings come from the huge flocks of starlings — called murmurations — often mixed with grackles or red-winged blackbirds. The groups we see are small as murmurations go — perhaps five thousand birds. Flocks of a hundred thousand are common, and murmurations have been documented with up to a million individuals.

They are beautiful when they fly in rhythm, but not so lovable to clean up after.

All a part of nature you may say? Not so. It’s all Shakespeare’s fault. In 1890-1891, the American Acclimatization Society introduced 100 European starlings into New York City’s Central Park.

It was an attempt to introduce into the United States of America all birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. Quite the success story, starlings in the U.S. now number 200 million — all nearly identical genetically as descendants of those 100 birds in New York.

Starlings are small to medium passerine (perching) birds, weighing about 3.2 ounces each. It’s hard to believe they can drop as much poop as they do.

Their plumage has white dots in winter, but becomes glossy black by summer, all without shedding a feather. They molt after mating and add new feathers with white tips, but these tips wear off by spring.

They are great vocal mimics of other birds’ calls (up to 20 per bird), and they can even mimic human speech, which causes some to be kept and trained as pets.

While starlings in the spring and summer roost in small colonies (up to 1,000), in fall and winter they congregate in huge murmurations.

They may leave their roost and fly 20 miles to a feeding ground, but an hour before sunset, they head home in a flock that moves as one.

How can 10,000 birds move as one? It’s called “scale free correlation.” There are no independent subparts. Each bird coordinates its movements with its 7 nearest neighbors. Watch some videos of flocks’ shifting patterns … fascinating! Mother Nature’s screensaver!

But there’s still that poop covering everything. Websites offer dozens of products to scare away flocks (sirens, whistles, propane explosions), sticky goo to spray on trees, assorted poisons that may or may not require a license to use, etc., etc.

We prefer to just take off our shoes before entering the house — and hope for heavy rain. We just blame the mess on the Bard.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at