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Smelly speckles and icky icicles show up beyond Snyder as fingers point at birds

Two days after a group of Snyder residents complained about brown and yellow icicles that smelled like human waste, health officials believe that the mystery substance did, in fact, fall from the sky.

It just wasn't from an airplane.

The suspected culprit? A large flock of fruit-eating birds.

That's what a lab director for the Erie County Health Department surmised after hearing about complaints and analyzing observations by inspectors.

After the initial Snyder reports, more than a dozen residents from Niagara County to the Southtowns contacted The Buffalo News with stories of dark-colored icicles dangling from their gutters, smelly speckles smeared on shingles and -- to make a rather unpleasant doormat -- sheets of thawing, bright yellow ice outside their front doors.

Health officials say they also have received a handful of complaints that weren't similar enough to warrant individual inspection. They also say that it doesn't appear the substances are coming from a single source.

But in the Snyder case, a simple inspection pointed to a common thread.

"We feel at least one component, maybe the only one certainly has to do with these flocks of birds," said Scott J. Zimmerman, lab director at the Health Department. "During our walk-through of the neighborhood on back-to-back days, [we] observed roosting starlings in nearby trees and on the roofs of some of the homes.

The flocks of birds, Zimmerman said, were eating berries from bushes along the perimeter of a park between Washington Highway and the aptly named Berryman Drive. The dark blue and black color of the berries matched the droppings on some area homes.

A state Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman said his office won't investigate, since the county determined that the substance wasn't chemical.

The tests from the suspected dung were "completely inconclusive," Zimmerman said, so those residents will have to handle the cleanup on their own.

The other cases -- involving residents from Orchard Park, Lancaster, Amherst, Hamburg, Lackawanna, Grand Island and Pendleton -- vary slightly, as does each homeowner's theory for the unusual ice.

"[My father] has two black walnut trees right near the house," said Sue Stark, whose parents' Grand Island home is the only one on their block with large, dark icicles. "You can't get the stain out, which is like a brown-black stain. That could be what it's from."

Stark said the color of the icicles lightened in recent days, possibly because the walnut dye has finished dripping.

"I've never seen anything like it, and I didn't see anything like it up until January," Pendleton resident Joseph D. Morath Jr. said of the brown icicles that line two of his four gutters and the fluorescent-yellow ice on his porch railings. "It's real nasty, actually."

Morath said he has a roughly 100-acre area behind his house where there are "lots of birds." But he said he doesn't necessarily believe that they're to blame.

"There would have to be a drastic change in the birds and their diet or something," he said. "If I had to pick between one of those, I would think it would be leaves before birds, because it couldn't be that many birds, and it wouldn't land in gutters and not on the roof."

That was the case for Orchard Park resident Sandy Elliott, who was appalled in November at the large, brown icicles dangling from her garage. Upon further inspection, her husband found a less mysterious cause.

"When it rained and froze, the rain washed the leaf color right onto the garage door, ice and everything," she said.

Zimmerman said health officials weren't surprised at the calls received from concerned community members.

"When there's a report around some event like this that's an unknown, there's a lot of attention that's drawn to this, and we've often seen that in the community, others feel that the same thing has happened to their house," he said. "When we go out and investigate, a lot of times, event A is often very different than event B, and so what people interpret is variable."

But has the Health Department ever received so many complaints about "mystery ice?"

"Not to this scale," Zimmerman said.

e-mail: cspecht@buffnews.com

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