diamond geezer

 Tuesday, December 08, 2015

When in Rome... Starlings
On first sight they're amazing, a flock of myriad black specks whirling and twisting in the sky. Rome's starlings descend before dusk, appearing a good half hour before the sun goes down. At first glance only one squadron exists, but look closer, or look longer, and further armies join the fray. Some fly low, each individual unit clearly distinguishable, careering overhead in a broad stream. Others fly slightly higher, in a contrasting direction, creating the illusion the two flows might clash.

And there are tens of thousands more above, some diffuse, others concentrated into black swarms that pulse and flow like blobs of oil in water. At times the sky is so thick with birds that no unspeckled space remains, including some so high it seems they're up where jet planes fly, awaiting their turn before dropping down into the aerial ballet. Watching the display from the steps of the Capitoline Hill, I have never seen anything like it.

The Roman public are unmoved, continuing on their way seemingly ignorant of the natural spectacle taking place above their heads. At first I wondered whether they might simply have missed the murmurations by being too focused on ground-based activities, this being the modern way. But surely such a lengthy and impressive burst of activity couldn't be invisible to them all, given that it stopped me in my tracks. Eventually it dawned that this level of starling activity is normal for Rome, at least at this time of year, and that every resident has seen it umpteen times before. Only the more astute tourists stop and gawp, and the rest of the capital presses on.

As sunset draws closer the swirling masses swoop down to land in the trees around the perimeter of the hill. The cypresses here, each a puff of green above a lofty trunk, have many high branches where the starlings choose to roost. Early birds win their choice of resting space, with each subsequent phase of landings attempting to find gaps between. Some launch off again for a final burst of daily exercise, and others are dislodged by seagulls intent on disturbing the throng. But eventually, as the sky fades from blue to black, each group of birds descends and settles for the night.

After dark a cacophony of chatter emanates from the trees around the Vittoriano, and along the tree-lined banks of the river Tiber. Starlings are highly gregarious creatures, and their unholy racket dominates the parts of town where they choose to bed down for the night, And their hubbub continues for some hours, the invisible ensemble seemingly unwilling to shut up and go to sleep before their collective song has played out in full.

There is of course another downside, seen wherever birds congregate in numbers, and that's the unpleasantness caused by communal excretion. Roman citizens therefore avoid stepping beneath trees where starlings roost, for the law of averages suggests that their passing will coincide with at least one white deposit falling from on high. Where the spread of branches dictates that full-on avoidance is impossible, you'll see more cautious (or more fashionable) souls hiding beneath a shawl or jacket held above their heads as a guano shield.

What's less easily seen after dark, but more easily smelt, is the sticky mess left across the pavement and any other street furniture that lies below. Entire riverside walkways are entirely splattered by black and white excrement, and any sensible Roman avoids going anywhere near, even if this means missing the glorious panorama along the embankment. A couple of weeks ago, following a period of heavy rain, some roads flanking the Tiber were even partially closed after mopeds and pedestrians started to skid on greasy bird droppings.

Thankfully this weekend was dry, but that doesn't mean the end result of digestion coupled with gravity was any more pleasant. Indeed I think I spent almost as long cleaning the soles of my trainers as I had watching the perpetrators performing their bewitching aerial display. The starlings of central Rome are both a delight and a curse, with the majority of public opinion firmly entrenched towards the latter.

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