Neighborhood fired up about resilient starlings

Gary B. Gray • Jan 12, 2014 at 7:02 PM

The birds — they just keep coming back.

Johnson City residents have tried for years to shoo away notoriously stubborn starlings from nesting in their huge magnolia trees and bushes, especially in a long-established neighborhood encompassing South Mountain View Circle.

Pots and pans have been hammered. Sounds of predatory birds have been cranked up and pointed at the skies. Now, special propane cannons designed to emit a loud explosive shriek are being used by a number of people in the neighborhood, but nothing seems to work.

If the defecating and possibly disease-carrying birds aren’t enough of a problem, complaints are being filed with the Johnson City Police Department about what some say are bothersome noise levels created by the cannons used to prompt the pesky creature’s departure.

The issue has resulted in a public meeting at which city officials, as well as a representative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is expected to try to learn more and discuss possible solutions to the problems at a 6 p.m. Friday at Memorial Park Community Center.

A Jan. 7 email from Michael Hyder, 801 E. Chilhowie Ave., to Police Chief Mark Sirois outlines complaints about the noise caused by the cannons. He says the noise level is louder than ever and a decibel-measuring application on his iPhone registered 97 dB from his driveway.

Hyder’s email continues: “The trouble with the thinking, as I’ve analyzed your emails, is as follows: The city’s goal seems to be in achieving a ‘happy medium,’ or some sort of compromise between the cannoneer and those of us who are subjected to battlefield-type sounds that startle us and our pets. The blasts are so strong that even inside our house, our bodies can feel the shock wave of the blasts.”

Sirois confirmed Friday that he was aware Hyder had complained about several of his neighbors. However, Sirois said the problem has been ongoing, and many residents are using the cannons in an effort to avoid potential illnesses from diseases carried by the birds.

“The police department has initiated this meeting, and this has been a long-standing issue in the community,” Sirois said. “It’s a broad issue, and there are strong opinions on both sides. The cannons are not typical cannons, as you would imagine. They are specially designed devices made just for that purpose. They do not propel any objects. They are percussive only.”

Officers have been to Hyder’s property line to take decibel readings, and they were found to be well below the 75 dB legal threshold. The Johnson City Press attempted to reach Hyder, but a recording said the phone had been disconnected.

“The people using these devices are not violating any city law,” Sirois said. “But they do emit a sharp noise — no doubt about it.”

Joan Lancaster and her next-door neighbor, Dr. Bill Cone, live in the neighborhood and both have tried about everything they can think of to get rid of the birds. And it’s not that they dislike birds.

“I’ve beaten every pot and lid to pieces in an effort not to shoot the cannon,” Lancaster said. “I’ve also tried playing the sound of hawks and owls through a ‘boom box’ really loud to get rid of them. I’m certainly not the only one that has a cannon.

“I feed the birds. But this is an old neighborhood and we have large trees and bushes where they stay during the winter. There’s a serious health danger here. They’re known to carry Histoplasmosis, and that’s the greatest concern.”

Histoplasmosis is a fungal disease that primarily affects human lungs. The fungus has been found in poultry house litter, caves, areas harboring bats and in bird roosts, particularly those of Starlings.

Erick Herrin, an attorney who represents Johnson City and Washington County, also lives in the area, and Lancaster said he has organized a neighborhood effort to remove the birds.

Herrin was not immediately available for comment.

Cone, who told the Press to “bring a shovel” if a photographer was coming to his residence to document the droppings, strongly sided with his neighbor and others living in the area.

“It’s just piling up,” he said. “We’ve tried everything, and we don’t have any solutions.”

Whether you flip through an encyclopedia, an ornithology book or Google “starlings,” you get pretty much the same description.

The feisty black birds with short tails were first brought to North America by Shakespeare enthusiasts in the 19th century. Suffice it to say they’ve done a great job of reproducing. Though they’re sometimes resented for their abundance and aggressiveness, they’re actually a fairly dazzling specimen when you get a good look.

The problem is that for much of the year, they wheel through the sky and mob lawns in big, noisy flocks.

“As far as I know, this is the only place where the problem is so bad that people are using cannons to keep the birds away,” Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin said. “As it turns out, people do not have to have a permit to use these devices, and they have been found to be within legal decibel levels.”

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