They were the beloved companions of Queen Victoria and were prized by the pharaohs of Egypt. Picasso loved them so much that he named his daughter after them. They ferried messages for American and allied forces during World War I, and their image has been used time and again as the universal symbol of peace.
But in Memphis, they're being poisoned.
At the Cargill Inc. facility on Presidents Island, hundreds if not thousands of pigeons, also known as rock doves, have found a haven. There's water (McKellar Lake), shelter (ledges and tanks to perch on), and, most importantly, food. The Cargill plant processes about 200,000 bushels of corn daily to make food sweeteners. But company officials fear the birds' droppings may pose a health risk to workers, and in late January, they began working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to eradicate the birds using corn laced with poison.
"We've tried everything, and this was pretty much a last resort," says Bill Brady, a spokesperson for Cargill. "We tried trapping and relocating. We tried to limit their access to the corn. But if there's a little spillage when you're unloading, they know. So the USDA recommended this program."
The USDA-administered program at Cargill utilizes DRC-1339, which according to David Lingo, district supervisor for the USDA's wildlife services, is only toxic to "pest species of birds," such as pigeons, blackbirds, and crows.
He says that, before baiting the pigeons, efforts are made to ensure that nontarget birds aren't feeding at the site. Although the poison is formulated to kill pigeons, nontarget birds can be affected if they eat too much. Lingo says pigeons must ingest about two to five kernels to get a lethal dose. It would take much more to kill a nontarget bird. The poison can take from eight hours to three days to take effect.
Lingo says the USDA has no statistics on the number of pigeons poisoned thus far.
Judging by the size of the flock that still hovers over the plant each morning, one would expect the area to be littered with dead pigeons. But, according to Lingo, the pigeons don't generally feed and roost at the same site.
"We spend a lot of time documenting where the birds are nesting or loafing, and that's where we concentrate our efforts in picking up dead birds," says Lingo. "Every effort is made to properly dispose of the carcasses, and there is someone monitoring the roosting sites. We don't just leave dead birds lying around."
However, Dave Roth of the Urban Wildlife Society, an Arizona-based pigeon rescue organization, says he saw dead pigeons lying all around Glendale (a suburb of Phoenix) when a USDA-administered poisoning program was in effect there. He also saw one toddler trying to eat a kernel of regurgitated corn lying next to a dead pigeon near an apartment complex.
The USDA claims the laced corn isn't potent enough to affect humans, but Roth's not so sure. He says it would be nearly impossible to track down all the roosting sites, meaning dead pigeons could end up anywhere.
"They can go fly off who-knows-where, and that's what makes these pigeon poisoning programs so dangerous," says Roth. "Pigeons don't generally congregate in large roosts like waterfowl. They'll have their own little spots, whether it be on a building or in a tree."
There are several alternative methods of pigeon control often suggested by animal-rights groups -- netting, artificial nesting platforms, and even motion-detectors that send out faux-hawk calls. The USDA claims that a DRC-1339 death is "apparently painless," but Roth thinks otherwise.
"DRC-1339 is a nasty way to die," says Roth. "It basically destroys the kidneys, and the birds die from toxemia. A kidney infection can be excruciating, and the birds just run around in agony waiting to die."
Brady says the Cargill plant has had no complaints from animal-rights activists. Kathy Simonetti of the Memphis-Shelby County Humane Society said her organization has no official stance on the situation since they mainly deal with companion animals such as dogs and cats. And Rob Peeples of the local chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society, a bird-watching club, said his group isn't really concerned with pigeons because they are not native to America.
Meanwhile, Brady says the program at the Cargill plant is ongoing. USDA administrators will leave bait out for two or three days or until it appears that the number of pigeons on-site has dwindled. Then, they'll take a break and start the program again when too many pigeons return.
According to Roth, this cycle of poisoning actually makes the situation worse:
"One of the reasons pigeons breed so prolifically is because of our actions to eradicate them. There are pigeons in the wild that raise maybe two to four chicks a year, and that's their natural state. But nature abhors a vacuum, so the more quickly we kill the birds off, the more prolific breeders they become."