Whiz Bang

To speak to Brian Sleman, manager of Allied Waste's material recovery facility (MRF) on Chicago's Westside, is to be amazed by his knowledge of the European Starling — a bird perhaps best known, he points out, for its cameo in Shakespeare's “Henry IV.” When thousands of starlings began to ruffle the feathers of nearby residents, who claimed the perching birds were attracted by recyclables dumped at the facility, Sleman knew the company had to respond promptly.

“We were committed to moving as quickly as possible in an effort to eliminate the roosting birds from the area, but we also wanted a way to do it without harming them,” says Sleman, adding that the company also wanted to keep residents informed about its efforts.

Allied hired Premiere Pest Elimination, a local pest control company, to look into the problem. Premiere began by spending a few days observing the birds to gather information. The company, including general manager Kevin Connelly, confirmed the species of the invading birds, isolated the reason why the birds were roosting near the facility and identified behavioral patterns. Using this information, it developed an aggressive but non-lethal approach to discouraging the birds from roosting in the neighborhood.

“They're not dumb,” says Connelly, who also has helped disperse birds from Chicago sports pantheons like McCormick Place, Soldier Field and Wrigley Field. “Birds always find a place to go.”

Connelly says that any place that offers the combined comforts of food, shelter and water is going to attract birds, and lots of them. In the end, the pest control company recommended a method combining pyrotechnics and noise deterrents to scare the birds away and keep them from returning to the area to roost.

Workers from Premiere — including Connelly, who became known simply as “The Bird Guy” — used a hand-held pistol launcher to fire pyrotechnics 50 to 60 feet in the air near trees choked with birds. This deterrent was repeated every few hours for a month, especially in the morning, when the congregations of starlings were at their worst.

This constant harassment motivated most of the birds to move on. Sleman says more than 90 percent did not return. For their part, neighborhood residents, far from being annoyed by the fireworks, often stood outside to observe the display. Most were ecstatic to watch the hundreds of pesky birds vacate their neighborhood.

While the dispersal project was underway, Allied created a community newsletter to share information with residents about the MRF. The company also maintained a hotline to handle residents' questions and comments. This helped allay concerns and ensured that the solution to the problem did not itself become an annoyance.

Bob Kalebich is general manager of Allied Waste's Chicago sorting centers and is a board member and treasurer of Keep Chicago Beautiful.