Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Cars are skidding off the road and people are carrying umbrellas.
Over the past week, Rome has been drowning in poop. The Italian capital woke a few days back to find roads, sidewalks, and cars slicked with a layer of bird feces—so slimy and thick that it required a special cleanup operation to make some streets safe to drive on. Windshields have become murky and road surfaces so slippery that skidding accidents have spiked.
The culprits: a vast flock of up to a million starlings that had come to rest in the city during their annual migration from Northern Europe. The birds arrived some months back and have been causing problems ever since. What’s made the new year notably worse is heavy rain that has blasted off droppings that had built up on tree branches, layer after layer, sending them flooding into the streets below. Some parts of Rome have become covered with a layer of ordure so dense that the place has started to resemble an avian-afflicted Pompeii.
Rome’s bird-poop deluge is actually an annual phenomenon, an affliction that begins in October as up to four million birds migrate from Northern Europe. They home in on the city because they’re attracted by its relative warmth compared to the surrounding countryside. Locals are already pretty used to the swarm. According to this report, autumn tourists in Rome are often confused to see people walking near the river Tiber with umbrellas up on a sunny day—confused, that is, until they find their clothes tagged by some airborne vandal.
It would be easier to accept the phenomenon with a shrug did it not come at a time when Rome’s public cleanliness and order is in general hitting a low. Italy’s capital has become notorious for its degrado, the steady piling up of the city’s streets with rubbish and graffiti thanks to a mixture of public indifference and official incompetence.
Austerity policies that have cut back on city services have also been linked to the poop storm. The newspaper La Stampa protested in the fall that the city had stopped financing previous bird-scaring measures, such as a municipal cast of falcons and sonic bird-scaring devices placed in trees along the Tiber. Such measures have in fact been reintroduced in the past few months, but have not been enough to stem the plague. It’s no wonder La Stampa characterized the influx as a form of poopocalypse—a “sign from god to show how low we’ve fallen.”
The millions of starling calling cards will wash off soon enough. But the spectacle of a city teetering on the edge of dysfunction should unfortunately linger for a while yet.