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 Rome
Thousands of starlings flood the sky over Rome in this viral Reddit image posted Thursday.

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.

PLEASE, no multi invitations, glitters or self promotion in your comments, THEY WILL BE DELETED. My photos are FREE for anyone to use, just give me credit and it would be nice if you let me know, thanks - NONE OF MY PICTURES ARE HDR. This bird (a starling) was just walking around at the site, not sure if it was injured of not. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The city of El Djem was built, like almost all Roman settlements in Tunisia, on former Punic settlements. In a less arid climate than today's, Roman Thysdrus, now El Djem, it prospered especially in the 2nd century AD. The amphitheater was built here in the early 3rd century AD. This amphitheater could hold up to 35,000 people making it the third largest in the Roman Empire after the Colosseum in Rome and that at Capua (in ruins). Its 427m (1400ft) outside circumference is 100m (328ft) shorter than the Colosseum.
Starlings prove there is strength in numbers.

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.