by James Rada, Jr.
In November of 1973, flocks of blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds, and starlings discovered the 60-acre white pine forest owned by Edgar Emrich of Graceham. Emrich had no trouble sharing his trees with the birds.
There were thousands of trees that he had originally planned to sell as Christmas trees when he had planted them in 1957. He hadn’t, and the tree farm had turned into a forest.
“I remember we’d go outside and make a game of trying to dodge the droppings,” Mrs. Austin Young told the New York Times about the birds. “Of course, there were only thousands of them then.”
As the months passed, more and more birds decided to call Graceham home, and by March 1974, an estimated ten million birds had migrated there. Graceham was becoming known as Bird Land.
“Their problem apparently stems from a quirk in the migratory patterns of the birds. They flew south from their warmer-weather homes in New England and southern Canada, but something about Graceham suited them perfectly—Mr. Emrich’s pine trees or perhaps the rolling acres of fields nearby—and they settled in,” the New York Times reported.
And the birds were causing problems. Dead birds abounded, droppings could be measured in inches, and the whole area had a foul odor. Residents had trouble sleeping because of all the chirping and shrieking from the birds at night. “Their flappingly thunderous comings and goings are frightening the children, unsettling the dogs, and scaring the cows,” according to the New York Times.
“Our dog, Herman, shakes when they fly by,” Clare Myers told a reporter. “They go into his dog house, chase him out and eat his food. We need help to stop this or otherwise we’re going to turn into the world’s biggest bird cage.”
The birds ate the chicken and cattle feed before the animals it was meant for could get to it, and they even got into fights with cats and dogs. The birds also affected the local flora and fauna.
“Now, virtually every tree is dead or dying. The droppings, at least three inches thick after the last five months, have deadened the trees’ roots,” the Abilene Reporter noted.
Dr. Kenneth Crawford, a veterinarian with the Maryland Department of Health said, “No robins, no pheasants, no rabbits—no wildlife of any kind is left in the grove. Those birds chased everything else away.”
More importantly, the millions of birds represented a possible health hazard for the four hundred residents of the town. The excessive droppings could cause histoplasmosis, a fungal disease that occurs in the soil where there is a large amount of bird or bat droppings.
Dr. Charles Spicknall, Frederick County chief public health officer “toured the bird roosting area at sunset just as the flock of an estimated several million blackbirds, starlings, and grackles soared and swooped in from daytime feeding grounds up to fifty miles from the little hamlet of Graceham,” the Frederick Post reported.
The town held a meeting in Graceham Moravian Church to discuss what to do about the birds. Poison was suggested, and Emrich even volunteered to dig a mass grave for the bodies.
Ornithologists said that birds would head north again during the spring and summer, but they also said they would probably return in the fall.
Graceham wasn’t the only town experiencing problems with large numbers of birds. Hopkinsville, Kentucky; Albany, New York; Frankfort, Kentucky; and New York City were all having problems to one degree or another.
However, Graceham had another problem besides millions of birds, and that was dozens of media. Reporters, photographers, and the wire services were all driving to Graceham to report on the invasion of birds, and their cars and trucks blocked the roads in the small town. Graceham was written about in newspapers all over the country.
A county meeting held on March 20 laid out a three-phase plan for getting rid of the birds. Phase 1 would use loud noises and explosive devices to scare the birds away. Phase 2 involved thinning out the pine grove to make it less attractive to the birds. Phase 3 was to develop a long-range program to ensure the birds didn’t come back. Poison was once again mentioned, but only as a last resort.
Frederick County Commissioner Don Lewis said, “I’ll not be a part to the mass killing of birds. We don’t want to create a slaughter ground in Graceham.”
Phase 1 was put into play the next evening. It began around 5:30 p.m., with shotgun blasts and explosive devices sounding off around the perimeter of the pine grove. Loud recordings of bird distress calls and high-frequency sounds played in the grove. Around 7:30 p.m., it appeared that the birds were being discouraged and flying off elsewhere. “Within twenty minutes, the tide shifted as the birds caught Crawford short of firepower on the southeastern perimeter and larger numbers of them began flying through the break,” the Cumberland News reported.
Not to be discouraged, Phase 1 continued for five days. Crawford reported a 90 percent success rate, although residents were skeptical.
“We’ve won the battle but not the war,” Crawford said. “We won’t win the war until we eliminate the unbelievably dense forest that’s there.”
For Phase 2, every third row of trees in the pine grove was removed.
By the end of April, the birds were gone, though whether it was the natural time to leave or they had been driven off by the noise was unknown.
Unfortunately, the birds returned again in October.
Emrich said, “The birds are returning to my trees in increasingly large flocks. We don’t have the big, long streams we had last winter but they’re increasing. They started coming back about two months ago, and it looks like they’re young birds who were born here last winter.”
Luckily, they did not return in the millions, and fewer returned each season as the migratory patterns returned to normal.
This shot from Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds, typified how Graceham looked in 1973.