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Pesky pigeon droppings pose health problems

Gilbert resident Mary Lou Lorenzen finds dead pigeons in her back yard, covered with maggots and ants.

Her roof is covered with pigeon droppings, and so is her patio floor. Pigeons tap on the roof outside her window and keep her awake at night.

"If I could afford to move, I would do it today — strictly because of pigeons," said Lorenzen, who has lived in the Islands condominiums for five years.

For Lorenzen and thousands of other Valley residents, dealing with seemingly endless waves of birds some call “flying rats” is more than just an annoyance. The urban pigeons, an invader species in Arizona, make noise and damage structures when they build nests.

Their acidic, paint-corroding feces seems to be everywhere, spreading germs and looking like, well, big messes.

Once the highly adaptable birds decide they like a place, it's tough to get them to leave, experts say.

So at the Islands, it's often the people who fly the coop.

Since Islands resident Joy Wyse moved out two years ago to escape the pigeons, about half a dozen others have done the same, neighbors said. At least two have put their condos up for sale in the past few months because of persistent pigeon problems. 

One of them is Dave Johnson.

"All night, they make this 'woo-woo' sound," Johnson said. "It's grossly annoying. After a while, it just drives you crazy."

Johnson said he is one of several people on the block who have gotten sick from the droppings. His dog became ill after inhaling or eating droppings, he said.

Pigeons and their droppings carry more than 40 viruses and 60 diseases, said Helga Stafford, a neighborhood services specialist with Gilbert. The high acidity in their droppings can also cause a 50 percent reduction in roof life and ruin paint on vehicles, Stafford said.

"I'm known as the 'Pigeon Lady,' " Stafford said. "People call me up and tell me about their pigeons, but there's very little we can do to help them. They are like rats with wings," Stafford said.

The calls come in cycles — sometimes Stafford goes days without a call, only to get a couple of calls daily for weeks.
Many Islands residents have put up chicken wire, pigeon spikes, fake owls and even wire that transmits an electric shock to deter pigeons.

Others resort to pellet guns and poison, or simply sneak up on them and beat them with a shovel, which one Islands resident was convicted of doing several years ago, Stafford said. Two others admitted shooting pigeons with pellet guns.

John Jesser, a private sector home inspector, said he sees a lot of roof and attic damage caused by pigeons, including one home where pigeons nested in an attic for years. The damage from nests and droppings, and the cost to remove the pigeons when they died, ran about $4,000, Jesser said.

Jesser said the birds are attracted to the Islands because the tightly packed condos mean a lot of holes and overhangs for pigeons to nest in. Jesser, an Islands resident, said his 4-month-old puppy Shasta spent three days at the veterinarian and nearly died after inhaling pigeon droppings from the patio floor. Jesser has put his condo up for sale.

He'd better watch out where he moves, though, if he wants to avoid future aerial assaults. Urban pigeons are found throughout the Valley and are extremely hardy animals, said Pierre Deviche, an associate professor of biology at Arizona State University.

Deviche said that as the Valley grows — and with it the urban habitat pigeons love — the overall population of pigeons increases. While an area with plenty of water like the Islands can be attractive, pigeons don't need to live directly next to a water supply, he said. They have a keen eye for grass seed, one of their favorite foods. They are very resistant to extremes in heat and cold. And, unlike many other species, breed year-round, Deviche said.

As far as benefits, urban pigeons don't really have any — except when they become food for native birds of prey, he said.

“I think of them as pests, myself,” he said.

Besides Gilbert, city officials in Chandler and Mesa receive frequent calls from residents complaining about the birds. Most municipalities advise residents to call an exterminator. The downtown areas of Mesa and Phoenix have some of the worst infestations of pigeons, said Dave Burns of Burns Pest Elimination.

“There's a lot of people,” he said. “Lots of food, fountains and parks.”

When Stafford receives a call, she tells Gilbert residents to "get rid of them ASAP," but she admits that is easier said than done. Before calling the exterminator, residents could try removing food sources, putting up pigeon spikes or posting a fake owl, she said.

Pigeons aren't protected or regulated by city or state agencies, yet residents should never poison the birds, said Joe Yarchin of the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

"It's too difficult to control poison once it enters the ecosystem," he said.

But some fed-up residents are out for blood.

"There's a million of them," said Islands resident Dan Evors, who has tried nets and spikes to rid his roof of pigeons. "You can't get rid of them. I don't know what else to do but get a pellet gun." 

— Tribune writer Ray Stern contributed to this story.

— Tribune writer Greg Svelund can be reached by e-mail at or by calling (480) 898-6542.

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Sunday, April 28, 2002
Page 1 
We should give
olive branch to 


Tamara Dietrich

We should give olive branch to pigeons
Behind every pigeon is a story.

Holly is the last survivor of an explosion set off by a Hollywood film crew in 1997 at an abandoned racetrack in the West Valley. Eyes melted shut. Beak and feet mangled. Feathers seared to skeletal sticks.

Winglet, rescued after being found mutilated and cowering under a school bus, has half a wing.

Lucky was found with a blow dart lodged in his head, in one side and out the other.

These are but a few of the feathered menagerie of David Roth, known as “Pigeon Dave” and founder of the Urban Wildlife Society in Phoenix.

His pigeons are rehab patients and house pets. In back is his aviary. On his tile roof, a devoted brood of wild pigeons emits lulling, deep-throated coos.

Critics aside, Roth says, studies show pigeons are as smart as whales and as affectionate as dogs.

Every few years when pigeons are targeted for killing somewhere in the Valley, Roth gears up for another showdown.

In 1993, Maricopa County officials planned to poison nesting pigeons wholesale at Madison Street Jail in Phoenix. Roth and others persuaded them to put up net barriers instead.

In 1995, 14 birds and two cats were found dead or dying on a community college campus after a licensed pest controller spread poison.

Wildlife groups clashed with an exterminating company that used a gluelike substance at a strip mall to repel pigeons, but ended up suffocating them.

And Roth videotaped a local gun club using caged pigeons as live skeet. A contraption catapulted about 700 live pigeons one by one into the air, so sportsmen wielding 12-gauge shotguns a few feet away could blow them to bits.

Now a Gilbert condo complex is up in arms about pigeon pooh. About pecking and cooing. They want to poison the offending birds. [Column at left.]

Are they really disease-ridden “flying rats”?

Mira Leslie, public health veterinarian for the state Department of Health Services, said Arizona “has never had a case of a pigeon-to-human documented disease. But if you don’t wash your hands after you’ve handled pigeons and their feces you certainly can get things. Just like any time you handle feces from any animal, you can have a risk of getting bacteria on your hands.”

Rather than killing pigeons, a toxic and temporary fix, Roth suggests nonlethal measures such as net barriers or trimming palm trees at 45 degrees to discourage nesting. Poison only contaminates the ecosystem for everyone — insects, pigeons, pets, children and up the food chain.

It's a head-scratcher why pigeons don’t get better press. We relegate them to Christmas cards — when we call them “doves” — but otherwise treat them like lepers. 

Forgetting their place in history — from delivering an olive branch to Noah, to a single carrier pigeon saving a thousand Allied lives in World War II by delivering a vital message in the nick of time.

— Tamara Dietrich is staff columnist and winner of the 2000 Arizona Press Club Don Schellie award for feature columns. E-mail or call (480) 898-6534.