The battle to free Rome's skies of starlings

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It is one of the city’s most striking sights: the thousands of starlings that gather on winter evenings above Rome’s Termini station and other parts of the city centre, creating vast kinetic sculptures in the air – demonstrations of formation-flying that make the Red Arrows look like amateurs.

The downside is what descends to earth: tonnes of droppings that coat cobblestones, cars and the clothing of anyone imprudent enough to stand and gaze. They drive pedestrians from the pavements, empty piazzas and can even cause accidents when the mess accumulates on the highway. The consensus in Rome, the birds’ favourite Italian city, is that they are a cursed nuisance.

That view is one shared by airport authorities: earlier this month Rome’s Ciampino airport narrowly avoided a catastrophe when a huge flock of starlings collided head on with a Ryanair Boeing 737 as it made its descent towards the airport in the city’s south-east. The birds were sucked into the engine en masse and the pilot had to make an emergency landing off the runway, during which landing gear was damaged and passengers injured. The airport was closed for days.

For more than a decade, the Roman authorities have been trying to drive the huge clouds of birds away from the city. Now they have hit on a winning formula, spearheaded by Giovanni Albarella. When Mr Albarella’s office in the Roman branch of the Italian League for the Protection of Birds (Lipu) receives notice of another massed arrival of starlings – “uno stormo di storni” in Italian – he goes to investigate, following the trail of droppings to the trees the birds have chosen for their lodging. Once satisfied that he has made a positive identification, he returns with his team, swathed in protective clothing and face masks.

Each member is equipped with a megaphone featuring recordings of starling distress calls – Mr Albarella calls the noise “a heart-rending scream”. As the starlings end their twilight display of aerobatics and head for the trees, his team lets rip.

The reaction is immediate: the birds rebound from the trees as if touched with a vast cattle prod and fly off into the evening sky to seek emergency accommodation elsewhere. By harrying the starlings in this way, varying the calls relayed by the megaphones to keep them on their toes – “the calls sound just the same to us but not to them” – Mr Albarella believes the birds are gradually being shunted back into the countryside which used to be their natural home.

Starlings are as adaptable as they are gregarious and have come to regard our home as theirs: cities are warm, bright and safe for roosting, the flocks in their treetop dormitories are protected from owls and other predators and in the morning, having exchanged tips about good sources of food, they go their separate ways, out to the countryside.

The technique that Mr Albarella has been employing in Rome for two winters has produced extraordinary results, he says. The numbers of starlings migrating to the city every October is shrinking, he told The Independent.

“One reason is because some of the areas where they nest in the summer, mostly in Russia and Poland, are under threat. But our work in Rome certainly seems to be having an effect.”

Efforts elsewhere to banish the starling nuisance have been cruel and useless, he maintains. In Belgium, they have tried blowing up the trees where they roost. Others have used fireworks and devices for producing loud bangs, or sent in mock-ups of owls and other birds that prey on the starlings; the trees where they roost have been doused in poisonous chemicals and detergent. “But none of these methods,” Mr Albarella claims, “have achieved their objective.”

Mr Albarella became interested in birds as a child, when he found a blackcap injured in a park. He phoned Lipu to ask its advice. It was too late to rescue the bird, but a lifelong passion was born, which took him through an animal husbandry course at college and to the hot seat in Lipu’s Rome office, where he has an annual budget of €150,000 (£127,000) to deal with the starling problem.

Romans are ostentatious animal-lovers but there are limits to what they will put up with. The dog population, like that of starlings, probably rivals the human one, yet many are left behind when their owners go on holidays, to be looked after desultorily by neighbours or cleaners. The sound of Rome in the summer is the baying of lonely dogs.

Covens of stray cats attract tribes of (mostly female) supporters, who regularly take them food and drink and leave it in the piazzas, ancient Roman ruins or station concourses where they congregate. Yet no one would dream of adopting such a cat. And there is no love lost between Romans and starlings.

“People from other parts of Europe are puzzled as to why we take such a lot of trouble to try and get rid of the starlings,” Mr Albarella said. “They say, why can’t you just let them be? I explain that some people in Rome demand that we ‘kill them all’, on account of the mess they create. But that is both impossible and unacceptable. Instead we are trying to find the most humane and efficient way to deal with the problem.”