One Kentucky town has been doused with white stuff this winter—but it’s not snow. Millions of blackbirds have descended on Hopkinsville, overwhelming residents with noise and bird excrement since they arrived in November.
“I’ve got an apple tree that has almost turned white,” Steve Tribble, a town resident and Executive Judge of Christian County, told Reuters. Hopkinsville is located an hour north of Nashville and has a population of about 35,000. “Any vehicle parked outside is covered up.”
While the mess and racket are a nuisance, some residents are worried about their health, too. The birds’ fecal matter can carry Histoplasma capsulatum, a fungus that can cause lung disease and pneumonia-like symptoms, reports The Chicago Tribune. Histoplasmosis is particularly dangerous for people with weakened immune systems and can be fatal for dogs. The droppings can also contaminate soil for years.
Federal law protects most blackbirds, so it’s illegal to shoot or kill them without a federal permit. As an alternate, safer eradication method, the town hired McGee Pest Control, which aims to scare off the unwanted guests by directing air cannons and “bird bangers,” similar to bottle rockets, at trees packed with thousands of birds. These efforts, however, are proving unsuccessful. Instead of fleeing the town, the scare tactic is merely causing the birds to relocate to new trees, depositing a trail of poop while on the wing, according to The Chicago Tribune.
Many news sources have portrayed this tremendous flock as a mysterious or even sinister invasion, but Geoff LeBaron, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count Director, notes that this is actually normal bird behavior: The blackbirds migrate en masse, and if several birds choose a location for wintering ground, then the entire flock—thousands to millions of birds—will settle down there for the season, too.
So why did they choose Hopkinsville? Winter temperatures were warmer this year, so the birds didn’t have to migrate as far south as they typically do. “As the snow line moves further northward,” says LeBaron, “the blackbirds are only going to go as far south as they have to.”
“It could be that the flock has been wintering near Hopkinsville or other Kentucky towns in recent seasons, and they happened to choose an area where people live this year,” adds LeBaron. “The birds want to roost in an area where they are protected from environmental conditions and predators, so they will move into neighborhoods if it’s dark and quiet, but it’s not like they are selecting wooded subdivisions.”
The good news for citizens of Hopkinsville is that spring migration is just around the corner, reports LeBaron, so the birds will soon begin their northward journey to nest anywhere in North America below the tundra.
Audubon’s 2009 “Birds and Climate Change” report found that nearly 60% of birds have shifted their winter ranges northward by 35 miles. Hopkinsville experienced the same type of influx in the 1970s, and it is likely that the birds could overwinter there again in the future as winter temperatures climb due to climate change, says LeBaron.
“This really is mostly about the biology of the birds and the happenstance of where it happens to be occurring,” says LeBaron. “They will go away.” Until spring migration starts, however, Hopkinsville might well consider itself to be Blackbirdsville.