A pigeon walks along Sorensen Station’s grass roof Thursday.

A pigeon walks along Sorensen Station’s grass roof Thursday.

‘Anti-flocking agent’ used to control pigeons has controversial past

A controversial pesticide that has been banned through much of Europe and in New York City is being used to keep pigeons away from Red Deer’s downtown bus terminal.

A controversial pesticide that has been banned through much of Europe and in New York City is being used to keep pigeons away from Red Deer’s downtown bus terminal.

Steve Parkin, transit facilities superintendent for the City of Red Deer, confirmed on Wednesday that Calgary-based Abell Pest Control is using the pesticide, under the trade name of Avitrol, to stop pigeons from roosting at Sorensen Station.

The city contracted the company shortly after the station, on the corner of 49th Street and 49th Avenue, officially opened in September 2010.

Parkin said there were lots of pigeons at the time and they were “messing everywhere” with their droppings, which are considered a health hazard for humans. Bird spikes or nails were also installed to discourage birds from landing on the transit station.

Since this “anti-flocking agent” was introduced about a year to 18 months ago, Parkin said the pigeon population has been reduced.

Avitrol is placed in containers in the beams of the transit terminal.

“There’s still a couple of them flying around in there but not to the degree that it was, and the manure problem isn’t as bad,” said Parkin. “It’s feed that upsets their stomachs and make it a less desirable place, and they apparently rush off. The company tells us that they are funny creatures. If they can’t find a place they like and the food isn’t good, then they will move on.”

Parkin wasn’t certain what the agent was but after a phone call was made, he discovered it was Avitrol.

“They assured us it was a relatively safe way to control pigeons,” he said. “It won’t kill them, it affects their nerves, I guess.”

He said Inspections and Licensing Department, which controls the parkade above the transit terminal, is also using Abell Pest Control.

Calls to Abell Pest Control were not returned on Wednesday or Thursday.

Parkin said he wasn’t aware of any controversy surrounding Avitrol.

“All we did was contracted a certified pest control and that’s what they recommended,” he said.

Opponents of the chemical claim it’s inhumane and that it poisons non-target species that consume the bait or the carcasses of birds that have died as a result.

Carol Kelly, executive director for Medicine River Wildlife Centre near Spruce View, said Red Deer residents should be disappointed.

“It’s highly toxic and definitely deadly and goes up the food chain to peregrine falcons,” said Kelly. “Maybe in low dosages, some of those pigeons might recover. But I would not want to have that stuff spread around my community.”

Kelly is working to bring OvoControl, a birth control bait system for birds, to Canada. It’s being used across the United States and is getting good reviews for its effectiveness, she added.

According to the Avitrol website, the agent works on the central nervous system and the motor nervous system. Its action on the motor nervous system usually causes behaviours characteristic of those seen in an epileptic seizure.

The website also refers to renowned animal welfare advocate Dr. Harry C. Rowsell, who in his Assessment of Humaneness of Vertebrate Pesticides report from 1979, said that “although the ingestion of this product is visually repugnant, our studies suggest that the chemical does not cause pathological changes in the organs or tissues capable of causing pain or distress.”

“Birds eating the treated bait will be affected in a manner that, varying by species, will artificially cause them to emit distress and alarm cries and visual displays used by their species when they are frightened or injured,” says the website. “This may include flying erratically, vocalizing, trembling, dilation of the pupils and other symptoms indicative of loss of motor control. This will frighten the flock and cause it to leave the site.”

In laboratory testing, if the dose is lethal, death will usually occur within an hour following administration, reports the website.

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources has strict regulations surrounding the use of Avitrol, including disposing of any exterminated animals daily to prevent contact with humans or other animals. The restrictions are crucial as the province tries to protect threatened birds of prey and in particular, peregrine falcons, which like to eat pigeons.

Avitrol was developed to deter songbirds from damaging crops. As soon as the first few birds are intoxicated, they issue loud warning cries and the rest of the songbirds fly away.

“In other words, it was developed for birds who have a physiological ability to utter a distress call,” said Canadian naturalist Barry Kent MacKay in a 1999 article with the St. Louis-based The Riverfront Times. “Pigeons don’t. They cannot utter these loud alarm notes.”

New York state legislators were so concerned about the use of Avitrol that they banned it from use in major metropolitan areas such as New York City in 2000.

The Humane Society of the United States has described Avitrol as a poison that is not only unnecessary, but dangerous. It advocates effective humane solutions like the use of OvoControl as well as devices that keep birds off rooftops, windowsills and similar surfaces.