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Starlings overstay their welcome

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Starlings may be America's most hated bird. Airports dub them "feathered bullets." The agriculture department gasses them in buckets. Even most bird fans can't muster warm feelings for them.

"I don't think anybody likes killing birds," says Washington state farm advocate Henry Bierlink, "but I think we're getting over it when it comes to starlings."

The European starling was brought to America in the early 1890s by an eccentric Shakespeare fan determined to introduce all the birds mentioned by the Bard on American shores. He released 100 into New York's Central Park, launching one of the most successful alien-species invasions ever documented. Today, the shiny black birds have ousted bluebirds, woodpeckers, and other cavity-nesters in every state but Hawaii, and their numbers - estimated at more than 200 million nationwide - have grown to rival America's human population.

In the northwest corner of the 48 states, farmers in Washington's Whatcom County are tired of losing their blueberry crops and dairy feeds to mobs of starlings and are taking aim at the aggressive birds.

"There's times when there'll be 3,000 of them flying around. It'll just be a black cloud in the sky," says dairy farmer Jason Vander Veen. Starlings are his farm's biggest pest: They feast on the grain he sets out for his 700 cows. "At times we can see cows lying in their stalls, and their backs'll be all speckled white from all the droppings," he says. A flock of 1,000 birds can consume up to a ton of feed per month and contaminate several more.

Local farmers, with help from the county government, hire trappers from the US Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services to get rid of the birds. On a recent morning, behind Mr. Vander Veen's barn, a starling trap - a six-foot chicken-wire shed with a narrow slot in the roof - held about 30 starlings, feeding on the corn inside. Once a week, a trapper gathers the birds into a five-gallon bucket and gasses them with carbon dioxide. According to Wildlife Services, this method is quick and humane.

Mr. Bierlink of the Whatcom County Agriculture Preservation Committee estimates the program has killed 250,000 starlings since it began five years ago. Nationwide, Wildlife Services kills more than a million a year.

Whatcom County bird lovers actually criticize farmers for not doing enough to fight the birds. While Vander Veen has gone to the expense of covering his feed bunkers with tarps and tires, many dairy farmers still store feed in uncovered piles, providing a starling smorgasbord.

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