On the wing

Santa Maria Novella’s birds

Devin Tooma
February 24, 2011

We know you've been wondering. And, until a short telephone call ago, we, too, had been feeling eerily connected to Hitchcock's film, The Birds. There's just something about animals in mass that gives us the heebie-jeebies. One mouse? Marketable. A million mice? Massive cardiac infarction. So, how about them starlings over SMN? Someone began a short discussion on the TF Facebook fan page recently on the curious phenomenon of the thousands of small black birds clouding in choreographed flocks over the church and train station. Deciding to face our fears head on, we called Fausto Barbagli, curator of ornithology at the Museo di Storia Naturale La Specola in Florence, and let our curiosity about this bird business take flight.

 

Species?

The starling, or storvo, or Sturnus vulgaris, a passerine bird in the family Sturnidae. Also known as the European starling, common starling, or, just... starling.

 

How many?

The week of February 14, they were estimated at about 7-8000.

 

Why now?

During the spring, starlings couple up for the mating season, leading mostly monogamous existences both day and night. In the winter, they roost in massive flocks in the evenings. The flock is an excellent evolutionary advantage: during the winter months they cluster for warmth, and sticking together makes them much less subject to prey.

 

Why SMN?

Starlings generally prefer warmer climates. If you see them during the winter in the countryside, they are likely to be roosting near water because of its tempering properties. Starlings, however, have evolved to love cities: urban areas tend to be warmer because of the heat given off by the people who aggregate in urban centers and the homes they live in, buildings they work in; industry; cars and their motors; protection from the wind, and so forth. They're also particularly partial to green trees. The central location of Santa Maria Novella, its protection from the elements, and the fact that it's surrounded by cypresses and pines (non-deciduous conifers) makes the church cloisters and the pine trees around the station an excellent place for them to rest in the evenings.   Starlings also find security in the city center.

 

Their main predator, the falcon, isn't much of a city dweller.

 

The church is rather isolated in the evenings, with no one bothering them. Starlings aren't afraid of humans, and they eat just about anything, so whatever tourists and residents leave around town is quite sufficient.

 

Where are they during the day?

They break up into smaller groups and go forage.

 

How much longer will they be around?

A couple of weeks maximum. The weather is getting warmer and mating season is right around the corner. Some will stay in town to couple up, others will move along to other areas.

 

Do they present any danger?

Only to your clothes and hair, though most Italians say this ‘danger' even brings good luck! In recent years, in Rome, the birds were much more numerous and began causing problems in the city center: they were defecating all over the sidewalks and people began to slip. They were generally causing a mess. The city arranged to release a flock of falcons to scare them away, and even the civil protection services were deployed to frighten them off by a variety of means. But the population in Florence isn't nearly what is was down south, and Dr. Barbagli has heard of no such complaints. However, he has heard reports of a similar phenomenon in Novoli and on viale Guidoni.

 

Why are there so many more this year than in the past?

Starlings spread the word. There may be even more next year.

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