SIKESTON, Mo. -- Sikeston is preparing for the annual arrival of millions of unwanted visitors.
Blackbirds are a problem in the region all year, but their numbers multiply in the fall, just before Thanksgiving. This year, Sikeston hopes to strike first. An informational meeting to organize blackbird control measures is scheduled for Nov. 15.
Robert Byrd, wildlife specialist for the Department of Agriculture, estimated that 6 million blackbirds showed up last year. He has been helping Southeast Missouri communities deal with the problem for the past five years.
"This isn't just a local problem, it's a regional problem," said Linda Lowes, director of governmental services for the city of Sikeston.
Byrd gets a lot of calls regarding other wildlife problems, but said blackbirds have the greatest economic impact. "They're eating newly-planted corn and rice in the spring," he said. "In August, September, October they're in headed rice fields by the millions."
According to a 2001 survey, more than $21 million in damage was caused to rice production by blackbirds nationwide.
Blackbirds roost in and around Sikeston in the winter. They're attracted by an abundance of trees and because municipalities like Sikeston are a bit warmer due to the presence of pavement.
"And they're used to coming here," Byrd said.
The problem is growing in other southeast Missouri towns, too. Byrd estimated that Malden had 100,000 blackbirds in 2003, and 5 million last year.
Huge flocks of blackbirds can create health concerns. The main disease concern is histoplasmosis, a fungal infection that usually affects the lungs. It can also affect other parts of the body in which case it is called disseminated histoplasmosis, and can be fatal.
The histoplasmosis fungus lives in soils -- particularly soil with lots of bird or bat droppings. Byrd said there is no current concern the birds could bring the bird flu.
The city will again use four noise cannons to harass birds as they try to settle down at night. At the meeting next week, officials will provide residents with ideas for making enough noise to disturb the roosting blackbirds.
Habitat manipulation, which consists of trimming or in some cases even removing trees that blackbirds are particularly fond of, is also an effective way to discourage roosting, said Trey Hardy, coordinator of the city's blackbird control program.
Information from: Standard Democrat, http://www.standard-democrat.com