Feeling Pooped by Pigeons, Cities Try Bird Birth Control
Beginning this month, three Vegas parks will set out automated feeders that promise to dramatically cull pigeon populations simply by preventing them from reproducing. The key is OvoControl P, a feed that contains a chemical known as nicarbazin, which prevents bird eggs from being fertilized.
Dozens of other entities around the nation -- including the Santa Monica Pier; a skate park in Arizona; the St. Paul, Minn., animal control division; and a California oil refinery -- are likewise giving a whirl to OvoControl P, which the Environmental Protection Agency endorsed for general use in March.
"We've tried everything from pigeon spikes to wires, you name it, but it doesn't work," said Kevin Parker, parks maintenance manager for Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas. "Labor-wise, that's not cheap. And then when it doesn't work, you're in there cleaning it all the time."
[Hear an interview with OvoControl maker Erick Wolf on Steve Friess' podcast, The Petcast.]
The Vegas area is a prime breeding ground for pigeons since its lack of cold winters allows for as many as six mating seasons a year. And each season, pigeon pairs usually birth two offspring per clutch of eggs.
Having run out of other ideas, Parker is spending $2,300 on battery-operated bird feeders and a supply of the special feed from Innolytics, a San Diego-area company that holds the exclusive rights to OvoControl P. In the first weeks, the feeders will spray corn at an appointed time in order to train pigeons to come eat; then the feeders will spit out nicarbozin-tinged pellets as well.
Over time, as the number of pigeons in the area falls, the amount of feed needed also will drop.
Innolytics owner Erick Wolf says a pigeon population could be cut by half in as little as a year, as the birds -- which tend live about three or four years on average -- die off. Other flocks of pigeons won't come along to replace the thinned ones, he added, because the birds are territorial and don't take over another flock's area.
In the Argyle region of Hollywood, Calif., where the first widespread deployment of OvoControl P occurred in 2008, the decline was even more rapid than Wolf suggested. Laura Dodson, president of the Argyle Civic Association, had been trying for years to come up with a humane solution to the pigeon infestations that were being caused by bird lovers attracting them with food.
Then People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals suggested she contact Wolf (an endorsement that he touts, along with a thumbs-up from the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). After setting up an OvoControl P feeding system, it didn't take long to see results, Dodson said.
"It's totally humane, totally safe -- you can reverse it if you've gone too far," Dodson said. "We started off with 150 birds on one wire. Within five months, we were down to 50 birds. That's unbelievable. ... It doesn't do any good to shoot 'em or kill 'em because they'll just breed back in."
Nicarbozin was first noticed to prevent hens from laying eggs in the 1950s, when it was an ingredient in a chicken vaccine, and farmers largely stopped using it. But when Wolf became interested in the chemical in the 1990s, he wondered whether it could also stop the breeding of annoying avians that poop too much on people, sidewalks and cars.
He had figured out a delivery system by 2004, but was unable to mass market it because the EPA permitted only licensed pest-control professionals to use it. That added high labor costs to the use of a product that's relatively inexpensive: A 30-pound bag of OvoControl P costs $187.50, with 1 pound a day enough to render 80 birds infertile.
Also, Wolf found many pest-control companies didn't like using it because its effectiveness happens over time, whereas folks who call exterminators want the problem gone instantly.
With the EPA approval in March to permit the retail sale to anyone, however, entities that don't want to pay pest pros to deploy it can do it themselves. Wolf said he now has about 100 clients in the U.S., and expects revenues of just $200,000 this year.
"A lot of communities have taken interest in OvoControl, but it takes awhile for people to get their arms around it," Wolf said. "The skepticism has to do with the intangible nature of it. This stuff prevents eggs from hatching -- you can't see that. How fun is that?"
The approach is also endorsed by the USDA Wildlife Services National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo., which helped Wolf with his research to prove OvoControl P's efficacy. Both the center and Wolf are now investigating possible contraceptives for other problem animal populations, from white tail deer to feral cat colonies, and the Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative gave Wolf a $100,000 grant to pursue that research.
Wolf said OvoControl P never completely eliminates the pigeon population, but does reduce it to a manageable level.
"Right now, each pigeon is taking in 30 milliliters of water and 30 milliliters of feed a day, which means they're pooping 60 milliliters every day," Parker said. "If we can get that down by a half or more, I'll be very happy."