Poop Happens

An apartment complex loses the battle against guano

The birds hung limply, their necks tangled in fishing line. Dead or dying, they'd been unable to spot the light-blue monofilament line that for the first time barred them from the trees they'd roosted in every night for years.

They'd flown unknowingly into an almost invisible deathtrap. Others had managed to extricate themselves from the netting and now were trying again and again to get where their routine told them they needed to be. Still others, bizarrely, had been trapped under the netting. Suddenly their sky had a lid on it. People gathered below to marvel at what had happened. And one woman wondered aloud if the foreigners present would think Americans are nothing but barbarians.

What follows is a cautionary tale of can-do "practicality" gone wrong. It has the ring of an urban legend -- one of those tales of horror, like the cat in the microwave, that everyone avidly listens to before learning the story is not true.

Except this is not an urban legend. This is true.
And like all true stories, it has at least two sides to it. It takes place in the courtyard at building three of the Allen House Apartments in downtown Houston.

For the last four years, one resident of the apartments said, she has awakened in the morning to the sound of birds. They chatter for about half an hour and then leave for the day. They return at dusk to roost in the courtyard's trees.

At building number three, the three floors of apartments face an inner courtyard containing a swimming pool, extensive patios, barbecue pits, a running fountain and all manner of plants and trees. The effect is lush, tropical and relaxing. Probably the berry trees made this a prime location for what appear to be mostly sparrows and doves.

About a month ago, in response to complaints from some residents who were not enamored of the birds, the manager of the complex, Linda Harris, had her maintenance crew string a crisscrossed grid of fishing line from roof to roof across the courtyard. This "lid" was supposed to keep the birds from getting in -- which it didn't. And as luck would have it, the birds had an even tougher time getting out.

For weeks now, birds and the residents have all been trapped in there together. The guano is piling up -- on the courtyard, on doors and windows, on the delicate black French-style railing, in the previously pristine swimming pool. They're all deep in shit.

And that's not the worst of it.
Some birds, struggling to get in or desperate to get out, have flown directly into the fishing line, strangled themselves and ended up hanging dead and decomposing from the line. Other birds have flown repeatedly into windows and doors, especially those of corner apartments, looking for a way out. Calm, peaceful flight has given way to frantic tearing about the courtyard; the birds stop occasionally, beaks open, gasping for air, before resuming their search for a way out.

One longtime resident of the complex was essentially trapped in her apartment the first two or three days after the net was installed. "I was afraid to open my door," she says, "afraid the birds would fly into my apartment and I couldn't get them out. I could hear them out there banging on my door."

Now her white apartment door and windows, like several others in the complex, are covered with brown poop stains. The damage was bad enough at one resident's door that a maintenance crew painted over the brown glop.

Residents (who, fearing eviction, ask that their names not be used) say they asked apartment manager Harris to remove the net, but made no headway. "She said, 'Hey, half the people want the birds out. The other half like them,' " one resident recalled. The net stayed.

Harris, of course, has a different take on this turn of events, and she is clearly exasperated that she has been painted by some as an evil, unfeeling bird-killer.

She says the bird shit problem was worse before the net went up, and has three boxes of pre-net poop slides that she'll show to anyone who wants to see them. She acknowledges the bird defenders, but insists that they're outnumbered by bird-haters.

"All I'm saying is, 'Sparrows, would you please go away and crap somewhere else?' " You can't just hose it down. It gets into the pool. My maintenance men were cleaning up piles of crap all day and all night.

It is true, she admits, that birds have died tangled in the fishing line: "When we first put it up, we did have ten dead sparrows, but none of the good birds." But, she says, the birds have not continued to die in great numbers.

She got the fishing-line idea from Florida, where she says that method is often used to keep birds away from pools. It took four maintenance men an entire week to string the line in a grid with two-inch-by-two-inch squares.

Besides the bird problem, residents complain about another byproduct of the monofilament line. At night, the complex's lights switch on. The line, which during the day is all but invisible, reflects every bit of light below.

"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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