William Gibson’s seminal sci-fi novel Neuromancer opens with an unforgettably bleak line: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” The dystopic 1984 novel is set in Chiba City, Japan, but it may as well have been set in Rome in 2018. In a photo of the city posted to Reddit on Thursday, the sky appeared to be obscured with the densest TV static.
At the horizon line of the viral image, you can just make out the remains of a sunset, in pale blue and orange, struggling to push through the monochrome fuzz. It’s no use. The irrepressible mass of black specks, barely any light shining between them, aggressively subdues the sun into its pathetic corner.
Dystopic though this year has seemed, this is not an image of Rome succumbing to the singularity. Rather, it’s actually an image that has repeated itself in various iterations for centuries. It’s not static that’s filling the sky; it’s thousands and thousands of starlings.
Starlings, a type of small, annoying (hey, even Audubon says so) songbird, return in huge numbers to Rome each autumn, seeking warmth and refuge from frigid Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. By some estimates, up to 4 million birds descend on Rome each year, drawn to the city’s relative warmth compared to neighboring regions. Four million birds is a lot of birds — certainly enough to obscure the sunlight in a small patch of sky.
That starlings turn the ancient city into a sci-fi movie set is the least of the Roman population’s concerns about the tiny birds. The biggest issue is that they poop everywhere, covering streets, buildings, Vespas, and trees with thick layers of foul guano. Since the starlings feast in the copious olive groves outside of Rome, their poop is also especially oily.
In recent years, Romans have struggled to find a way to control the swarming birds, since the peregrine falcons, their natural predators, have not succeeded in shepherding them. Many residents have had to resort to pruning the trees on which the birds nest and blasting the cries of predatory birds on loudspeakers to frighten the starlings away. Some have tried using trained falcons to drive them away (not eat them, their owners assured the press). Others scare them in a charmingly old-fashioned way: by banging on pots and pans.
So, while this phenomenon appears to be a horror scene from the tech-inundated future, it’s actually a remnant of an age-old natural force, serving as a reminder that nothing humans devise can ever be more terrifying than what nature has already wrought.