Il Stormo di Storni
Posted on November 20, 2013
We are in the midst of Starling Season in Rome. We are just a stop along the way to Africa for the thousands of birds making their migration, but at the moment it feels like they’ve decided to stay.
I noticed them first outside my bedroom window at the Academy. Typical bird chatter would suddenly grow deafening around 4 o’clock, when they’d all come to roost in the Umbrella Pines across the street. It’s a throbbing hum so loud it goes through glass. It goes right into your head, too, so good luck trying to concentrate on anything. The birds congregated for no more than half an hour, but then they were off. To where? I couldn’t tell. But I discovered their roosting spot soon enough.
One Saturday a group of us headed out on a dining mission: burgers and beers. A decidedly un-Italian night out. The mood was merry as we headed to the restaurant, but when we got closer to the Garibaldi Bridge, I heard the sound. It was even louder than before, like the screeching score that accompanies the heroine in a Hitchcock film right before she’s about to get it. Making matters worse, the sidewalks were suddenly slick. My right foot slipped out from under me and I almost fell, realizing at that very moment that I wasn’t slipping on mud–the sidewalk was plastered with bird shit. That’s when I heard the sound of “rain,” but it wasn’t rain… People ahead of us ran across the bridge with newspapers over their heads and the lucky ones with umbrellas walked briskly. Our group walked as quickly as we could, but most of us got hit. Some worse than others.
I want to say that we laughed over dinner and forgot all about the birds. And maybe we did for a couple hours. But after dinner was over, we returned to the bridge and the horror washed over us anew. It was the smell. A sickly sweet, rotting perfume that permeated the air. And it was the cars. We walked past cars that were just annihilated with dung, as though they’d been abandoned for months, but in reality the damage could have been done in the course of an evening.
This is all to say that at first I hated the starlings.
How could you not? We met under terrible circumstances. I will probably not cross that bridge for at least another month (and never after dark), but a few weeks after this episode I was treated to an entirely different view. One afternoon the starlings started to roost at their preferred time, always around 4pm, and this time curiosity got the best of me. I went up the Academy’s 4th floor terrace to see them in flight.
These crazy birds put on a spectacular show! Imagine the derring-do of a World War II-era fighter plane, how it dips and it turns and it seems to defy all laws of physics. Now imagine a fleet of thousands of aerial acrobats flying in unison. The starlings are no longer individual birds, but are more like an avian cloud creating intricate shapes in the sky. It also didn’t hurt that the backdrop to this performance was a beautiful sunset.
For now, the starlings and me are all right. I’ve made peace with this natural phenomenon. I stay clear of the river at sunset and stick to where the ballet is viewed best. The starlings have a limited engagement in Rome, so I’m trying to catch as many shows as I can before they move on.