City-dwellers often complain about pigeons, calling them “rats with wings” and condemning them as noisy, messy, disease-carrying feces machines. But they’re really pretty benign. Much of the problem is that pigeons aren’t afraid to colonize areas that people think of as theirs. So can we really justify the usual methods of pigeon control: trapping, shooting or poisoning? Erick Wolf, CEO of Innolytics, thinks not. For 15 years, he’s been developing birth control for pigeons and other birds that people deem pests.
OvoControl is the official brand name, though Wolf sometimes calls his business model “Planned Pigeonhood.” The way it works is that a contraceptive chemical called nicarbazin is put into an automatic feeder and set out where a flock of pigeons live. Every morning at the same time, the feeder dumps the feed, and the pigeons flap around, gobbling it up in minutes.
The U.S. Humane Society recommends OvoControl as a kinder alternative to poisoning, and the EPA approved it back in 2010. Wolf spoke with Inhabitat about how he got in the family planning business for birds. [Note: This interview has been edited for space.]
Inhabitat: How did you come up with this idea?
Wolf: The active ingredient in this stuff, the chemical that interferes with egg fertilization in birds, has been around for 65 years. It was originally developed by Merck for use in chickens. The utility in chickens has nothing to do with egg hatchability, it has something to do with coccidiosis, an enteric disease that chickens get. But it’s got this one unwanted side effect in that it interferes with egg hatchability when fed to the wrong chicken.
So we were sitting around the table having a couple of beers one day and said, “If it’s so good for preventing egg hatchability in chickens, why don’t you just feed it to pigeons?”
Inhabitat: What’s wrong with the usual ways to control pigeons?
Wolf: The conventional methods for pigeon control is trap, shoot or poison, none of which is very humane. What they’re using in the U.S. to poison the birds is really horrible. You would think that a poison that’s used to kill an animal like that would be fast-acting, you’d give it to them, they’d drop over dead. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. So this stuff that they use commercially takes 20 minutes to 2 hours for the bird to basically convulse to death. It’s awful.
If you go out and kill animals like that, you end up with more of them a few months later. You’ve got a site with 100 pigeons at it and you go in and you trap or you shoot or you poison 50 of them, within a few weeks, a few months at the very latest, you have more than 100 pigeons again. They just breed back. So unless you stop the breeding, there’s no point. They’re just coming back.
Inhabitat: How do OvoControl’s results compare?
Wolf: It works great, but it’s not an overnight success. It takes time, because you have to wait for the attrition of the population. Pigeons die every day. They die of disease, they die of nutrition, they die of predation. Some of them freeze to death in the winter, some of them roast in the summer. But there’s this constant replenishment going on. Unless you stop that, you’re going to live with the pigeons forever. These are pigeons, so they’re breeding every 6 weeks, two eggs per clutch. So five mating pairs of pigeons will make 400 birds in 2 years. So that’s what you’re up against.
I have talked with customers that have killed 10,000 pigeons. They only had 3,000 to begin with. They’re harvesting birds.
People that call us are not ones that have a few pigeons around. I have conversations with people that have thousands of pigeons. And it seems like the more pigeons they’ve got, the more likely they are going to be to try to kill more of them. The more they get, the more they want to murder them.
Inhabitat: So your method takes patience?
Wolf: We’ll get customers that use it for a month and say, “I didn’t see anything happen.” I say, “You’re not supposed to see anything happen.” Pigeons die every day. But the only way to kill them with OvoControl is to just drop a 30-pound bag of it on them. Then the pigeon’s dead. But other than that, you’re not going to kill any pigeons. So get used to it.
We have customers that have been using this stuff for years. After a couple, three years, the management will turn over or something and I stop getting orders. It’s usually about 2 or 3 years later, I’ll get an email: “Send us 10 bags.” (laughs) If you stop, they start breeding again.
Inhabitat: Who are your customers?
Wolf: Who’s going to pay for it? People have talked to us and they say, “Oh my gosh, cities must be great customers. They’ve got so many pigeons.” And I say yes and no. They’ve got a lot of pigeons but they’re not so interested in putting them on birth control. There’s not a budget in the city maintenance for birth control for birds.
The low-hanging fruit for the business is pretty much large industrial sites. Power plants, oil refineries, steel mills, pulp and paper, glass foundries, ports. Not necessarily airports, but seaports. Big places. Places where you can’t stretch a net to keep the pigeons out. Any kind of manufacturing facility that’s got open doors. Hospitals are good. What a hospital has very typically are parking garages and lots of places for pigeons to find cubbies. There’s a lot of heat being produced there. College campuses are good because they’re multi-structure. At a multi-structure facility, the guy will come in there and say, “We’re going to net the physics building because it’s got all the pigeons on it.” So they net the physics building and all the pigeons go over to the chemistry building. They’re resident birds. They’re not leaving campus. That’s where they found food. That’s where their nests are. That’s where they’re going to stay.
Inhabitat: Are your clients international?
Wolf: We have registrations now in Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan. We have one pending that looks very promising in Australia, and pending in New Zealand as well.
Here in the home market, the U.S., it continues to be a really long, uphill battle. People want tangible and immediate results. When you tell them you’re going to lose half your birds over a year, and then another half over the next year and so on and so forth, the pest controller will say, “Forget it. My customer wants the birds gone today.”
Images via Pixabay