Poop Happens

An apartment complex loses the battle against guano

"It looks like our own laser light show," one woman said.
"It's like Wheel of Fortune at night," said an older resident. "It's the most asinine thing I've ever seen."

Harris is not without her defenders. Ron Jones, of the state's Fish and Wildlife Service, explains that sparrows, starlings and pigeons are not protected under federal or state law. Such "nuisance birds" can be destroyed with impunity.

A Texas Animal Control Service report explains that these birds are considered undesirable for a variety of reasons: They make noise, they can carry disease, and starlings drive away other, more desirable, songbirds, and can destroy fruit crops.

The animal control service advocates the use of "frightening devices," most especially "noise," to scare birds away. Its weapons of choice include Roman candles, racket bombs and tapes of birds in distress -- not to mention 12-gauge shotgun shells that contain firecrackers.

The service also recommends visual devices such as "flashing lights, streams of water sprayed at the roost, hawk or owl decoys and helium-filled balloons." And you can also thin the vegetation the birds are roosting in, making it less attractive.

Well, according to Harris, she's tried almost everything. "We have spent thousands of dollars on an ultrasound machine with sound waves, and the birds just crapped all over it.

"We tried blowup owls. We've tried everything anyone's suggested. The SPCA said we could kill all the sparrows, but just not the doves." People have told her to cut down the trees in Allen House, "and I'm just not going to do that."

To a degree, Harris's net is working better than it did at first. In the first four days after the net's installation, residents gathered in the courtyard, watching the birds struggle and tallying the dead; the carnage, they say, was terrible. Now the body count has slowed to only one or so a week.

Birds have learned to position themselves over a relatively large hole in the grid, hold their wings to their bodies, and dive-bomb into the inner courtyard. They don't, however, appear able to conduct this operation in reverse. Every day, the complex's maintenance men leave open trap doors to let the birds out. This works some of the time -- but it also lets other birds in.

Mornings, says a resident, are worst: "You see about 50 birds trying to get out."

This young woman said that recently, when she went to lie out by the pool, she found the lounge chairs covered with bird droppings. She went back into her apartment, got a towel, but then paused, thinking, "Do I really want to put my towel down on this?" After deciding to go for it, she didn't enjoy the experience: As she lay there, she worried that bird droppings would hit her in the head.

She hadn't thought her apartment would work out this way. She'd chosen the complex because an apartment locator service stressed that its grounds and facilities were well maintained. And now, she worries that matters will only worsen when nesting season arrives: "When they start building nests, that's when they get really nasty -- when they think people are coming after their babies."

Many Allen House residents are originally from Great Britain, Europe, South and Central America and Africa, another resident said. "These people must think we are barbaric, trapping these birds in here."

The Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals received its first call about the netting on March 14. Last week, in response to another call, its investigators went to the apartment complex.

"We told them if they are confining these birds then they have become their caretakers," says SPCA spokeswoman Stacy Fox. "They either have to release them or give them water and shelter." Residents were asked to report net-trapped birds to the SPCA, which would dispatch rescue workers.

Furthermore, if any protected birds or migratory birds are caught, Allen House would be violating the law. "We advised them to take the net down and replace it with a commercial netting that is humane," she said. "Just take the net down."

Despite that advice, Harris is standing her ground. "The net keeps the birds from crapping all over the place. We're going to continue to allow it."

After the SPCA's visit, Harris bought bird food for the trapped birds ("though they're not really caught," she maintains). The noise of the sparrows is just too much, she says. "Remember the movie The Birds? Remember the noise of the birds every morning and every night? I have tinnitus, which is constant ringing in my ears. Those birds screeching brings back all the horrors of that movie."

Oh, there has been one other development. After about three weeks of net, residents were surprised to find that they are sharing space with another set of flying creatures. Starting around dusk each night, ten to 15 bats now flutter beneath the netting. As one resident put it: "You start fooling around with Mother Nature, and look what happens."

E-mail Margaret Downing at margaret_downing@houstonpress.com.

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