From The Vault: Shotgun firing squad kills thousands of nuisance birds Downtown

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CINCINNATI – Six men carrying shotguns, barrels pointed skyward, walked along the sidewalk on Walnut Street and entered the front door of a popular downtown hotel.

Imagine the panic that would create today. Not in 1960, though. When a WCPO photographer filmed that scene, a few heads turned, but it was little more than a curiosity.

WATCH a clip from the 1960 video in the player above.

Even when the men walked out on the roof of the Sheraton Gibson and started shooting into the air,  there was no alarm from the people below. It was another matter among the starlings scattering to get away from the loud blasts and the buckshot.

The gunmen were part of a volunteer firing squad recruited by the city to help get rid of an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 of the nuisance birds that had swarmed Downtown and hung out in flocks of thousands.

Picture the final scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

The starling squad started with six shooters and grew to 128, lawyer Jack Wood II said in a 1975 Enquirer article. They shot from several downtown buildings as well as from the street.

“We used our own guns, bought our own ammunition, and it didn’t cost the city a penny,” Wood said.

Shooters bagged about 26,000 birds from 1961 to 1964, according to the Enquirer. Downed birds were collected by jailhouse volunteers carrying gunny sacks and then incinerated.

The city tried to make it was safe as possible. Shooters had to obey 14 safety rules.

No one was injured and, according to Wood, there was no damage to property, though that seems hard to believe.

“The shooting Downtown wasn’t easy, but we didn’t even break a pane of glass,” Wood said. 

Cincinnati wasn’t the only city to shoot starlings. It went on across the country in the early and mid 20th century.

Unwittingly, the little birds with purple and green iridescent plumage were brought into the U.S. from England in 1891 by a Shakespeare fan whose goal was to introduce all the birds from Shakespeare’s plays into America. He released 60 birds in Central Park and the birds quickly made themselves pests with their droppings and constant screeching.

Many Tri-Staters who went to outdoor band concerts in Lytle Park held umbrellas or newspapers over their heads, according to the Enquirer.

Starlings even caused a U.S. airliner to crash, according to the New York Times. In 1960 a Lockheed Electra plummeted seconds after taking off from Logan Airport in Boston, killing 62 people. Some 10,000 starlings had flown straight into the plane, crippling its engines.

Starlings are hearty and aggressive and displace other birds from their nesting grounds, according to a Smithsonian web page. They carry avian, animal and human diseases. Roosting in hordes of up to a million, starlings can devour vast stores of seed and fruit, offsetting whatever benefit they confer by eating insects. And they aren’t easy to scare away or kill.

As early as 1914, residents of Hartford, Connecticut,  tried to scare the birds away from their nests by fastening teddy bears to trees and firing rockets through the branches, according to the Smithsonian. The White House filled speakers with owl calls. Columns around the U.S. Capitol were outfitted with electrified wires.  

For decades afterward, cities and towns tried loud noise and fake owls to scare the starlings and trap boxes and poisonous gas clouds to kill them. From 1964 to 1967 nine million starlings were poisoned in California's Solano County in an effort to protect feed lots.

Guns were usually a last resort. Cincinnati City Council gave the OK for city-controlled starling shooting in 1954. There were occasional shoots until 1961. On one day, shooters killed 3,500 birds. Another day, it was 1,000.

In 1961, City Manager C. A. Harrell came up with an army of volunteers intent on getting rid of them once and for all.

"My brother, Frank Wood Jr., started the program,” Wood told The Enquirer.

Initially, the firing squad mainly shot from rooftops, then they learned they’d have more success if some shooters fired up from the ground. That frightened the starlings out of their nests and off window ledges, Wood said.

“We didn’t score very well until we went to the streets,” Wood said.  “They were patrolled very well for the occasions. Shooting up into clusters and at birds on the wing, we brought them down in clusters.”

Onlookers cheered when birds fell from the sky, the Enquirer reported.

There hasn’t been a starling shoot Downtown in more than 50 years. Meanwhile, the starling population in North America has continued to grow to an estimated 200 million, according to the Smithsonian.

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