FREDERICK -- The ominous first wave of reconnaissance troops swoops into trees as dusk falls, followed in short order by the entire winged invasion force.
In surreal scenes reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds," thousands of starlings and crows besiege downtown Frederick squealing, squawking, fluttering and pelting hapless pedestrians and parked cars with missiles that splatter upon impact.
But here comes the cavalry! The mayor loads his noise gun. City trucks -- armed with loudspeakers shrieking bird distress calls -- patrol the streets. Oh, it's not a pretty sight. But this is warfare -- the annual battle to rid this city's downtown of its feathered intruders who, if truth be told, are merely searching for a warm place to sleep.
"Hundreds and thousands of them will be moving in," says Mayor James S. Grimes, bounding down the stairs of City Hall last week to take up arms. "The sky will just be black."
As he scurries to his burgundy Ford Explorer, which is wisely not parked under a tree, waves of blackbirds darken the gray sky. The mayor reaches into the back seat and pulls out the noise gun, so small it fits easily into his palm. He loads, aims into a tall American Linden tree
and fires two cartridges -- one explodes with the startling bang of a cherry bomb, the other twists and whistles like Independence Day fireworks.
Frenzied starlings scatter from branches, while the more patient, calculating crows circle out of range still scouting for safe landing zones.
The mayor's blasts are tame compared to the rest of the city's arsenal. Its primary defenses are one jeep and two pickup trucks, sweeping east to west through the city as they blare starling and crow distress tapes -- a sweep intended to move the flocks back to the countryside.
"The tapes generally tell them -- in their own language -- to get out of town," says Fred Eisenhart, director of public works, in the calm, assured voice of a general leading the attack. "They know they're not welcome in the city of Frederick."
Residents put up with the taped screeching because it worked last year, when city officials for the first time formally declared war on birds.
Starlings and crows in smaller numbers began roosting in downtown Frederick five or six years ago -- from about Thanksgiving to mid-January. But last year they flocked in by the thousands, prompting the city to call in a veteran of the wildlife wars: Les Terry, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's animal damage control program.
"We specialize in problems with nuisance wildlife," Mr. Terry declares. "If it has fur or feathers, we may be able to lend a hand."
Din gets it done
Mr. Terry served in what might be called the Great War of the 1970s, the battle with as many as 10 million starlings, grackles and other birds in the Frederick County hamlet of Graceham -- 14 miles due north of downtown Frederick, as the crow flies.
Waged five miles from Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains, that battle earned national attention. A U.S. naval officer even suggested that ultrasonic waves emanating from the "underground Pentagon" near Camp David attracted the birds. What was attracting them, a dense 60-acre white-pine forest, eventually was thinned so severely that the birds fluttered off in retreat.
Their descendants probably populate Frederick today -- as well as other Maryland municipalities that have suffered intermittent invasions by varieties of black birds. These areas include Hagerstown, Rockville and even the Pimlico area of Baltimore.
Mr. Terry says the birds seek warm, sheltered places to spend the night. When their country roosts are disturbed, perhaps by development, they move.
A protected place such as downtown Frederick is appealing -- with its quiet streets lined with oaks, maples, evergreens and Bradford pears.
After feeding in farmers' fields all day, they flock in at dusk, settle shoulder to shoulder on branches, tuck head under wing and snooze until first light. "It's just a bedroom community for them," Mr. Terry says.
Creating a flap
The time to hit them with a consistent, organized harassment program is before they settle in, he says. Weapons include the bird distress calls, noise guns, strobe lights, even residents clapping two-by-fours or banging pots and pans -- all designed to unsettle, not harm, wildlife.
"The more you can throw at them, the better off you'll be," Mr. Terry says. "You're trying to make it so uncomfortable as the birds are trying to settle down that they'll want to pack up and leave in the next couple of days."
In Frederick, that organized program drove most birds out of the city last year in less than a month, says Mr. Eisenhart, the public works director. This year, the campaign began the beginning of December and already has birds on the wing.
But they're not gone yet. Just look at the 1983 Honda Accord parked under a Bradford pear tree on West Church Street. The car was red.
"Now it's red and white," says Elmer "E. J." Jarvis, a 27-year-old cook in a downtown restaurant. "I shouldn't have parked under that tree. I knew it was a bad idea.
"But I was late, and it was the only space I could find. And I was cheap. I parked for a quarter, when I should have spent a dollar and parked in the deck across the street."
Now it will cost him at least $5.50 to have his car cleaned at the nearby Rosemont Car Wash.
"So far today we've had 20 cars through because of the birds," says Connie Seward, the car-wash cashier at 2 p.m. the next day.
"One woman said she'd had her car washed yesterday, but was back this morning because she parked under a tree downtown."
Outside the Frederick School of Classical Ballet on East Patrick Street, the girls in their black leotards dodge droppings from the bird-infested tree at the entrance. Cindy Nath, who lives in Brunswick, drives her daughters -- Kiara, 9, and Allana, 4, -- here for lessons four evenings a week.
"I bring a different philosophy to this," says Ms. Nath, who runs a youth employment program in Leesburg, Va. "We live on the Earth, and we have to share it with other creatures. If we're going to destroy their habitat, they've got to go somewhere."
She makes two concessions to the birds. She tries not to park under trees. And she tells her daughters not to run when they leave the studio; they might slip on the slick droppings on the sidewalk and fall.
But the droppings get Terry Maykowski. The 41-year-old insurance salesman rounds the corner from West Church Street onto Market Street, wiping the splattered left arm of his Daytona International Speedway jacket.
He was just going to the bank, he says. Oh yes, he's been victimized before. He shrugs and sighs: "It's just a way of life in downtown Frederick."