'The Birds' Are Back in Memphis

For the third time in four years, a large blackbird roost - this one with more birds than Memphis has people - is creating a potential hazard to aviation at Memphis International Airport.

At the request of airport officials, the owners of a tract at Holmes and Getwell last week began cutting the tops off trees in which the birds have been roosting, said Norman C. La Chapelle, environmental health administrator for the Health Department.

The land, located about two miles southeast of airport runways, is owned by Auto Dealers Exchange, La Chapelle said.

The number of birds roosting at the site is estimated at between 750,000 and 1 million, said Gail Keirn, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's wildlife services.

Flying en masse, especially in the morning, the birds have veered close to commercial flight paths, said Walter White, director of operations and public safety for the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority.

"They're close enough in the vicinity to cause us some concern," he said.

White said birds can pose a threat to aviation by becoming "ingested," or sucked into jet engines, or by striking aircraft.

"We haven't had any accidents, but we have had incidents where we've had bird strikes. That's why we monitor it so closely," he said.

In addition to the aviation hazard, blackbirds can endanger human health when they congregate in a roost long enough. After a period of years, their droppings can stimulate growth of a fungus causing histoplasmosis, a lung infection.

La Chapelle said the Holmes and Getwell site could become a public health threat if the roost isn't eliminated.

Blackbird roosts have been a recurring problem in the airport area and other parts of Whitehaven for years. In 2005, owners of a tract at Holmes and Tchulahoma conducted similar habitat reduction work to eliminate a roost, and late last year, officials ordered another removal project near Millbranch and Shelby Drive.

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