It all began 40 years ago. A few thousand starlings (etourneaux) on their annual migration from northern Europe to north Africa, discovered that Perpignan was an ideal spot to spend a short holiday en route. The climate of the city, on a plain between the Pyrenees and the sea, is the mildest in France. The annual autumn harvest of grapes and olives left thousands of hectares of spilled and rotting fruit for the birds to eat. The city itself, with its bright lights and tree-lined avenues, provided a companionable place for them to roost.
At first Perpignois and etourneaux co-existed happily enough. But each year the number of birds grew larger, and the length of their stay longer, sometimes lasting until the end of January. Abruptly, about 20 years ago, the number of birds doubled. Six or seven years ago, they doubled again.
Now advance parties of starlings arrive in early September, followed by wave upon wave, like gigantic bomber formations, until, by October, at dusk each evening the sky over the city becomes black with birds. As darkness falls, they fill the plane trees with such density that entire branches loaded with squawking starlings have been known to fall into the narrow streets, endangering pedestrians and blocking the traffic. They leave the roads and pavements each morning as stinking skating-rinks of bird-shit 2cm deep. (Each starling produces one gramme of droppings a day, according to the helpful calculation of ornithologists, which means that a mega-flock of 2 million starlings leaves two metric tons for the Perpignan city council to clean up each morning.)
A variety of methods has been employed by the mairie to chase the visitors away. Their roosts are bombarded with fireworks and dazzled by bright lights. Loudspeakers are directed at them, playing tapes of the sounds made by injured starlings or, the most frightful din in the ornithological canon, the distress call of the jay. Each assault dislodges the birds, for a while. But the starling is as stubborn as it is resourceful and the birds always return after a few hours. More extreme methods, shooting or gassing, have been considered, but rejected as too dangerous within the confines of the city. In desperation, the town council cut down whole avenues of plane trees, but the birds simply moved onto the nearby roof- tops.
Philippe Clerjou, of the University of Poitiers, one of the foremost bird experts in France, says that the Perpignan phenomenon is part of a Europe-wide disturbance in the lifestyle of starlings over the last 20 years. "The number of migratory starlings - as opposed to those which remain in northern Europe all the year round - has reduced dramatically. But those birds which do migrate have chosen to collect in much greater numbers, and in fewer places." Mr Clerjou says that the milder winters of the 1970s and 1980s persuaded more starlings to stay in the north. The harsher winters of the last few years have pushed them south again; hence the recent explosion of their numbers in Perpignan.
The town's misfortune, he says, is that the only suitable roost for the birds in the vicinity is in the streets themselves. Other southern French cities have driven off similar invasions of starlings into surrounding woods and reed-beds. The country around Perpignan is so intensively cultivated that no alternative dormitory exists. The town council has, accordingly, come up with what it believes is a long-term solution. It has set aside pounds 23,000 to build the starlings a "suburb" of their own, with rows of trees and fake street lights, resembling, to a bird's eye, part of the town itself.
Phillippe Laurent from the town hall said the intention was to harrass the birds until they were fed up with the real Perpignan and, at the same time, offer them a peaceful and congenial alternative. "For many years, we have lived with these birds. Many Perpignois even found them fascinating. Now it is clear that something more permanent must be done. In the long run, it will be much cheaper for us and certainly cleaner."
The problem is that it will take another four or five years for the trees to grow high enough to make the starlings feel secure in their new suburban home. Perpignan has nine months of respite before, once again, its sky darkens and its streets, and cars, are painted sticky white. !