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Rome’s starlings create a stunning spectacle — and a huge mess

ROME — This time of year in Rome, the evening sky is a marvel.

Just before sunset, there among the cupolas, starlings mass by the hundreds of thousands, performing an aerial dance. They dip and soar, bunch together and spread out. Seen from the ground, their ephemeral parabolas look like calligraphic brushstrokes.

But when the sun sets, the magic ends. The birds descend — and wreak havoc.

They spend their nights roosting, sometimes thousands to a tree and overloading the branches. They poop prolifically, and their droppings — thanks to their olive-heavy diet — are oily and slick. Those droppings can cause street closures and motorbike accidents. They can bury cars, bus stops, business awnings, even gravestones, under a Jackson Pollock coating of black and white.

“Abundant manure,” Rome’s environmental department called it in a report on the starlings.

Top: Starlings leave behind half-eaten pomegranates on the outskirts of Rome. Bottom: A bench is caked with starling droppings in the suburb of EUR.

The contrast between the transfixing 30-minute murmuration and the subsequent mess makes for an uneasy relationship between the starlings and their chosen winter home.

[Check out this flock of starlings doing laps around the National Mall]

For Romans, life would be a bit more convenient if the birds went elsewhere. But what’s become increasingly evident, amid attempts to manage the birds, is that the starlings have more say in the matter than the people do.

“It’s impossible to move that many animals,” said Alessandro Montemaggiori, an ornithologist at Rome’s Sapienza University.

Starlings are one of the world’s commonest bird species, but Rome stands out in Europe as one of their primary gathering points. The starlings have been migrating here annually since the 1920s, attracted by the mild climate. The traffic and paved surfaces and lights make it several degrees warmer than even the surrounding countryside.

The birds venture south from Germany, Hungary and as far away as Russia, arriving in October and November and remaining for a few months. During the day, they commute outside the city, seeking out farmland and olive groves.

Top: Starlings sleep in a pine tree in Rome’s Piazza dei Cinquecento, where buses help generate heat. Bottom: Electric lines along Raccordo Anuale, or Rome’s ring road, which runs through areas where starlings seek food in the morning.

They return to Rome, bellies full, soon after 4 p.m. They meet in the sky.

The birds move with such synchronicity that one pioneering British ornithologist, Edmund Selous, hypothesized that the starlings were telepathic.

Modern experts have concluded that the movements are not orchestrated by any one leader, but rather by a chain reaction of microsecond influences. Giorgio Parisi, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, found that each bird interacts with six or seven other starlings in its immediate vicinity. In an interview, Parisi said the birds tend to move in a formation that resembles a “pancake.” But its shape-shifting appears more dramatic from the ground, depending on how the pancake is angled in the sky.

“It’s based on perspective,” he said.

[Why do flocks of birds swoop and swirl together in the sky?]

The murmurations work like signals to the returning birds — a way for starlings, which are highly sociable, to gather together.

Top: Ornithologist Alessandro Montemaggiori keeps a starling specimen on his desk. Bottom: Many Romans are fascinated by the birds and their aerial formations.

But they are also thought to have a defensive purpose. With so many birds swirling together, it’s hard for a predator, like a peregrine falcon, to lock in on any one target. Falcons are fearsome foes, capable of reaching 200 mph in the air. There’s a small population of falcons living year-round in Rome. Others migrate south with the starlings.

“When you see the starlings make these tight balls, that means there is a falcon next to them,” said Montemaggiori, the ornithologist. “It’s strength in numbers. That is their success.”