Air cannons and pyrotechnics blast away pesky pest-birds

Murray, KY – In Kentucky, so-called "pest-birds" include starlings, cowbirds, and grackles. These birds are commonly known as blackbirds, and winter brings hoards of them to roost in Kentucky. Blackbirds tend to use the same roosts year after year, creating a smelly and possibly unhealthy environment. Some older roosts may develop a fungus called histoplasmosis, which is harmful to humans. However, many city and county administrations in our region don't stock the resources to manage pest birds, leaving the problem to area residents. Angela Hatton reports.

There is a reason Kentucky is a hub for migrating birds. University of Kentucky Extension Wildlife Specialist Tom Barnes says western and central Kentucky are prime locations for birds because they're in the middle of the Ohio Valley.

"We're in the, uh, migratory pathway, and we're kind of right at the heart of where they winter, so we get these massive congregations."

The most common pest bird is the starling, which came to the United States from Europe. Because they are a non-native species, starlings have no natural predators to handle population control. It doesn't take long for these blackbirds to take over an area. Murray State University Grounds and Building Services Director Wayne Harper knows that first hand.

"What they like to do when the weather gets bad is they like to find evergreen trees like magnolias or cedar or pine because it protects them from the elements. And once they set up a roosting site, they keep returning to that. Even offspring will come to that roosting site, if it's not disturbed."

And they smell. Harper says a concentration of starling droppings smells like strong ammonia. One winter at Murray State, the weather got cold, rainy, and icy, exactly the kind of conditions that drive blackbirds to roost.

"And when we got back to campus after Christmas break, they had taken over the mall. They had deposited dropping to the tune of three truckloads, and we had to clean that up, disinfect it, put down all kinds of stuff, uh, to protect our students, and faculty, and staff. And that's when we really got started on trying to keep them off campus."

Most communities prohibit discharging firearms within city limits, so beebee guns are out of the question in dealing with pest birds. Instead, Harper bought specialized equipment designed to scare them off. At MSU Facilities Management headquarters, Harper's team demonstrates a propane-powered air cannon called a zon gun. MSU's zon gun is like a blue and yellow telescope mounted on a tripod. A small click signals that it's about to fire.

The arsenal also includes pyrotechnic guns, which look like starter pistols and sound like fireworks. In conjunction with pyrotechnics, workers use a machine that makes bird distress calls.

Harper says birds like starlings hear the sound and know to stay away. UK's Tom Barnes says pyrotechnic guns and distress calls are available for individuals to use in their own backyard, although he says many people don't want to go to that length. For them, he recommends tree trimming.

"And the key is, is when you're doing the trimming is to open it up so you get good air movement through the tree. And of course that reduces the thermal warming capability of getting large numbers of birds congregating."

Barnes cautions individuals away from using poisons to get rid of pest birds. He says that's especially dangerous for farmers who want to protect their crops.
"Homeowners can get into trouble with that because any bird that eats it will die, and lots of birds will come in to corn to feed in the winter, and even if they accidentally kill them, they are subject to criminal prosecution for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act."

That law protects songbirds with a penalty of up to $500 dollars and six months in jail. Barnes says if you have a serious problem with blackbirds, call the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service or APHIS. Specialists there have training in removing birds. Overall, the best advice is to be vigilant. That's what Wayne Harper and the staff at MSU's Facilities Management have done since their first blackbird infestation. He says they haven't had a problem since.