It’s become a yearly raid in Weakley County and the rest of West Tennessee. In response to the assault, neighbors assemble at sunset to defend their perimeters; weapons of loud noise are collected for maximum impact.
All eyes focus on the sky for the first sign of the aerial attack. And then the noise begins – clanging kitchen pots, horns, coach whistles – all designed to move the enemy on, before it lands and wreaks destruction.
It’s time for the late winter blackbird invasion.
“If people don’t think you’re crazy when they drive by, you’re not doing it right,” says Brad Robbins, District Supervisor of the USDA Wildlife Services.
The good news is that the grackles, starlings and cowbirds will probably decide to migrate soon on their own as the weather warms up, anxious to nest in the Great Lakes area up north by spring.
The bad news is if you haven’t moved the blackbirds out of your magnolia tree yet, they are going to be hard to budge.
“If folks have dealt with them this long, they are well served to wait,” says Robbins.
Though birds in the Martin area have not been as numerous this year, according to Kenny Edwards, Code Enforcement Officer at the Martin Police Department, in West Tennessee as a whole this seems to be a big year, particularly in Jackson, says Robbins.
Not that anyone can accurately count the black clusters assembling in the skies. But officials can count complaints and roosting areas. Edwards says that the birds seem to be coming a little later this year but they are “not as bad.”
However in other parts of West Tennessee, “it’s obvious we’ve got much more as compared to last year,” says Robbins.
So far no one except UT Martin has called in to request the city’s “cannon,” the propane tank with a bang, shooting up loud noises in cycles every few minutes. At UTM, the cannon was fired for five days in a row in mid February because the birds were starting to be a nuisance in the quad area.
Captain Ray Coleman of campus security says the strategy was largely successful in pushing the birds out before they roosted in the campus’ large trees.
A special announcement went out to campus dwellers to warn them of the loud booms.
Robbins says the most effective way to move the flocks of blackbirds out of urban areas before they roost is to get the community involved in three days of sustained effort early in the game.
If a lot of noise is made late in the afternoon, as the birds “stage” or accumulate, they will be discouraged from roosting in the area.
If residents don’t get aggressive before the birds decide to roost, it becomes difficult to get them out.
It takes a multi-neighborhood effort to keep the nucleus of birds on the move so that they don’t just move from one neighborhood to another.
Robbins explains that the blackbirds are looking for dense foliage like evergreens to roost. They like to settle in large groups within the tree to share body warmth.
The problem in urban areas has become more acute as households focus on landscaping that essentially provides a natural habitat for the birds. Long rows of hollies or pines might give a homeowner privacy from the neighboring yard but it may also invite a temporary flock of unwanted feathered visitors.
The blackbirds collect at this latitude because it is usually as far south as they have to go to get food in the winter. “They prefer to be farther north,” says Robbins.
It can seem like a Hitchcock movie when a loud flutter in a magnolia tree startles a late night dog-walker.
That can be an eerie experience, but many people are more worried about the potential health hazards of the birds droppings.
Though such large accumulations of the white stuff can be unsanitary, says Robbins, a larger concern is that the droppings settling into the soil can provide fertile ground for some fungi which, when disturbed and made airborne by spring gardeners, can be serious.
The birds do not carry diseases like histoplasmosis, a lung infection, but the “enriched” soil can attract the fungi. Robbins advises gardeners to wear masks as a precaution if they are rooting in soil under trees where the blackbirds may have roosted.
Sidewalks can also be “wet intensely” and bleach can cut down on the smell. Sometimes heavy rains, as experienced recently, can help in the clean up.
But mostly residents would like to get the birds moving before they decide to settle in their back yard.
Ideally an idle acre of magnolias deep in the countryside would make for the perfect roosting site.