Bird solution still up in the air

Tony Casey • Jan 18, 2014 at 5:18 PM

In the Gump neighborhood, a solution to the problem of how to handle pesky starlings and blackbirds has been as evasive as the birds themselves.

A meeting held Friday night at Memorial Park Community Center, officiated by Johnson City Police Chief Mark Sirois, did produce some progress in the way of bringing peace to the troubled neighborhood.

Experts on the topics of birds and bird-related issues were brought in to provide information to the nearly 100 people who showed up, before the audience was able to voice concerns and questions about the matter at hand.

Sirois kicked it off with a joke about being surprised how many people had flocked to the gathering. Titled, “Gump Addition Neighborhood Meeting,” the only topic discussed was how to handle the large roosts of birds that are gathering in the east Johnson City neighborhood. Recent attempts by residents to scare the birds away with lights, propane-powered cannon blasts, explosions, tree trimmings and more have not proved successful.

Many of the audience members, who said they’ve lived in the area, said if they were able to get the birds to relocate temporarily from their properties, they would only move to another place close by, thus, not eliminating the problem, but moving it around.

Keith Blanton, a certified wildlife biologist with The Wildlife Society out of Knoxville, was brought in to share his experiences with the issues, and to field as many questions as were flown in his direction. He kicked the meeting off with a presentation with general information about the kinds of birds that were wreaking havoc on the neighborhood, and also a descending order list of how he recommends the issue should be handled.

His top pick for how to handle the mass bird roosts, which he says can be numbered at anywhere from 1,000 to several million to a group, would be to alter their habitat as means of making them pick another part of the area in which they would roost. By trimming tree canopies and thinning out trees, the birds would feel more vulnerable and seek different shelters.

“Eliminating the roost habitat is the best, most long-term solution,” Blanton said in his presentation.

Audience members contend they’ve tried that, and that it didn’t work out, to which Blanton admitted these birds are hearty and unpredictable and so insinuated that sometimes nothing will work in ridding an area of them during their time in the Southeast, which is typically through the winter until February or even early March.

Ultimately, Blanton said that its the neighborhood’s decision to make, and all he was doing was providing information through his experience and work, and that they would collectively have to come to that decision collectively.

If altering the habitat isn’t the method with which the neighborhood will go, Blanton said a strong one-week harassment campaign can also be an effective way to make the birds move. Creatures of habit, birds such as these will learn patterns of loud explosives and bright lights, and weather the barrage of harassment, perhaps temporarily moving to a neighbor’s yard, so an effort like that would have to be widespread and well calculated.

It would include loud noises at frequent, but unpredictable times around dusk, from all different angles of the neighborhood. These may include the cannon and explosive blasts some residents have complained of hearing, and also bird distress noises to let the birds know they might be in danger.

This option wouldn’t please all. During the question period of the meeting, many attendees stood up to protest the loud noises they’ve been hearing for some time now. One passionately commented on the loud cannon blasts and the effects it would have on those who might be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

“I love the birds,” one woman from the Gump said. “It’s all the bombs going off over there that bother me.”

Another attendee said the problem has not improved or gone away over the years, and it comes down to a week of bird harassment versus an entire winter of the problem-causing birds.

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Blanton repeatedly shared with the group that cannon blasts at ground level wouldn’t be nearly as effective as a loud noise up in the trees or bushes, at the birds’ level.

An audience member asked about the cost of a harassment campaign from Blanton’s outfit, and he said he’d given Sirois a rough estimate of about $5,000-$7,000 for one week.

The question was raised about the dangers of the infectious disease histoplasmosis, and its connection to the bird droppings. Regional Health Department Medical Director David Kirschke fielded the question, and shared that the disease isn’t found in the bird waste, but, if collected on the ground under the birds, gives the soil a greater chance of developing the fungus which emits the dangerous spores.

Sirois handed out surveys to those who wanted to fill them out. With the results, he said they would get a better idea of the problem and how residents wanted to go about solving the problem. He said a copy of the survey could be viewed, and filled out at the city’s website: www.johnsoncitytn.org.

As Blanton had mentioned in his experience with situations like this, half the people either want to just kill all the birds and be done with them, and the other half want them not to be touched or bothered. It seemed audience was equally as split in how to go about handling the issue, but Sarah Barron voiced her concerns for the sake of the neighborhood and received booming applause.

“I’m more worried about the rivalries in the neighborhood,” she said of the often heated disagreements. “It’s corny but it’s true.”

Barron and others pointed to all the great things about the historic neighborhood and how they should try to stay harmonious for the sake of their neighbors.

These sentiments were repeated and reinforced, and all, agreed that they all cared about the Gump, and wanted to work to a solution, as it was recognized that it was a multi-sided issue, with heated stances about how to go about solving their bird problem.

As for moving forward, Johnson City Commissioner David Tomita suggested forming a board to represent the neighborhood in trying to decide how to go about handling the birds. He volunteered to be the chairman, and asked others interested in joining to stay behind and begin to organize. The general idea would be to tough it through the next few months and work toward that solution in the next year before the birds come back for the following winter roost.

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