BREESE, Ill. -- This trim farm town on the prairie turns creepy each day at dawn and at dusk.
Just before sunset, the sky convulses. Black clouds race toward town. They swoop in over the high school and, suddenly, it's clear: Each cloud is really a dense flock of birds, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of starlings descending on Breese to roost for the night.
At dawn, look up and there they are -- starlings clustered by the hundreds in every tree, packed in so tight that bare winter branches look like feathered pillows.
The droppings slick sidewalks, cars, cows and swing sets white. Some patches of grass look as though they've been dusted with crumbly snow. And the noise! The chirping. The chattering. "My husband is hard of hearing, and even he complains of it," confided 73-year-old Dolly Niemann.
This is a town under starling siege. And the birds are winning, big.
"I used to go out with buckets to wash (the droppings) off," said Raquel Strubhart, a mother of three. "My neighbor said I might as well give up, because the birds will always beat you."
In the three months since the starling swarms arrived, Breese has tried just about everything to shoo the birds away.
First, the Police Department bought a small cannon and fired off boom after boom. All that did was chase the birds a few blocks down the street. Chief James Hummert next tried firecrackers. The starlings barely winced.
On their own, residents have tried setting out balloons painted to look like predators or clapping pieces of lumber together to make noise. Town officials won't let them hunt the starlings, for fear that Breese soon would be bristling with guns. Instead, locals throw rocks at the birds or shine bright lights in the trees where they roost.
Still, the starlings come.
In desperation, several local farmers recently paid the U.S. Department of Agriculture to spread poison where the birds feed. The result: Thousands of dead birds dropped from the sky over Breese, thudding to the ground in such numbers that one man thought for sure the town (population 4,020) was under biological assault.
One elderly woman picked up 117 pounds of dead starlings in her yard , Hummert said. Others reported shoveling dozens of carcasses into the trash.
Yet for all the carnage, the poison "didn't put a dent" in the starling infestation, Hummert said. "Not even the slightest dent."
Starling invasions actually are nothing new to Breese. Huge flocks of the birds pass through every winter as they migrate south along the Mississippi River. Usually, the birds continue farther south, looking for a warm factory smokestack or a steamy power plant to use as a winter roost.
This year, however, the balmy weather apparently has persuaded the birds to tarry here. And they have found the town quite hospitable -- the odd cannon blasts aside. The high-protein cattle feed set out at dairy farms all around Breese makes for a perfect starling buffet. The birds gorge themselves during the day, then return to town to roost in trees, huddling in clusters for extra warmth.
Other towns along the migration route, from central Illinois on south, also have reported starling woes this winter, said Kirk Gustad, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's wildlife services office in Springfield, Ill. "It's a significant problem all around the state," he said. "There can be anywhere from a thousand birds in a flock to a couple million."
No one's counted the birds in Breese. All they know is, there are way too many.
The other day, Jim Dumstorff filled the bird feeder at his cabin a few miles north of town. Within a half-hour, the feeder was invisible under a swaying ball of starlings.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.