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Until 1956, the year Gilbert turned ten, the family's living came from Student Window Cleaners, a college-kid-staffed company Gilbert's father had formed a decade earlier. But because business fell off so sharply in the winter, he decided to augment the family finances with another franchise and purchased the neighboring Roost-No-More Pigeon Service company. Gilbert's dad immediately set out to learn the nuisance-bird trade.
"All he had was bird repellent, wire barriers and strychnine," Gilbert recalls. "But my father never did believe in killing things. It took a long time for the technology to catch up."
In his teens Gilbert began working alongside his father, and in his first year at Mesa Junior College--where he raised a pet duck in his dorm room, to his roommates' annoyance--he was asked to take on his first major pigeon job.
"Downtown Grand Junction had a very bad pigeon situation at the time," Gilbert recalls. "They decided to treat it with corn and strychnine, and my brother and I and four other guys were hired to collect dead pigeons one Sunday so the public didn't get in an uproar. But whoever put out the strychnine simply didn't know what they were doing. They had pigeons falling out of the sky all over town."
This convinced Gilbert that killing pigeons wasn't worth the drama. "And to this day," he says, "whenever I read about some pest-control specialist mixing the wrong dosage and killing a lot of pigeons by mistake, I'm glad it's not me."
Gilbert's father retired in 1972, and because Gilbert's older brother had crushed his spine in a window-washing accident, it fell to Gilbert to take over both the window-washing and bird-removal businesses. (His brother recovered and now teaches English at Cherry Creek High School.) Managing up to twenty employees at a time and tearing around town doing estimates, Gilbert left much of the pigeon control to his father's most trusted employee, Sam Masoudi, who sandwiched bird duties between shifts as a highly paid sous chef. "It worked for him," Gilbert recalls. "He put five kids through college, and I mean places like Columbia and Johns Hopkins."
When Masoudi retired in 1994, Gilbert took stock. Accepting that he was burned out from managing two businesses, he sold the window-washing concern and turned Bird Control into a one-man-one-truck-and-a-cell-phone proposition. He's been happy ever since.
"I especially like these longtime clients," he says, pulling into the parking lot at St. John's Cathedral. "How long have we had the St. John's contract--I don't know--twenty years? A beautiful place--they give tours of it. It would certainly be distracting to have pigeons flying through it during a Sunday service, which is what was going on before we got here."
Keys to the cathedral's twin bell towers in hand, Gilbert pauses to admire the massive sanctuary. "Sometimes the organist is in here practicing when I come," he says. "What a treat--a free concert! I try to time it so I can take my lunch up onto the roof and listen."
Reaching the roof involves a seven-story wooden ladder nailed to the bell tower's ancient stone walls. Gilbert scales it without blinking, leaves some treated corn on top of the cathedral and practically scampers back down the ladder. "Now," he says, "let's go see how pigeons can be a real health problem."
Gary Schlossberg, southwest regional sales manager for the J.T. Eaton pest-control company, is a disappointed man. Last week he had planned to watch birdman Doug Gilbert in action. Instead, it rained.
"Birds are becoming such a terrible nuisance," Schlossberg says. "Why now? I can't answer that. But dealing with it is very labor-intensive, and plus, you have the cruelty-to-animals people who will write you letters of cruelty if you kill a bird. Your bird-control operator has to be a trained specialist."
A person like Doug Gilbert.
"I travel 90 percent of the time," Schlossberg continues. "Eaton has gopher products, rodent products and bird products. I know gophers. I know rodents. But I do not know bird control, and I wanted to see someone who specializes in it. And just by putting two and two together, I knew. Doug Gilbert is good."
Schlossberg and Gilbert were thrown together through 4theBirds, the sticky repellent that is the star of Eaton's bird-control line and which Gilbert uses regularly. "It's the safe way of doing bird control," says Schlossberg, who is still trying to grasp the non-gopher, non-rodent niceties of the bird field. "The way I like to think of it is, say you're standing in a whole row of chewing gum. What are you going to do, keep standing there? An intelligent person won't, and neither will a bird."
But chewing gum will not solve the problem now facing Gilbert. He is at a Safeway-anchored strip mall in a bucolic field on the way to Denver International Airport. "Bet you thought a pigeon problem had to be urban," Gilbert says. "Well, rural can be just as bad. There's 100 to 150 pigeons in this little complex, and there could be more I don't know about yet."
Gilbert props his second-string 22-foot ladder against the building and runs up it to the roof. The gravel there is dotted with what looks like patches of dirt but is actually a three-inch-thick strata of pigeon feces. "Thank God everything dries and deteriorates out here," Gilbert says. "In a place like New York, things don't, and the humidity brings up the odor. Diseases happen. It can get a lot worse than this."