The portions were generous, but the last meal for a flock of Whitefish pigeons came at a steep price. After ingesting feed laced with the controversial chemical Avitrol, around 400 of the birds dropped dead. Most fell from the roof of the train depot in Whitefish, where employees of ECOLAB Pest Elimination Services “policed up the birds,” says Jill Evans, depot caretaker. Others were picked up by scavenging crows, which flew away with, and then dined upon the pigeon carcasses.
Some of the poisoned pigeons made one last flight across town to a city park on the banks of the Whitefish River, a regular watering hole. Once there, fewer than a dozen flopped around in vain, trying to vomit out the poison corn they’d just ingested. Later that night, a passerby addressed the Whitefish City Council, recalling for them what she’d witnessed down by the river. “These pigeons were suffering. The scene was so disturbing,” she said.
As director of the Stumptown Historical Society, Evans has battled pigeons at the depot for years. After spending upwards of $20,000 trying to protect the beautifully restored building from the pigeons’ constant soiling, the historical society was at wit’s end when it called ECOLAB. Pigeons carry 30-some-odd diseases, a representative from ECOLAB told them. It was time for Avitrol.
The whole operation was supposed to be discrete. There were to be no survivors, no backlash and no heartbreaking scenes like the one drawn for the city council.
ECOLAB assured Evans the birds would experience “a quick, merciful death within minutes.”
When that didn’t happen, news got out and Evans’ cell phone started to ring.
“After all of this happened, I got 42 phone calls,” says Evans. “Six of them were negative.”
The rest came from rail workers who have long suffered respiratory ailments they blame on ever-growing piles of pigeon waste. A collective hallelujah echoed across the depot, where specialized needle strips and piano wire had failed to shoo the pigeons.
“This isn’t something we’re ashamed of,” says Evans. “It’s a legal chemical.”
The FDA and the EPA have approved Avitrol for use against pigeons, but the chemical isn’t welcome in places with flocks much larger than the one mostly eradicated from the Whitefish depot (at last report, two pigeons remain).
In New York City, a state law forbids the chemical’s use because Avitrol has been linked to the deaths of other animals, including red tailed hawks, that feed on pigeons in the city. ECOLAB insists the chemical is not passed up the food chain.
That’s a claim that Kate Geranios, executive director of the Missoula Humane Society, doesn’t buy. She says pigeon problems can be solved by using intense sound waves and other methods that don’t introduce poison to the environment.
“You could be hitting a target that’s an endangered species,” says Geranios. “It’s just a bad idea all the way around.”
In Flathead County, there is no official policy regarding Avitrol. But in Missoula, the office of animal control advocates against its use.
Once, when a new building was being constructed in downtown, says Elaine Sehnert at Missoula County Animal Control, the building’s owners were asked to care for a flock of sparrows nesting inside. The owners had to close off a portion of the building to let concrete dry and that blocked the sparrows’ exit. So while they nested, the building’s owners brought the birds food and water.
Sehnert also recalls how she and her co-workers handled a pigeon problem back in Texas, where she used to work in an old courthouse. “We put rubber snakes out on the window sill,” says Sehnert. “And we never saw those pigeons again.”