In Colorado, a Town Braces for a Nightly Rain of Terror

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each night at 7:45, the birds come back. Four thousand starlings screech, caw and snap their way into a stand of cottonwoods, landing high above Mapleton Mobile Home Park.

As the birds settle in, there's another sound, reminiscent of the patter of a summer rainstorm. Only it's not rain. It's the steady "plop-plop" of thousands of birds pooping--splattering people, plants and property from eight stories up.

Walkways accumulate an inch and a half of droppings in a day. Car paint corrodes under the near-constant fusillade from the birds. Flowers and vegetable gardens are shredded. No one living under the trees can remember the last summer in which they enjoyed their patios, decks or yards.

In the past, homeowners--many of them elderly--have slapped 2x4s to roust the birds. They've shot fireworks into the trees. They've honked horns. Not anymore.

The city of Boulder, which owns the 128-unit mobile home park, has prohibited residents from disturbing the birds. It is also considering a resolution declaring all of Boulder a bird sanctuary, making it illegal to harm any bird within the city limits.

"This is ridiculous," said Debbie Feustel, who recently moved to the park. "The city talks about a bird sanctuary, but what about us having a sanctuary in our own homes?"

This flock of starlings has returned for the last 10 years to these cottonwoods, nesting for four loud, smelly, disgusting months. It's not the birds that upset the homeowners, it's the stench and the unfathomable volume of the droppings. Folks say this is the messiest summer yet.

Mary Baker, a 78-year-old diabetic whose wheelchair ramp has been rendered unusable because of the nightly bombardment, is at her wit's end.

"I'm a prisoner in my own home," she said, wrinkling her nose at the acrid smell wafting in through her open windows. The chicken-coop stench clouds much of the mobile home park, a few narrow streets nestled in a wooded copse just two blocks off Boulder's main drag.

In a town that likes to call itself the People's Republic of Boulder, where scarcely a plant or animal is without some protected designation, the rights of the birds to live freely trump the rights of Mapleton's residents to live poop-free.

"This is what makes Boulder the loony, special place that it is: socialism run amok," said Boulderite Jon Caldara, who is the conservative voice on the Boulder Daily Camera's opinion page. Describing the town's proud liberal leanings, Caldara says the place is run by "do-gooders on caffeine."

Part of the joy of living in Colorado, many say, is having Boulder to mock. The Denver Post calls Boulder "the little town nestled between the mountains and reality." Berkeley of the Rockies. The phrase "Only in Boulder" is a frequent punch line to what is seen as the Boulder joke.

For example:

Boulder has officially mandated that pet owners be referred to as "pet guardians."

The city of 100,000 has signed the Kyoto, Japan, accord to combat global warning; the United States has not done so.

Barrie Hartman, a Boulderite hired by the Denver Post to explain the city to its southern neighbors, recalled a Boulder County sheriff's deputy who responded to an accident in which a car slammed into a tree. "For those of you in Boulder," the deputy wrote in his report, "the tree was already dead."

Only in Boulder.

Indeed, Boulder is loath to harm a tree. That's part of the difficulty in eradicating the starlings from the Mapleton Mobile Home Park. According to John Pollak, Boulder's assistant director of housing, the city has dispatched foresters and agricultural experts to the neighborhood to determine the best way to handle the birds.

"We are certainly not going to kill the birds," Pollak said. "No one is interested in cutting down the trees. We are exploring options for encouraging the birds to move."

Edie DeWeese, Baker's exasperated daughter, has explored her own options.

"I've called exterminators all over the region," she said. "They all say, 'Oh, you're in Boulder? We don't work there.' You can't kill anything in Boulder, but my mom's living in a disgusting, unhealthy mess."

The European starlings were brought to this country from Britain in the 18th century. They haven't bothered making friends since then. Simply put, the birds are bullies.

In the park here, the flock's arrival is preceded by the hurried scramming of other local birds, who can't abide starlings. Some of the neighborhood's 200 residents say the park's squirrels, deer, foxes and other creatures have been run off by the bossy birds.

Even the bird-loving Audubon Society identifies the Sturnus vulgaris as "messy, quarrelsome, aggressive, and noisy."

The rhythms of the Mapleton neighborhood are now dictated by the comings and goings of the flock. A 5:45 wake-up call rains down from the trees as the birds leave for a day of insect-eating elsewhere.

The return of the birds every evening is an unsettling sight. Sheltered under raincoats and hats, residents of the Mapleton Mobile Home Park assemble in the only safe place--the middle of their street. As far as possible from the trees.

Peering into the darkening sky, the huddled folks raise their arms, cringing and pointing: "Here they come!"

Framed against a skyline of towering cottonwoods, a blot of small black specks comes into view. Swooping and wheeling in a feathered swarm, the flock flaps and squawks its way home, more than 80 feet over Mapleton Street.

"When the birds are coming in at night, you don't want to run from your car to the house; you'll get dumped on," said DeWeese.

On a recent evening, Mark Bowen decamped into the street with his visitors from Ohio. They gestured with their beers, marveling at the complex choreography that sends the soaring birds careening to bed down in assigned trees. During such aerial shows, shouts of "Incoming!" invariably ring out.

Down the street, Ellen Brown stalks out of her home, brandishing an impressive black handgun. Muttering, she squeezes off a few noisy rounds from the unloaded BB gun into the trees.

Pop! Pop! A covey of starlings swoops from one tree to another.

"If I had an Uzi, I'd love it," she said, glaring at the sky dark with winged pests. "I want to see blood and feathers. I don't care what the city says. Bird sanctuary? Pah!"

She stalks off down the street, still firing the weapon, the pop, pop sound receding with her.

Her neighbors shake their heads, chuckling good-naturedly. Under the circumstances, someone was bound to crack.

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