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Pesky starlings thwart efforts to control them

SALT LAKE CITY — The next time the sky darkens with a flock of noisy unwelcome starlings, blame Shakespeare — or, better yet, a few of his strangest fans.

In the early 1890s, about 100 European starlings were released in New York City's Central Park by a group dedicated to bringing to America every bird ever mentioned by Shakespeare. Today, it's more like Hitchcock.

Now, 200 million shiny black European starlings crowd North America, from Alaska to Mexico's Baja peninsula. The enormous flocks endanger air travel, chase off native songbirds and roost on city blocks, leaving behind corrosive, foul-smelling droppings and hundreds of millions of dollars of damage each year.

And getting rid of them is nearly impossible.

Last year, U.S. government agents poisoned, shot and trapped 1.7 million starlings, more than any other nuisance species, according to new figures, only to see them roaring back again.

"It's sort of like bailing the ocean with a thimble," said Richard Dolbeer, a retired Wildlife Services researcher in Sandusky, Ohio, who spent years trying to figure out ways to keep starlings and other birds from causing problems at airports.

Wildlife biologist Mike Smith has been tweaking a series of traps used at Salt Lake City International Airport, where there have been 19 reported starling strikes since 1990. The traps use dog food to attract a starling or two. Hundreds more soon follow, driven by their innate desire to flock with each other. He once caught 800 in a single day.

The most popular lethal tactic is a poison called DRC-1339, which is often sprinkled on french fries, a favorite snack of starlings. Within a day or two, the birds keel over from organ failure.