For some in the east Napa neighborhood of Alta Heights, daily life in recent weeks has taken a look unsettlingly like an Alfred Hitchcock film — the sight and racket of hundreds of pairs of flapping wings.
“It startled me, got me wondering ‘What are they doing?’” recalled Holley Nuckles of the sounds that greeted her one morning last week. “Right before dawn I heard them. It woke me up; it was like that Hitchcock movie.”
“It looks like a scary movie — never seen anything like it,” said Samaria Lopez of the hundreds of birds she says have clustered for more than a week, near sunrise and sunset, outside the Adventure Time Day Care Center where she and Nuckles teach.
Beaked attackers zeroing in on hapless humans? An ominous sign of disaster?
The more likely explanation is less “The Birds” come to life than local starlings and robins finding new roosts closer to humans than before, according to a local bird-watching guide who has also witnessed the dense flocks from his Alta Heights home.
The clustering — and caterwauling — of birds is part of their normal wintertime routine, but probably brought far closer to neighborhood homes this season by different tree havens closer to new foraging grounds, said Murray Berner, who leads weekly tours for the Napa-Solano Audubon Society.
“I’ve been here 45 years and they’ve never done this,” Berner said of this winter’s arrival of the birds; he has counted some 20,000 starlings and 5,000 robins. “In the hills and mountains there’s thousands of birds every winter. This is something they do, but now it’s in public view.”
Foraging on the berries of native madrone and toyon plants, the birds take nightly shelter in nearby live oak trees, according to Berner. He said the animals’ newfound visibility is likely a result of their discovery of new foraging grounds, and of live oaks closer to them.
“The proximity of food sources and excellent roosts in Alta Heights is the perfect combination for them,” he said.
On Thursday, several people living or working in Alta Heights said they first noticed the birds becoming louder and more numerous late last week, as a cold front sent overnight temperatures sliding into the 20s.
“All over here, back there, crisscrossing with no rhyme or reason,” Peg Kewell, head teacher at Adventure Time, said of the flocking she and others have seen when they arrive for work starting at 6:45 a.m. She pointed to a grove of trees above a chain-link fence bordering Alta Heights Magnet School, on whose grounds the day care building is located.
“Now it seems every morning it’s the same thing, then the same thing again at 4:30,” Kewell said. “You get creeped out. There’s so many of them, it’s chaotic. It’s like they’re there and suddenly they’re not — in the trees for two seconds and then they’re gone.”
Berner said the flocking began about a week earlier, at the start of a one-month period when the winged creatures must feed enough to sustain their migratory flights to Oregon, Washington or British Columbia. Robins and starlings are expected to begin leaving Napa and Northern California in about two weeks.
“They would be calm if not for things like car doors slamming or motorcycles going up the street,” he said. “Any loud noise at night will startle the birds; they fly and hit power lines and obstacles they aren’t ready for. Even talking loudly in the street can arouse them.
“It’s not the birds becoming wilder, but simply more visible to Napans,” Berner concluded.
“It’s always happening,” he said, “but this time, it’s happening in their neighborhood.”