Pigeons Droppings

Pigeons navigate better than any pilot, they're more sociable than any debutante, they've adapted to the urban landscape better than any human. But they poop. So we're poisoning them.

"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.

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