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‘Bye-Bye Blackbird’ Becomes Southern Anthem

February 17, 1987

Undated (AP) _ Imagine vast, dark streams of blackbirds flying overhead, pouring in from all directions. They alight in a pine thicket and form a raucous roost that covers several acres.

The noisy flocks depart the next morning, filling the sky, only to return at dusk.

The scene, unfortunately, is not imaginary. It is repeated daily at dozens of huge blackbird roosts across the South - from Memphis to Mobile, from Atlanta to Nashville.

Far too often, say Southern city dwellers, these roosts are located in or near urban areas.

In Atlanta, angry residents throw rocks and firecrackers at marauding birds. In Charlotte, N.C., city workers play amplified predator tapes and fire noise cannons at the flocks of grackles, starlings, cowbirds, rusty blackbirds and redwings.

At Tupelo, Miss., where 2 million of these birds of a feather have flocked together, air traffic has been altered to accommodate their daily commute to and from the fallow soybean fields near the city.

″The roost is less than half a mile from the Tupelo airport. Flight schedules are held up for about 30 minutes in the morning and again in the evening because the flocks cross the landing and takeoff patterns,″ says Frank Boyd, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s animal damage control specialist in Alabama and Mississippi.

Small airports at Anniston, Ala., and Lebanon, Tenn., are having similar problems, he said.

Jay Golden, southeast chief of the National Transportation Safety Board, recalls an accident 15 years ago near Atlanta in which ″blackbirds ingested into the intake were responsible for the crash of a corporate jet.″

Federal wildlife biologists say this is just one problem caused by the estimated half-billion blackbirds that migrate to the Southeast each winter.

Sometimes, several flocks will congregate at a roost. When this happens, they say, the roost may contain 3 million to 4 million birds.

Tupelo, a city of 27,000 in northeastern Mississippi, has had more than its share of these unwelcome winter visitors. Mayor Jack Marshall says the problem has reached the point where he now budgets $30,000 solely for blackbird control.

The mayor says Tupelo has been unsuccessful in efforts to scare off the birds with recordings of bobcats and screaming hawks. Now, he says, he is considering spraying the roosts with a detergent-like substance that robs feathers of water repellency and leaves birds susceptible to hypothermia.

Marshall, who calls the roosts a ″horrible, smelly nuisance,″ also says he worries about histoplasmosis, a flu-like ailment caused by a soil organism that thrives on bird droppings.

Gary Hughes, a Mississippi state trooper who lives near the Tupelo roost on the edge of the city, also thinks the birds are a potential health hazard.

″They fly over my house every day, filling the sky for 30 to 45 minutes,″ he says. ″Sometimes, the smell is bad, real bad. You know it couldn’t be healthy for the people living nearby.″

Literature tells us the traditional method of dealing with blackbirds is to catch four and 20 and bake them in a pie. Hughes says his neighbors prefer shotguns.

He says he hears gunfire most evenings as the birds are returning to the big cedar grove less than a quarter of a mile from his house.

″I’ve never shot at them,″ he says, ″but I’d like to.″

Besides Mississippi, which has a half-dozen big roosts, Southeastern states most regularly subjected to severe blackbird bombardments are Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky and Tennessee, say Boyd and Ken Garner, his USDA counterpart in the latter two states. Georgia, Virginia and the Carolinas also have perennial blackbird problems.

Garner, who has spent better than 20 years shooing flocks from urban areas, advocates spraying whenever possible. Spraying, usually from helicopters, generated a mild controversy in the mid-1970s, when bird protection groups brought suit to stop the spraying of a big roost near Hopkinsville in western Kentucky.

The issue was laid to rest, along with the birds, after then-Hopkinsville Mayor George Atkins learned some of the protesters were from New York City. He threatened a countersuit, aimed at stopping rat control efforts in New York. Since then, spraying hasn’t had a serious challenge.

Hopkinsville, though, is again under siege, reports Frances Atkins. She is the mother of the former mayor, who now lives in Louisville, another city with blackbird problems. Mrs. Atkins complains that city officials aren’t doing enough to discourage the Hopkinsville horde.

Five hundred miles to the east, in Charlotte, Harry McCallister definitely is doing something about a big roost on the east side of town. McCallister, an animal control officer, makes regular raids on the roost, using six propane cannons that emit ear-splitting blasts.

″We got after the birds when several business establishments on the east side started complaining about the terrible odor,″ he says.

In Nashville, Garner is experimenting with a new type of water cannon he hopes will prove a more effective method of spraying the wetting agent PA-14 on the roosts. He is particularly concerned about a huge roost in downtown Memphis that he hasn’t been able to get to.

Garner points out that, at best, noise cannons and amplified distress calls simply cause the roosting bird to relocate, perhaps moving to an even more sensitive site.

At Starkville, Miss., Boyd adds, ″the problem isn’t too many birds, it’s too many people. The birds have always been here but the human population keeps spreading out and that means I’ll probably always spend my winters chasing after blackbirds.″


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