"onetwothreefourfive pigeons justlikethat"
-- e.e. cummings
On Sunday, Nov. 15, Paula Goldman was enjoying a family brunch at Patrick's at West Port, idly watching her nieces and nephews play around the plaza fountain. Through the big glass windows, she noticed a pigeon standing rigidly still, unresponsive to the prodding of curious children. Her 7-year-old niece ran in to say there was something wrong with the bird, please come. Just then a maintenance man appeared with a net and a long stick. Goodman rushed outside. "He said the pigeon was dying, and he was going to put it in the parking lot," she recalls. "Then I saw five or six birds fluttering into the windows. They would fly up into the air and just fall back down. Some were convulsing. Two young teenage girls had wrapped one of the pigeons in a towel to try to warm him, and they were crying. The head maintenance guy came up and said, 'Put the pigeons down, they are dying, we have poisoned them.'"
Stomach muscles involuntarily kneading her ample brunch, Goodman left the restaurant -- and came on more dead pigeons in the parking lot. "I saw corn-shaped pellets on the ground," she adds worriedly, and starts thinking aloud. "If that's what was poisoned, couldn't children and other animals get hold of it?"
Before leaving town, Goodman hotlined the incident to the St. Louis Animal Rights Team. But their vice president, Brenda Shoss, says West Port Plaza's property managers, Colliers Turley Martin Tucker, sounded a little ... squirrelly when asked about the pigeon drop. "At first, they acted like they didn't even know what we were talking about," says Shoss, who'd already learned that West Port was using the controversial pesticide Avitrol. "They acted like it never even happened."
By now, they probably wish it hadn't. Pigeons are Rodney Dangerfield birds, birds everybody loves to hate. They thrive in crowded cities; their droppings are acidic and messy; they've been tagged a health risk. Yet the minute somebody starts poisoning the pigeons, the public rises up to protest. It's like hiring a thug to machine-gun an annoying college roommate.
Pigeons have a far nobler provenance than the roommate, though. They're actually European rock doves, their lineage tracing straight back to the biblical symbol of love, peace and Holy Spirit. Believed to be the first domesticated animal, pigeons have carried everything from Noah's olive branch to word of the coronation of Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III. (Not to mention transporting life-saving medicines and messages during World War II, and performing spy missions with aerial cameras strapped to their plump breasts.) Over the centuries, they've grown progressively more comfortable with humans, eating our litter and baptizing our statues and turning the ledges of our skyscrapers into a modern version of a rocky-cliff habitat.
Darwin studied pigeons to formulate his evolutionary theory and came to love these birds so dearly he refused to dissect them ever again. Breeders fancy them and coop them eagerly. World religions borrow them to symbolize love, spirit and afterlife, and in folklore a pigeon's entrance means someone is about to die. (In modern cities, a human's entrance bodes the same for the birds.)
Watching a pigeon strut and bob his tiny head, you might think him stupid. But these birds are said to possess the symbolic-reasoning capacity of a grade-school child. (Pigeons in labs have not only learned the alphabet but have made the same kinds of mistakes kids make along the way.) When it comes to navigation, and some kinds of memory, pigeons outshine us by hundreds of watts. Kelly Swindle, president of the Tulsa-based Avitrol Corp., calls them "dumb as dirt." But even he admits "their behavior's intriguing."
Pigeons mate for life, feed their babies milk and welcome strangers into their flocks without suspicion. Sociable and adaptable, they bring life to our gray concrete cities, and their good-natured opportunism wards off depression in many an elderly parkgoer. Pigeons are urban survivors, their adaptability enhanced by centuries of selective breeding and release. Today, we call unowned pigeons feral and fear them as "rats with wings" or cockroaches-after-a-nuclear-war. After all, as nature writer David Quammen points out, they now fly faster, eat a more diverse diet, breed earlier and more abundantly, and "succeed at living at high population densities in close proximity to people who despise them.... They are genetically designed for survival in the severe urban landscapes of the late twentieth century."
In many ways, they've adapted better than we have.
Maybe we resent it.
The poison used at West Port Plaza is called Avitrol; to a scientist, it's 4-aminopyridine, originally developed by Phillips Petroleum Co. and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a "chemical scarecrow" to deter songbirds from damaging crops. As soon as the first few birds are intoxicated, they issue loud warning cries and the rest of the songbirds fly away.
"Songbirds," emphasizes Barry Kent Mac-Kay, a Canadian naturalist who directs international programs for the Animal Protection Institute of America. "In other words, it was developed for birds who have a physiological ability to utter a distress call. Pigeons don't. They cannot utter these loud alarm notes."
Dave Roth was so appalled by Avitrol's use on pigeons that he founded the Urban Wildlife Society in Phoenix, in 1989. "Pigeons don't scream," he enunciates deliberately. "They have no sound for pain. They just shudder and convulse until they burn their little hearts out."
That simple difference has escaped the Avitrol Corp. marketing materials for 28 years. Although pigeons have become one of their plumpest targets, providing roughly 50 percent of their business, Avitrol's fact sheets refer frequently and vaguely to "distress calls," and Avitrol spokesperson Eleanor Bodenhamer says the chemical "works to make them send out distress cries and makes them flap their wings and act like they're in danger."
Well, they're not crying, but they are in danger. "Avitrol causes a fairly dramatic death," observes Dr. Alex Bermudez, an avian-disease expert at the University of Missouri-Columbia College of Veterinary Medicine. "Systems are shutting down and the central nervous system is shooting off uncoordinated nerve signals." Swindle, of Avitrol, thinks "the way the product works is really kind of intriguing. The chemical causes the bird's brain wave to go flat." Oh. "It then causes impulses to go out to the motor system, causing muscle twitches that make the bird appear as though it is trying to communicate." That's the "distress cry."
Swindle calls it body language and insists his stuff's humane. He cites a 1979 study at the University of Ottawa, where pathologists fed White Carneaux pigeons Avitrol through a stomach tube (the birds wouldn't eat the poisoned corn chips) and concluded that, although Avitrol's effects were "visually repugnant," the convulsions were pain-free.
Avitrol Corp.'s fact sheet says most birds are "affected in a manner that will artificially cause them to emit distress and alarm cries." But if you're a pigeon, there's nothing artificial about seizures, regurgitation, disorientation, twitching, rigidity, loss of muscle coordination and cardiac arrest. And although a seizure may be technically pain-free, it's upsetting as hell, maybe more so for pigeons. Not only can't they scream, their acute sense of balance and orientation is
thrown into chaos. Pigeons are intensely tactile -- every feather attached to nerve and muscle -- and intensely orderly, upset by the slightest ruffle in their plumage. Veterinarian Karyn Bischoff, a toxicologist with the Oklahoma Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, says that "frequently the birds die from trauma due to the loss of muscle control."
Avitrol's makers are quick to note that, although "some mortality is inevitable," many birds recover. Activists such as Roth aren't rejoicing. "A lot of times it just scrambles their brains," he says from Phoenix, and the rescued birds squawking in the background add emphasis to his gentle voice. "With the seizure, their temperature goes way up and can cause brain damage."
In Canada, MacKay's seen consequences of even mild disorientation and loss of control. "The birds often get themselves into extremely compromising situations," he explains. "By the time they come out of it, they may be under the tire of a car or smashed into a window."
The West Port pigeon kill was well-intentioned, of course, and indirect: The property manager contracted with Massachusetts-based Ecolab Pest Elimination. Ecolab's safety manager, Chris Strand, says they've used Avitrol at West Port Plaza "on and off for about five years" and have quite a few other St. Louis clients, too. He recites the litany: Avitrol is not a poison but a "flight alarm" that gooses the flock onward.
If that's true, why was Avitrol banned in Britain as early as 1976? Why has San Francisco outlawed it; why is a New York senator trying to; why did the American Society for the Protection of Animals go to court to get it banned in New Jersey; why do vets and humane societies across the country oppose it?
In sum, because of the toxic and cruel way it works, and because it doesn't work in the long term. Year after year, people hire experts to poison away "pestbirds." If they overdo it, dead pigeons rain down on somebody's unsuspecting parade. Then Avitrol Corp. reassures the public that their product is just a deterrent, it's not supposed to work that way, and the flap dies down. Literally.
In this case, Marie Casey, who handles public relations for West Port Plaza, insists the chemical was a necessary last resort. "Avitrol is not supposed to be deadly," she points out. "It all depends on how much they ingest. If one would eat a whole lot, it would kill them."
Ah, but surely every pigeon heeds Aristotle's praise of moderation.
"It's very hard to track pigeons," Casey continues chattily, "because they don't try to. But they think the first flock left and another might have come in." So the Avitrol did work as a gentle alarm? And the newcomers just happened to stage a group suicide?
Finally, Casey says West Port Plaza was only trying to protect the health of their human guests (many of whom probably feed the pigeons from sidewalk tables and make the problem worse). Moved by her concern, we ask Strand at what point pigeon density becomes a human-health concern. "Pigeons become a problem when they are a problem to our customer," he replies cheerfully.
"In this particular case, we did put up two owls," he continues. "One had a head that moved with the wind." They tried some mesh screening, too, and put "sticky stuff" on ledges, but the pigeons' favorite roost was too steep. "The owls had been up for about a month when the decision was made to go with the Avitrol."
And just exactly how does Avitrol work? "It's mixed in with corn after a period of prebaiting, to get the birds used to it," says Strand. "They're suspicious of any change in their environment." As well they should be. What happens once they're fed the Avitrol mix? "A few will have a reaction similar to a seizure." Similar to? "It's basically a seizure," he admits. "That activity will frighten off the rest of the flock. Over time, they will gradually come back. But at least initially the flock will disperse."
About all those dead pigeons: "I think that was an exaggeration," Strand says firmly. "Maintenance people reported five." Five, total? Cross-examined, Goodman exclaims, "Oh gosh, no. I saw about seven in the fountain area, and hotel guests were saying they were seeing dead pigeons everywhere, and as we walked around the parking lot I saw another five, and my family saw several more when they went down to the lake area where the ducks are."
Ducks eat corn, too, and Avitrol will kill any vertebrate. But Ecolab says they placed the grain on a flat rooftop and gathered it up after the deed was done.
One hopes there wasn't any wind.
Avitrol's one of those acutely toxic chemicals that slid in under the wire, receiving the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's blessing before the pesticide laws were tightened. Now, Avitrol's being reviewed for re-registration. But for the time being, it's classified -- thanks to those original songbirds -- as a "flight alarm tool" and not an avicide. Which means that, even though powdered Avitrol is Class I, with most applications restricted to certified professionals, the company doesn't have to answer to public pressure for killing birds.
Walter Crawford, executive director of the World Bird Sanctuary out west at Tyson Research Center, says he's been waiting years for somebody to shine a public light on Avitrol, which has three local distributors and is used, he's guessing, at 20 or 30 area companies. At the request of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the sanctuary works with large local companies to control pigeon problems without toxic chemicals such as Avitrol. "It's important to protect the workers," says Crawford, "and common sense has to play a role. But you shouldn't have to mix these cocktails of death. A 'deterrent' with a 30 percent mortality rate? To me, that's a poison."
It's certainly a hazardous waste, which started us wondering what Ecolab does with it once the evil deed is done. "We dispose of it following the label directions," Strand answered carefully. And those are? "Well, let me see here. We do try to reuse whenever we can," he stalls. "Using it up is our preferred mode. If there was any left, we'd ... " Ah. He's found the label. "We'd take it to approved landfills."
Good thing. Because the manufacturer states plainly, "Avitrol is toxic to all vertebrate species that eat the chemical." Back in 1978, two human beings gulped some of the powder, believing it to be the aphrodisiac Spanish fly. Heroic measures saved their lives, and the University of Virginia Hospital issued an alert naming the "usual sequence of symptoms: hyperexcitability, salivation, tremors, muscle incoordination, convulsions, and cardiac or respiratory arrest."
Other animals may not lust after aphrodisiacs, but what if they snack on some stray corn? "The amount it takes to kill a pigeon will also kill a 25-pound dog," notes Roth. "We've seen case after case in apartment buildings, and almost invariably we will find one or two dead cats."
When Strand says "there's no secondary kill," what he means is that Avitrol is quickly metabolized in digestion. The flesh of a poisoned bird won't harm a cat, dog or raptor who eats it. But pigeons don't digest their food right away. They tuck it away in the crop, where it bulges the neck like a goiter, and it enters the stomach only gradually. "When a raptor eats a pigeon, he is not very dainty about it," notes MacKay. "He swallows the corn in their crop, too. I once picked up a gyrfalcon we knew was feeding on pigeons at the Toronto waterfront and, sure enough, that bird ended up dead. We found corn and pigeon feathers in its crop.
"Owls also swallow their prey whole," he continues, "and sparrows will eat baited corn. But how on earth would you prove in a court of law (that Avitrol caused their death)?"
Here in St. Louis, our downtown and riverfront host endangered peregrine falcons (who owe their comeback in part to pigeon sustenance). Crawford remembers "a female peregrine falcon seen feeding on a pigeon at ADM Growmore, where Avitrol is used as pigeon control. She became uncoordinated, fell over and couldn't fly." That time, the sanctuary's rehab team was able to save her. "But we get peregrines in quite often who've been dead for two or three days," adds Crawford, "with no sign of physical trauma." By then it's too late for a necropsy (to determine cause of death). People don't usually pay to have their cat or dog necropsied, either. So any poisoned-pigeon connections go undetected.
Meanwhile, pesticide users hype the dangers of pigeon poop to human health. Just to justify West Port Plaza's toxic shooing, Casey pronounces pigeons "known carriers of 50 or more human diseases and ectoparasites."
"Fifty?" echoes avian-disease expert Bermudez. "Well, maybe if you count all the different salmonellas. Pigeons carry at least three different organisms that are potential pathogens for humans. Balance that against the fact that there are many people who race pigeons and keep pigeon lofts and are still alive to tell about it. Nothing is without risk."
Risk increases, though, when age or illness compromises someone's immune system. How do we know when a population of "rats with feathers" has grown too dense for human safety? "Problematic density is probably more determined by people getting their possessions defaced," murmurs Bermudez. "I'm not terribly worried about pigeons."
Bermudez could be biased toward his winged patients, so we call Bill Kottkamp, a respected expert who supervised vector control for most of his 14 years at the St. Louis County Health Department. "We don't see pigeon-related-disease problems in the St. Louis region," he says. "I don't think they're seeing them anywhere in the Midwest. The only real problem is if fresh droppings are left on a sidewalk -- they can be slippery -- or if rehabbers find a roost with a dried buildup of droppings."
Next we call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, and ask whether they worry about pigeons as a public-health hazard. "We do have some concern about the indiscriminate killing of pigeons," replies Dr. Marshall Lyon at CDC's National Center for Infectious Diseases. "There are better ways." Next, he describes the disease links: As carriers of salmonella, "pigeons are like any other bird, including chickens." As carriers of another common bird germ, chlamydia, they mainly endanger pet-store owners and breeders, who -- like all sexually responsible adults -- should avoid unprotected contact with an infected bird. As for cryptococcosis, it's found mainly at elevated roost sites, where organic dust mixes with dried pigeon droppings.
That makes three. What about histoplasmosis, a surprisingly common illness that can be symptom-free, cause flulike symptoms or, in rare cases, do serious damage? Casey calls it "the most common pigeon-carried disease."
In point of fact, pigeons don't carry histoplasmosis. Their droppings simply enrich the soil where it already grows. "In St. Louis, histo is well-known, and it's in the soil, regardless of whether pigeons are around or not," says Lyon. Old, long-accumulated droppings do provide nutrients for histo, but fresh droppings on sidewalks and window sills present no risk at all, because the birds themselves are not infected.
Avitrol's Web site mentions histo prominently, says "the blame can be placed directly on the fungus-bearing droppings associated with infestations of pigeons," and cites national disease rates. But Lyon calls those rates "misleading and irrelevant, because histo's so ubiquitous. It's in the soil, regardless of whether pigeons are around or not, and it's especially prevalent in the middle third of the country." So would getting rid of pigeons make a difference? "Not in terms of histo," he chuckles. "If you've lived in St. Louis any length of time, you've probably had it already."
You'd think, after all the seizures and crashes and corpses and outcry, Avitrol would at least be a permanent solution. "When you reduce the number in a flock, you reduce the competition, and it makes the pigeons even more robust," explains Kent Robertson, executive director of the Humane Society of Missouri. "Avitrol is just going to kill a bunch of pigeons and draw more into the area." The original birds might be permanently scared off, but pigeons cover the continent, and they're always looking for a new piece of real estate.
Even some pest-management companies are seeking more permanent methods. Writing in Pest Control Today in March 1996, George Rambo said, "In some cases we resort to chemicals to reduce populations or move them out of an area. However, I see more and more management companies, as well as more and more government contracts, beginning to require longer-lasting solutions."
If you're protecting the spires of a Gothic cathedral, you might have to design an elaborate barrier system. But if you're starting from scratch, all you have to do is factor the inevitable pigeons into the design. "Pigeons are part of the environment the way cold weather is," remarks MacKay. "We build structures to expand in the cold, but we don't engineer with any thought to wildlife."
We probably never will. By definition, "wildlife" falls out of civilization's purview -- except as something to tame, evade or hunt. Senegalese poet Baba Dioum writes, "In the end, we conserve only what we love." And "pigeon lover" remains a ridiculous term.
We must settle for common sense. Eliminate attractions. Pigeons feed on trash: Contain it. They use the fine gravel on flat rooftops for grit: Avoid it. Get serious, the way New Orleans did, about forbidding people to feed pigeons in areas that are overrun. Block landing sites, make roosting sites inaccessible. Pigeon-proof.
"I know, I know, the customers don't want to pay; they want a quick solution," writes Rambo. "Bird-proofing is quick. Put it up and the birds are gone. And it is permanent. Maybe that is the problem -- no repeat customers," he muses. "Think of it this way. Build birds out, exclude them from their roost, and they have to go somewhere. And maybe you will get that call, too."
Strand says Ecolab tried pigeon-proofing West Port Plaza. But, in effect, they did the basics (trash removal, polite signs, a little bit of mesh, two owls for a month). According to Art Slater, an environmental-health expert who runs the pest-management department for the University of California-Berkeley, that's nowhere near enough. He took over 20 years ago, reduced campus pesticide use by 90-99 percent and increased control. But it took patience, money and creativity.
"We've had success with 14-inch balloons that have big eyes and a tail and wobble in the breeze," he reports solemnly. "We've had success with owls that move, or hawk and falcon models that move, if the resident pigeons are gone and the new fly-by pigeons see them. As for owls that stay motionless, I've got pictures of pigeons landing on them."
Speaking of landing, surfaces are crucial -- the rougher the better. When Berkeley resurfaced one of its buildings with a smoother glaze, the pigeons stopped landing on it. "Someone should study the coefficient for the friction of the landing surfaces," suggests Slater. "There's untapped potential there."
Other barriers include porcupine wire, Slinkys, fishnetting, dunce caps to prevent lighting fixtures from serving as a landing pad, concrete to turn ledges into slick ramps. Slater's not big on spikes, though. "They're ugly, and accumulate feathers and debris. I have a picture of a pigeon who filled the spikes with nesting material; she has the best-anchored nest in the world!"
As for the "sticky stuff" often used to keep birds off ledges, the Urban Wildlife Society says it's crueller than a sudden death. "They can get a big ball of the goo stuck in their throats," explains Roth, "or they can get it on their feathers, and it can prevent them from thermoregulating, so they freeze to death."
It's not clear whether that happened at West Port Plaza, but the corn Goodman saw on the ground shouldn't have been there, says Slater. "They might have overbaited. There shouldn't be any left." Strand says Ecolab used a 1-to-9 ratio and intended only to scare the birds off. But, according to Slater, "One grain to 10 is pretty much a lethal dose. Scaring doses are 1-to-26." Avitrol's own label suggests starting with 1-to-29 but allows a range all the way down to 1-to-9, noting that more concentrated doses bring quicker results -- and higher mortality.
Swindle recalls an aluminum mill besieged by pigeons whose droppings were literally gumming up the works. They used Avitrol at a ratio of 1-to-9 and baited twice, on Christmas morning and New Year's Day. By Jan. 2, only four of the 2,000 or so pigeons were living at that mill.
These "success stories" help Swindle defend Avitrol against more permanent solutions. "The beauty of it is, it's economical," he says, pointing out that if you de-pigeon an isolated area, replacements might never arrive.
He's right. Except, there are fewer and fewer isolated areas.
"As our human population expands," says Crawford, "we take up more and more of the natural space where these birds can live, and push them out." He pauses, just long enough for the anger to crest. "Are we going to kill off everything that gets in our way