IN PICTURES: Magical but messy Rome scares off its starlings

As the sun sets over central Rome, five figures in white overalls move under the trees. They wave speakers emitting a mix of sharp cries, and the birds rise into the air.

A murmuration of starlings over central Rome
A murmuration of starlings is seen over pine trees and the equestrian statue of King Vittorio Emanuele II as night falls over Piazza Venezia in central Rome. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

Every winter, the skies over Italy’s capital are filled with the mesmerising sight of thousands of starlings swooping and diving in unison.

But when they stop to rest on the trees, their droppings coat the pavements and cars below — prompting the city authorities, every year, to try to scare them away.

“We act on their fear reflex by using their own alarm call,” said Marianna Di Santo, clad head-to-toe in white protective clothing and heading towards the birds gathered in trees around Termini central train station.

“It’s as if they were warning each other that this is a dangerous place and they should move away,” said Di Santo, whose company, Fauna Urbis, is hired by the Rome authorities to disperse the starlings.

Members of the association Fauna Urbis carry out a wintering starlings removal operation on January 14th, 2022 at Piazza dei Cinquecento by the Termini railway station in downtown Rome, as part of the the capital’s removal programme, which is coordinated by the department of the environment. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

Up to one million
Between October and February every year, millions of starlings migrate from northern Europe to Italy in search of warmer temperatures for the winter.

Their synchronised ballets — murmurations — over the Eternal City’s centuries-old churches, palaces and ruins entrances passers-by.

“I’ve never seen such a thing in my life. It’s spectacular,” said Spanish tourist Eva Osuna, taking out her phone to capture the magic.

The glossy dark-feathered birds, which measure up to 20 centimetres each, spend the day feeding in rural areas before heading back into town to sleep, explains ornithologist Francesca Manzia from Italy’s League for Bird Protection (LIPU).

“In the city, the temperatures are higher and the light helps them find their way around, and protects them from predators,” she told AFP.

Starlings fly over the Altare della Patria monument in Rome. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

Warmer temperatures in northern European caused by climate change have shortened the starlings’ stay in Italy, but their sheer numbers make them a force to be reckoned with.

Between 500,000 and one million are believed to be in Rome this year, according to one expert.

Naturally “gregarious”, according to Manzia, they stick together at night, creating collective dormitories in the trees.

She insisted the starlings “do not carry diseases” but pose problems “because of their droppings, which make the roads slippery and smell very strong”.

In their nature
Such is the problem that, even on a clear day, it is not uncommon to see Romans walking along tree-lined streets with umbrellas as protection against the birds.

City authorities use sounds and also lights not to chase the birds out of the city, but to split them up into smaller, more manageable groups.

Members of Fauna Urbis hold speakers, which emit a mix of sharp cries, to encourage the birds to rise into the air. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

Sounds are “the most simple and effective” way of moving the birds on, said Valentina de Tommaso from Fauna Urbis.

She works two or three times a week near Termini, which — with its lights and shelter from the wind — is a “comfortable” place for the birds to rest.

“We play recordings for about 10 minutes, with breaks in between so they do not get used to the noise” — a tactic that aims to be annoying but harmless, she said.

A murmuration of starlings as night falls over the Ancient Forum in Rome. (Photo by VINCENZO PINTO / AFP)

The piercing noise draws a small crowd, some of them approving, others less so.

“They pose lots of problems. Walking around under flocks of starlings is not really ideal,” said Francesco Fusco, a 55-year-old engineer.

“They are magnificent,” counters 16-year-old Alessio Reiti, saying he does not understand why they need to be scared away.

 “It’s in their nature. We are not going to make them wear nappies!” he said, laughing.

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‘I love Italy’: Jason Momoa apologises over Sistine Chapel photos

US actor Jason Momoa apologised after fans reacted angrily to him taking snaps in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel despite a strict photography ban.

'I love Italy': Jason Momoa apologises over Sistine Chapel photos

Anyone who has visited the Sistine Chapel will recall the firm and repeated warnings from security staff: “no photos, please”.

But there has been an outcry in Italy and beyond after ‘Aquaman’ star Jason Momoa apparently paid to be allowed to disregard this rule on a recent visit to the Vatican City with friends.

Momoa. 42, is currently in Rome shooting ‘Fast X’, the 10th installment in the ‘Fast & Furious’ film saga.

He posted snaps and videos of himself on May 9th posing below the famous frescoes painted by Michelangelo with friends and what appear to be Vatican Museums staff.

But disgruntled fans quickly pointed out in the comments that visitors are typically forbidden from taking photos or videos in the chapel.
“We can’t take pics but celebrities can, nothing against Jason (I adore him) but it’s not fair,” one person wrote.

“All I remember about that place was ‘no photos please’,” another person wrote.

Others took issue with a video showing him reaching over a rope barrier to touch a sculpture. 

“I cringed when he rubbed his hands on the art … not cool, dude,” one person commented.

On Saturday, Momoa posted another video in which he apologised for causing offence.
“If you ever thought I disrespected your culture, that wasn’t my intention,” he said in the video, in which he appears shirtless in the gym apparently following a workout.
He said he had given the chapel “a wonderful donation to bring my friends and crew because we only had a couple days off to go experience these places.”

“I would never want to do anything to disrespect someone’s culture,” he added.

“So if I did, I apologise and it wasn’t my intention. And I definitely paid to have that private moment and gave a nice donation to the church.”

The Sistine Chapel and the rest of the Vatican Museums complex is currently open to visitors as normal, following closures and limitations on visitor numbers amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Regular online tickets cost €17 (around $21) via the official Vatican website. It is also possible to book a two-hour private tour of the Vatican Museums for €78 per person – though the booking website doesn’t mention any exceptions to the photography ban in the Sistine Chapel.