A Murmuration of Starlings – Where’s My Umbrella?

Rossella, our Italian teacher, told us about a Day of the Dead celebration at the church on Isola Tiberina, a small island in the Tevere south of our apartment. She said that members of the congregation dress in red robes and toss flowers into the Tiber River at dusk to pray for the souls of the dead that have not ascended to heaven. This sounded like a colorful ceremony worth observing, so as the sun went down yesterday afternoon, I headed down the river.

P1060510I crossed the eastern bridge into the center of the island, and the church doors were open. I’d never seen them open before, so I went in, but the interior was so dark that I couldn’t see anything. When I came out, a roar filled the air, and I looked up to see thousands of starlings swooping, dancing, and making fantastic formations across the darkening sky before settling down for the night in the trees throughout Rome. It was breathtaking! The starlings’ cries were deafening, even for me with one deaf ear. I couldn’t even hear the roar of rush-hour traffic passing by. I stood transfixed and watched the dance, taking a few photos with my not very powerful Panasonic camera.

And then I noticed several Romans crossing the western bridge into Trastevere with hoods up, pizza boxes over their heads, even one woman under an umbrella, and I realized that I risked a massive, stinky mess! I hightailed it across the western bridge and stood under some thick trees to continue watching this mesmerizing display.

P1060514I’d noticed on my way down the river that the sidewalks and stone wall along the Tiber were unusually messy and fragrant with bird droppings, but I didn’t really think much of it. Come to find out, more than 5 million (!) starlings migrate to Rome from northern Europe for the winter and have done this for centuries. They fly into the countryside to eat insects during the day, and at sunset they meet back in Rome to put on their magnificent show.

Beauty is one thing, but destruction is another, and destroy they do! If you park your car along the river and don’t cover it at night, you might have to have it repainted more than once a season. Motorino (motorcycle) drivers have to be especially careful driving on slimy sampietrini (cobblestones), which cause frequent accidents. A couple of years ago an airplane landing at Rome’s Ciampino Airport flew into a murmuration of starlings, damaging the landing gear, forcing an emergency landing, and closing the airport for 35 hours (not to mention killing the birds). Highly acidic starling droppings eat away at statues, monuments, and churches. Nothing is sacred, and everything’s a mess. We’ve often wondered why the trash squad washes the sidewalks along the Tiber each morning. Now we know!

P1060513In an odd coincidence, one of my hometown classmates, David French, posted a wondrous video of a murmuration of starlings on Facebook this morning. Nice timing, David! Another video shows the dance of the starlings over the Tevere in 2008. One blog reported a starling formation of a fish over the Vatican and showed the photo, but I can’t find it again, so I can’t show you.

A group in Rome has come up with a novel idea to get rid of the starlings. They recorded several versions of the starling’s danger cry and go to the worst-infected parts of the city, looking like Michelin men in their puffy white suits, to blast the danger cry from oversized horns. Although it takes three nights in each location, this trick apparently works—until the next year, when the squad has to start all over again. I hope they reach our neighborhood soon!

Although I escaped last night with minimal damage, thanks to a fleece that I pulled over my head, I missed the Day of the Dead ceremony because things were becoming so messy. I’ll try to watch the amazing dance of the starlings again some evening, but I’ll keep my distance, and you can be sure that I won’t forget my umbrella!


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