Residents deal with dead birds
Posted: Friday, February 13, 2009 9:38 pm
By GLENDA H. CAUDLE
Special Features Editor
The call was not unusual: “There are thousands of birds in my yard. Help!”
But this time, the story was different when the phone rang earlier this week at the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency office in Jackson.
For one thing, the estimate was not the exaggerated claim TWRA officials normally hear and are tempted to discount as the frustrated complaint of residents flying into a tizzy over an avian invasion of their property.
For another, several hundred of the birds were no longer darting in and out of trees in urban neighborhoods. They were no longer darting anywhere. They were, in fact, “dart”-less. And dead.
And they were piling up at an alarming rate in yards in the Pleasant Valley area of Union City.
“We have had to deal with birds several times in the past,” says Mrs. Travis (Linda) Shumate, whose home is in the “dead bird” zone. “But we’ve never had as many as this year.”
However, that general awareness of an increase in the bird population provided only a hint of disturbing events to come.
“Last Friday (Feb. 6) our neighbor, Michelle Creswell, called and asked if we had dead birds in our yard. She said she had just picked up 172 birds at her house,” Mrs. Shumate recalls, adding that she was certain at the time that no such circumstances existed at her own house. But when she looked out a window into the back yard, where neither she nor her husband had ventured in a few days, she noticed what looked suspiciously like creatures whose wings were permanently folded. When she mentioned the phone call and her observations to her husband, he could not believe they could be facing a problem of such proportions as their neighbors; nevertheless, he went out to inspect the property and returned hurriedly to deck himself out in protective gear and find a container suitable for disposing of their own feathered catastrophe.
A short time later, he could account for 447 dead birds collected from his back yard alone. Contact with another neighbor revealed that resident had filled two or three garbage bags with the creatures and still had 100 or so in his yard, awaiting suitable disposal.
Shumate phoned city manager Don Thornton to see if officials could offer relief from renewed visits from birds still on the wing but literally dropping from the skies in their death throes at that point. Thornton said the city had stopped using the “cannon” thought to be helpful in frightening birds away because it simply sent them into other neighborhoods.
Shumate also phoned the local health department for assistance. From there, the Shumates were put in touch with the TWRA office, who confirmed they had received an earlier call about the vast number of birds viewed in Union City but had not been aware of the bird deaths.
On Tuesday, a representative from TWRA and another from the Department of Agriculture office in Jackson arrived at the Shumate home. They viewed the birds from Shumate’s first collection, which he had bagged and placed in covered plastic garbage containers and accepted the more recently collected samples which they had asked for in a phone conversation Monday. The latter had been collected according to specific instructions: gather three or four “fresh” birds, after masking and gloving yourself, and put them in a bag and keep it on ice in a covered container.
The visitors assured the Shumates there was no cause for alarm, even as they speculated on the birds’ untimely demise.
“One man said they might have frozen, but the other disagreed,” Mrs. Shumate says. “They told us it would take two to three weeks to get the test results back and they would be testing for things like bad bird seed and bird flu.”
She added that neighbors were concerned the birds might have been poisoned and could pose a risk to pets who might bite into a body or might stumble across the poison themselves and consume it as the birds might have done.
Meanwhile, yet another neighbor, Pam Clendenin, reported picking up 200 dead birds in her yard.
The gruesome total was climbing.
The Shumates have also noticed bare branches of trees coated with unusually heavy white layers of bird droppings and have begun to observe holly shrubs with areas simply denuded of vegetation where not only starlings, but also robins, have gorged themselves. The other-worldly noise of thousands of live birds swooping in and out continues to create an eerie sensation several times a day and, as they swing in low over neighborhoods, the startling starlings sometimes deposit unwelcome “gifts” on the heads of residents unlucky enough to be caught in the open.
Even family barbecues have been peppered with special offerings from on high. As wary residents have hurried to cover sizzling food on the grill and tried to wave off the unwelcome guests, the determined invaders have expressed their disdain rather explicitly and with deadly accuracy on those very cooking utensils with which the humans have armed themselves for battle.
And even though the large numbers of bird carcasses appears to be decreasing, there are still supine birds with tiny bare feet pointed skyward dotting Pleasant Valley yards.
Parents are concerned about letting children play outside because of the danger of a highly toxic condition known as histoplasmosis. The illness is caused by inhaling fungus that comes from bird and bat guano, or droppings. The Shumates have had to make their yard, which formerly was an exciting playground, off-limits to their visiting grandchildren who had looked forward to exploring there in the warmer weather that prevailed recently.
“We asked what we could do to discourage the birds from coming here and taking over our yards,” Mrs. Shumate says, but the response was not encouraging. While the Jackson visitors mentioned items that could be purchased on-line to create disturbances that would discourage the birds, such efforts are effective only if a resident can use the items, or the noise-producing “guns” or other such gimmicks, while the birds are actually approaching. Once they have reached the haven of trees, the birds are often unperturbed by noises they seem to have become accustomed to.
One of the authorities on birds they consulted said the creatures often flee predators in the more wide open spaces of the country when seasonal changes cause much of their natural protective habitat to disappear. They then round up their family and friends and go looking for other safe havens. When they spot neighborhoods that may have several evergreens, they “adopt” the area and return to it over and over, often spreading over into other less protected trees as they begin to feel safer from wild animals that threatened them in less civilized surroundings. Short of cutting down these safe havens or dramatically lessening the number of them by drastic “thinning” procedures, there are few preventative measures that can be taken.
Not too worry, though, the Shumates were assured. Seasonal changes should move the birds on in two to three weeks.
Meanwhile, they scour their steps and porch and sidewalk frequently, stay indoors as much as possible, try not to inhale the telltale bird “fragrance” and remain alert for more bird carcasses.
And they ponder the effectiveness of “No Vacancy” signs posted strategically in their trees.
It may seem like a bird-brained idea, but no one appears to have a better one.
Mrs. Caudle may be contacted at email@example.com.
Published in The Messenger 2.13.09