Kelly Swindle doesn’t believe in bird whisperers.
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Kelly Swindle doesn’t believe in bird whisperers.
“I don’t know of any magic way to get rid of birds,” said Swindle, who owns the Oklahoma company that makes Avitrol, an anti-bird pesticide. “There are a lot of people who use our products who keep it quiet because of the lethality involved.”
One might be James Soules, the purported bird whisperer of Decatur, who holds a $164,000 no-bid contract to rid downtown Springfield of pigeons and starlings. He also has a state license to use Avitrol, a poison that’s regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, banned in at least one state and viewed with wariness even within the pest-control industry.
Over the years, state health inspectors have found Avitrol at Soules’ company on several occasions.
Soules is sticking to his story: He has a secret way to get rid of nuisance birds.
He hasn’t used Avitrol in two decades, he said last week, and a supply of the chemical found at his business by state inspectors as recently as 2004 was left over from when he once used it. He has a state pesticide license only in case he decides to expand his business, he said.
“I really don’t have to have a license,” said Soules. “I have it, though, just in case I might want to do some termites.”
Soules was 84 last November, when Mayor Tim Davlin touted him as the Pied Piper of nuisance birds. Calling Soules a “bird whisperer,” the mayor told the council it had taken him a year just to arrange a meeting with the man who has a reputation for getting rid of birds as if by magic.
“The way that he gets rid of the birds in a city is a secret,” Davlin told the council.
So far, the city has paid Soules $88,000 and is scheduled to give him another $76,000. A five-pound box of Avitrol-laced corn, which is mixed with pure corn in ratios ranging from 1:9 to 1:29, sells for as little as $230 in Chicago. Training to use it is readily available, and the state grants licenses to applicators who take a class that lasts one or two days and pass a test. The class costs $40 at the University of Illinois.
“If you follow the label properly, you should have good results with the product,” said Swindle.
City spokesman Ernie Slottag said that, as far as the city is concerned, the fact that Soules has a pesticide license and the state has found Avitrol at his business means nothing.
“If he says he doesn’t use it, he doesn’t use it,” Slottag said. “Farmers have a license to use anhydrous ammonia, but they don’t make meth.
“All we know is that he disrupts their nesting areas so they don’t return.”
Soules has long insisted that he uses non-lethal methods to control birds.
“I’ll say this: I don’t shoot the birds, I don’t harm them,” Soules told the Decatur Herald & Review in 2006.
The Decatur newspaper reported that Soules’ business skyrocketed after the Chicago Tribune in 2005 published a lengthy account of his purported magical skills with birds. According to the Tribune, birds rose toward the heavens as Soules moved from tree to tree in Galesburg.
“Indeed, Soules’ story seems made for Hollywood, a tale of a regular guy who stumbles upon a secret that gives him a seemingly superhuman power,” the Tribune reported.
However, Soules’ company also has a history of shooting birds, according to state files.
In 1995, the state health department investigated one of Soules’ employees for shooting pigeons with a .22 caliber rifle. Soules’ company was again investigated for shooting pigeons in a downtown area in 1998. In both cases, the names of the cities were redacted in files given to The State Journal-Register pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request.
“Interesting,” said Carolyn Oxtoby, who lives in the 200 block of South Sixth Street in Springfield. “So this is not the first time for the bird whisperer.”
Oxtoby says she saw someone shooting birds twice last summer. The first time, it was after 2 a.m., and she watched from her bedroom window.
Oxtoby said she saw someone in a pickup truck pointing a light toward the top of a building. Someone with a rifle emerged from the pickup, and Oxtoby heard shots shortly afterward.
A week later, about 7 a.m., Oxtoby said she saw someone shooting again. The driver got out of the pickup, stomped on a bird that was lying on the ground, then put the carcass in a plastic bag, she said.
“I found out that it’s against the law to shoot guns in a residential area, which downtown is, even if the city or the bird whisperer doesn’t know that,” Oxtoby said.
Sgt. Pat Ross of the Springfield Police Department confirms that firing a gun in city limits is illegal.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s downtown Springfield or out on Dirksen,” Ross said. “If you’re discharging a firearm as a private citizen, I’m not aware of anything that would circumvent the law.”
Soules acknowledged that he shoots birds, but only sick ones.
“Sometimes, you have some sick ones that are sitting on a ledge,” he said. “You can’t get them any other way.”
While Oxtoby doesn’t approve of guns as bird control devices, Avitrol sounds OK to her.
“I don’t like killing birds, but I don’t know what the answer is,” Oxtoby said.
Avitrol, developed in the 1960s, works like this: Corn is placed in areas frequented by nuisance birds. After the birds grow accustomed to easy meals, corn containing Avitrol is mixed with pure corn. Birds that eat the poison corn die, but, before expiring, the poisoned birds go into distress and signal the survivors. Surviving birds quickly learn to avoid the area.
“I think that’s brilliant,” Oxtoby said. “It’s better than a total extermination, absolutely.”
But there are drawbacks. One is that birds poisoned by Avitrol can fall from the sky.
That’s why public health officials in Milford, Mass., canceled plans to use Avitrol in 2005. The previous year, as many as 15 birds poisoned by Avitrol at a hospital fell into single parking lot, alarming nearby middle-school students, according to a story in the Milford Daily News.
The Avitrol Corp., based in Tulsa, Okla., apparently took notice. Besides schools, Swindle said Avitrol should not be used near hospices.
“You don’t want them to see the creatures dying,” Swindle said. “It’s legal to kill birds, but sometimes it’s not a commonsense thing to do in some places.”
New York state banned Avitrol in 2000, and even some pest experts have their doubts about the substance.
Arizona Pest Control in Tucson stopped using Avitrol about three years ago.
“The main reason is social responsibility,” said John Welsh, the company’s bird manager.
Because 90 percent of a flock targeted by Avitrol survives, the pesticide simply pushes a problem elsewhere, Welsh said. And the offspring of Avitrol survivors haven’t learned to avoid feed laced with Avitrol, so using the pesticide to control birds becomes a never-ending chore, he said.
While the manufacturer insists that secondary poisoning isn’t a concern, Welsh also said he believes Avitrol can harm non-targeted birds if they eat poison corn directly or consume carcasses of birds killed by Avitrol.
Jon Hockenyos, owner of Sentinel Pest Control on South 9th Street, said Avitrol is the answer in some places, but not downtown Springfield.
When someone working on behalf of the city asked his company for advice prior to awarding Soules his contract, Hockenyos recommended trapping pest birds, then sterilizing them.
“We would be taking the birds out of downtown in a somewhat controlled process,” Hockenyos said. “We told them that there would not be a sudden diminishing of the birds. If there were some bird people — PETA-type people — there would be no alarm. We made a proposal. They elected to go with the other fella.
“I don’t want to get into a controversy between us and them. He got his contract. He performed as he said he would. I’m not going to come in with sour grapes.”
The city has no plans to cancel Soules’ contract.
“If he says he doesn’t use it, we’ll take him at his word,” Slottag said. “I don’t know that anyone has stepped forward with any kind of proof that there have been any birds killed with this kind of technique. Take a look outside and see how many birds are not around.
“I think he’s been very successful.”
Bruce Rushton can be reached at 788-1542 or firstname.lastname@example.org.