The Great Starling War of the 20th Century

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In the mid-20th century, county commissioners waged a decades-long war against European starlings in the Delaware County Courthouse. Every fall and winter, birds descended on the courthouse square at night to roost in their thousands. Come morning, the courthouse, the surrounding plaza, and all of the hapless vehicles parked along the surrounding streets were covered in poop, sometimes several inches deep. The commissioners tried everything, but ultimately lost the war.

The enemy is coming

Like the dandelion and the emerald ash borer, the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), as its name suggests, is not native to North America. Acclimatization societies introduced the birds here in the 1870s. Such societies existed to introduce European plants and animals to the United States for, in retrospect, incredibly stupid reasons. Hundreds of starlings were released in the United States in 1890. The birds became invasive, damaging native crops and ecosystems.

Starlings first appeared locally in 1934. The Muncie Star reported that “several farmers have asked for the identity of a short-tailed black bird, with inconspicuous white spots, which appears in Delaware County in small groups. The bird is the English starling, imported for pest control.

Thousands of starlings fly over the Old Delaware County Courthouse in November 1957.

At the end of the Depression, flocks of starlings roosted across Muncie, covering the uptown neighborhood with thick guano. The birds escalated into war on December 14, 1939 when “a large starling flew into the circuit court the other day during a jury trial and hovered hither and thither around the hall to the amusement of the onlookers”.

Thousands of his fellow starlings were roosting just outside. The commissioners hired Bert Lewis, a local exterminator, to hunt the birds. Each night as they came to roost, Lewis fired Roman candles into the trees and against the front of the courthouse, scattering the spotted devils here and there. It worked, sort of. The birds did indeed leave the square, but simply gathered elsewhere in the city center.

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Starlings swarmed Muncie that winter. The situation was so out of control that firefighters from fire station No. 1 pulled them out of the trees. A firefighter later told a reporter, “It was a Saturday night I will never forget. We had 345 birds per count…they left the sycamore wide after that.

The Delaware County Courthouse clock tower in the early 1960s.

In early 1940, the starlings deploy a tactic usually reserved for malevolent deities: bending time. The courthouse tower clock began to chime erratically and displayed the wrong time randomly in January. The starlings wreaked havoc with the clock weights as they perched, while their sticky poo jammed the gears. A Munsonian by the name of JS McCracken climbed the tower and stared at the clock, but the birds returned. The commissioners finally sealed the tower openings with a screen.

Battle for the courthouse square

The starlings mostly dissipated in 1950, but returned en masse in the fall of 1952. An elder who usually visited the square told the Star in mid-November that “they are thicker on the trees than the leaves in summer”. Resigned to the inevitable campaign, the commissioners reluctantly ordered 500 Roman candles for the battle.

In December, the three commissioners pooped upon entering the courthouse. On December 2, an enraged Delaware County Board of Commissioners declared war on the starlings and enlisted Sheriff Wilber “Pete” Anthony as field commander.

A hawk chicken, captured and nicknamed Hawkshaw, is enlisted in the battle against the starlings in 1952.

Anthony’s first strategy was a bit of cornpone falconry. On December 15, a chicken hawk, clearly sent by Mars, the god of war, crashed through a courthouse window into the auditor’s office. A guardian captured the falcon after a “brief battle”. Sheriff Anthony named it Hawkshaw and put it into service. The sheriff, hold on tight, tied a piece of “sturdy string” to the hawk’s leg and started tossing it into the trees of the courthouse to, I don’t know, scare away the starlings? An angry Hawkshaw just flew to the ground. Anthony tried several more times, but stopped when the hawk “tried to kick me with his left foot”. The first skirmish “ended in a defeat for the forces of order”.

The fireworks arrived a week before Christmas and with them Anthony launched (I’m not making this up) “Operation Bird” at 4pm sharp on Thursday 18th December. The sheriff renamed his deputies “Anthony’s Raiders” and placed them strategically around the plaza and in the open windows of the second-story courthouse. The sheriff has taken a command position in the tower.

Sheriff Anthony (right) passes Roman candles to one of his

Around 4:10 a.m., flocks of starlings began descending on the Delaware County Justice Seat, obscuring the setting sun. The sheriff shouted from above, “It’s war, men!” Give them everything you have. It’s them or us and I don’t have many clean clothes left. Anthony’s Raiders sparked a Roman candle blitz. An embedded Star reporter wrote, “Balls of fire from the candles raced through the trees and over the courthouse,” raining down sparkling terror on the starlings. The crackle and boom echoed throughout downtown, accompanied surrealistically by screeching birds and Christmas carols emanating from Walnut Street. The starlings dispersed after half an hour of fighting. A confident sheriff proclaimed, “You could have walked across the yard bareheaded.” But the birds had just retreated strategically. The refuge found with holiday shoppers in Walnut.

Monday Night Massacre

The Starlings returned to the courthouse every night in the mid-1950s, despite repeated blockades from Anthony a la Patton. Commissioners have tried and tested everything from electrified nooks and felling trees to exploding acetylene, spreading poison, scattering cyanide gas, blasting sound cannons and shooting blanks. . Nothing worked. The starlings always came back.

Running out of options in 1957, the commissioners tasked Delaware County Conservation Officer J. A. Planck with ending the starling menace with a shotgun brigade. Shortly after 9 p.m. on Monday November 25, two dozen men began firing shots into the trees in the courthouse square. About 1,500 starlings fell dead. Still resilient, feathered survivors huddled at Federal Park and old Muncie Central.

Such schemes continued every year, but ultimately solved nothing. The county paid thousands of dollars a year to clean up this dirty mess. The commissioners launched another extermination plan in 1962, but instead of setting off fireworks, they sprayed poison. The ground was no longer strewn with excrement in the morning, but with dead starlings.

End of an era

The courthouse was struggling in the mid-1960s. Not only was the structure partially dilapidated, but the space proved insufficient for the county’s expanding government. Munsonians complained as local editorials called for a new building.

The ornate, sometimes poo-covered, entrance to the Delaware County Courthouse in 1964.

But it was the starlings that sent the commissioners to the brink. They had strong support from angry residents demanding solutions. Dozens of opinion pieces appeared in local newspapers in the early 1960s denouncing the smelly, poop-covered courthouse. There was also an economic factor: the annual cost of cleaning the building was enormous and in some places the crust was literally too hard to shovel. To solve all the problems, the commissioners announced a new county building and the demolition of the old one in 1965.

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All these years I thought the ornate fine art 1886 courthouse had been torn down due to limited space, poor taste and crumbling sandstone. These certainly helped, but ultimately the catalyst for the courthouse’s destruction came from an unwinnable war with nature and a deep layer of shit.

The Delaware County Courthouse was demolished in 1966.

Chris Flook is a board member of the Delaware County Historical Society and is the author of “Lost Towns of Delaware County, Indiana” and “Native Americans of East-Central Indiana”. For more information about the Delaware County Historical Society, visit delawarecountyhistory.org.

Delaware County Historical Society
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