EMPTY NEST SYNDROME
On game day at Coors Field, the canned accordion music blaring overhead barely registers with the fans streaming in through the main gates. But Doug Gilbert is fascinated. He stops in his tracks to inspect the speakers.
"Certainly, just as I thought," he says to himself. "Any of the speakers. Any of the TV monitors. Certainly any of the I-beams. Coors Field is full of I-beams. No wonder it's a mecca for pigeons. It could easily support a thousand pigeons. You could almost call it a condo."
But not since Gilbert came on the scene in April, when he took on the task of ridding Coors Field of pigeons. By now the ballpark's bird population is down to a shadow of its former noisy, droppings-happy self. Still, there are spot problems, as well as weekly maintenance, and today Gilbert is prepared to handle both jobs with zeal. But first he returns to his Bird Control, Inc. truck, puts on his Bird Control, Inc. sneakers and straps on his Bird Control, Inc. black canvas bag.
"Anyone who knows me, knows my bag," he says, opening a top flap to reveal two handfuls of corn. "Some of this is treated. Some isn't. Absolutely no difference, is there?"
Unless you're a bird.
"What we have here is a treated corn developed by Phillips Petroleum," Gilbert explains. "It's designed to relocate birds, not kill them. What it does is disorient them. It interrupts their homing instinct, and they can't remember where they came from. People who've seen the corn in action say it makes the pigeons almost drunk. So when they fly away, they stay away--from one to fifty miles away."
Yet Gilbert doesn't throw the treated corn anywhere a fan might see it. "People are not that smart," he says sadly. "They automatically assume the corn's treated with strychnine and the birds will be killed. But I'm in the relocation business, not the extermination business. Jeez, if I wanted to kill birds, I could do it very efficiently, but then I wouldn't have a profession, would I?"
Speeding past the ticket-taking staff, a laminated badge clipped to his knit shirt, Gilbert slips easily through a half-dozen security checkpoints, occasionally scanning the air above him for flapping wings. It is near his feet, though, that he finally finds a clue.
"Your instinct is to look up," he says. "But in the pigeon business, you're better off looking down." Indeed, a small area between a hotdog stand and a microbrew cart--ten feet by ten feet, say--is moderately splattered with pigeon poop. Fans are walking right through it, not realizing the threat to their health and cleanliness.
"You don't want that lying around," Gilbert says, lowering his voice to a whisper. "Actually, when I first came here, it was ten times worse. But right now, it's still a problem. It's coming from up there in Suite One. Let's go."
Gilbert does not wait for an elevator. He takes two flights of stairs at a fast clip, pausing only to enumerate some of the charms of Coors Field's "ultimate muckety-muck level. Look at this private club," he marvels, pointing to the door next to Suite One. "I mean, the buffet line. It's an incredibly dolled-up-like-crazy buffet line. Baron of beef. Of course, you have to pay for it."
He eases into Suite One, fifteen minutes ahead of the thirty fans who have paid to enjoy its amenities. "It's the least desirable of the suites, I'm told," Gilbert says, "although still, not bad. All the popcorn they want, all the peanuts, and whoever rents it gets to take home all kinds of souvenirs."
None of them, however, are supposed to remind fans of close encounters of the bird kind.
As he steps onto the balcony, Gilbert is greeted by the flapping of wings. "Hello, Bobo," he says to the pigeon, which flies a few feet off and then rests on an I-beam, fixing Gilbert with pin-sized pupils. Its nest is strategically located between Suite One and the large, plate-glass window of the dolled-up-like-crazy buffet.
Some day this week, Gilbert will come back with his forty-foot ladder, climb up, grab the bird and return with a live holdout in hand. "I have to do that once a month or so," he says. "Like the time I found two little fledglings roosting right behind home plate. They were just bombing those good seats. I went up the ladder and got them. Some weatherman with a great sense of humor and a bad toupee was out on the field getting ready to broadcast, and he helped me get those little buggers into a plastic bag."
Colorado Rockies fans will not be privy to the upcoming capture. "It's not politically correct," Gilbert says, with a touch of exasperation. "People hate pigeons, but they don't want to see anything traumatic happen to them."
One elevator, one escalator and one fire escape later, Gilbert is standing on the stadium's north roof, setting out two handfuls of treated corn. Three months ago he began his program by leaving the untreated stuff so that the pigeons would come to expect food at this particular spot. Once he had them where he wanted them, Gilbert began giving them the disorienting chemical substitute, which he generally mixes with plain corn in a one-to-ten ratio. After that, he needs to put out feed only once a month or so to keep the birds disoriented. "Except for all this rain," he adds. "To a pigeon, rained-on corn is like a bad steak at a good restaurant. You never go back to that restaurant, right?"
Although the rain has thrown Gilbert off schedule, the pigeons have taken the bait remarkably well. "Consider the fly-by possibilities," Gilbert explains. "There's this dark roof, where the corn shows up real well. And say a pigeon is out flying around, and suddenly he comes across this big structure, Coors Field, with lots of food lying around. And maybe he's attracted by the dumpsters of LoDo, and the homeless people down by the river may not be any too clean, either. Maybe he sees my little pile of corn, flies down, investigates it and eats it. Wherever he lands, I'll find him. I've been everywhere in this stadium but the locker rooms."
"He's a specialist, all right," agrees Coors Field facilities manager Steven Mikolajczak. "With a structure like this, a pigeon problem is common. At Mile High, we also had skunks, cats, rodents and insect pests. Here at Coors Field, we had a squirrel on the outfield! That can't happen. We have to stay on top of it."
Mikolajczak is satisfied that Gilbert can hold his own against the pigeons. "I call him every time a season-ticket holder gets dropped on, and he comes right out," he says.
But of course--it's all part of the job. When the birds are there, so is Gilbert. "Pigeons do everything by habit, and I just persuade them to change their habits," he says. "I have to think like a bird."
As well as like a person being pestered by a bird. "In our society," he continues, "most people hate pigeons, but they have a problem with pigeon mortality. See how selective we are? They want pigeons to be gone but not dead, and this is because pigeons are not perceived as being bad, bad, bad.
"In fact," he says, warming to his subject, "there are only four things in our society that are bad, bad, bad: cockroaches, rats, spiders and bats. And if you ask me, spiders and bats are misunderstood."
On a typical day, Gilbert puts 200 miles on his Blazer--driving to the Public Service building in Brighton, which lately has been "bombed, just bombed," or out to Greeley to inspect a housing development with its own unwanted flock, or over to Villa Italia, where a pair of sparrows is trapped inside a wall shaft, or down to the Rio Grande building at Eighth and Osage, where pigeons roost in the rafters in the summer, annoying the employees and wrecking the paperwork. "Nuisance birds," he likes to say, "are my specialty. I know a little about a lot of birds, and a lot about pigeons."
This does not mean he won't take on the occasional odd job--a squirrel, muskrat or skunk, for instance. "Skunks, believe it or not, do not like foul odors," he observes. "It helps to put mothballs down their hole."
But this has been a spring of pigeons and more pigeons; the unusually mild winter allowed the birds to hatch four and five times instead of the typical two or three. Today's next job is only a block from Coors Field, and it concerns these precocious birds, already out of the nest, flying around and ruining lunch hours.
"See?" Gilbert says, from five stories up on a gravel roof overlooking a small patch of lawn in a courtyard. "They're supposed to be able to eat lunch down there, but they won't be able to if I don't get our friends here to move along. Come here, Bobo," he tells a pigeon, as he dumps a handful of untreated corn.
Down from the roof and back in Bird Control Central, Gilbert answers a call as he drives to Capitol Hill. "Yes, yes. Tomorrow. Certainly."
It's Joanie Walco, calling about the woodpeckers again.
"Well, my God, it's so horrible," Walco says. "We built this house out of acrylic that looks like stucco, and it's soft, and the woodpeckers are just destroying it."
Not a morning goes by that the woodpeckers' loud attacks on Walco's siding don't remind her of the $40,000 it would cost to apply more durable siding. The birds had been pecking for two summers when Walco's butler finally unearthed the Bird Control phone number. "I'm so glad he did," Walco says. "The others we called want to trap the woodpeckers and kill them. I just wanted them to go elsewhere, and I think that's what they'll do, eventually. These woodpeckers aren't stupid."
To foil the intelligent peckers, Gilbert has been smearing Walco's house with a sticky substance known as 4theBirds Bird Repellent, which adheres to the birds' feathers and discourages them from coming back. "He's taking care of it," Walco says. "I can call him any time. He's very, very fair, and he knows what he's doing."
It's an inherited trait. Gilbert grew up in a family of animal lovers in what was then a rural part of Cherry Hills. His father kept bantam chickens--"I can hypnotize a chicken to this day," Gilbert says--and his mother's pet pig, Heather, was her favorite confidante. Gilbert and his older brother ran wild among the ducks and goats, but they were also on hand when their pets were slaughtered for food. "It was the real world," he recalls. "There was a time when everyone lived that way."
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."
Tell that to the strip-mall tenants whose roof-mounted air conditioners have been invaded by pigeons. Vents have been pecked off, and nests balance precariously where machinery used to be. The persistent sound of cooing filters down--into the liquor store, the African-fashions outlet, the beauty salon.
Dinner time. Gilbert sets out the treated corn. "Come here, Bobo," he says, and another Bird Control project begins.
"At least there's no manual cleanup on this one," he adds. "If I ever do have to do that, I wear a gas mask and coveralls and gloves. It might happen every six weeks or so."
The last time was at a Thornton strip mall owned by entrepreneur Nick Craft. "There was too many of them," Craft recalls. "Pooping, hanging around, making noise, ruining the roof, getting into the air conditioners. Plus, they made hundreds of nests in the gutters, and the tenants got sick of hearing them coo. I got Doug through the Yellow Pages, and he's doing what he can, but sometimes I think the pigeons are winning."
So do his more militant tenants, in particular Dick "You're not gonna use my last name," owner of the Northland Gun Shop. "They make a damn mess, and they're a dirty goddamn bird. And," he adds tersely, "it is not legal to shoot a bird in the city of Thornton."
Instead, Gilbert carries on with treated corn. Three disorienting deposits later, he stows the ladder and re-enters his scrupulously locked vehicle. "I carry some hazardous substances in this truck," he explains. "What if a civilian would get on board, or a child? Whew."
Then again, he says, as he begins a fifty-mile jaunt to investigate an obnoxious starling, treated corn only kills if it's mixed incorrectly. "People ask me, what if a songbird or a wildbird eats the corn? Well, you need to know how a bird feeds. A robin is carnivorous, so no problem. Ducks and geese feed on the ground, and I never put the corn on the ground. Other wild birds can't swallow a whole kernel of corn. A crow or a raven, with their body mass, would only be slightly affected. How 'bout a squirrel? It won't affect a squirrel. And it would take five pounds of uncut treated corn to kill a beagle. How are you gonna get a beagle to eat five pounds of corn?"
This eternal question segues into others, including: How do you rescue flightless baby mallards from an overchlorinated swimming pool? What do you feed orphaned rabbits? And why do people find magpies so annoying?
"Droppings, I guess," Gilbert theorizes. "Loud chirping at night. Trash eating. Pet pestering. But personally, I admire the magpie. They're smart and entertaining. So are crows. So are starlings."
This observation does not mollify the woman who owns the nearly new house in the upwardly mobile Castle Rock development where Gilbert has just parked his car.
"They moved into my eaves, and they won't leave," she tells him. "They're noisy and obnoxious. One of them hit a guest at my last party, and the guest happened to be my mom."
Gilbert stands beside her on the back patio, looking up. "How long do you guess you've heard the little ones?" he asks.
"A couple of weeks. They're right next to the bathroom. In the morning, they get all agitated and pissed off."
Gilbert decides on the 22-foot ladder and bird repellent, but, he adds, "we'll wait till the babies can fly. A week or so. Until then," he cautions, "don't be surprised if they dive-bomb you."
"Okay," the woman says, "I just don't want them to poop on me."
"In that case," Gilbert fires back, "I can sell you a special hat."
On the way home from Castle Rock, Gilbert pulls off the road, snatches his binoculars from the back seat and settles against his truck to watch a scene of aerial interest no other motorist has noticed. A hawk has flown too close to a sparrow's nest, and now the sparrow is chasing the hawk, trying to intimidate it. "Ha, look at this," Gilbert says. "The sparrow is being so tough, and of course the hawk is saying, what's this, a mosquito?
"Never underestimate what a bird might do. Jeez, it was a woodpecker that delayed the launch of the space shuttle Discovery. Or, to be more accurate, a yellow-tailed flicker."
Three days later, Doug Gilbert's passenger seat is semi-permanently occupied by a baby blue jay that needs to be hand-fed every 45 minutes.
"I mix up some of that Gerber baby cereal with milk, and he opens his beak and eats it right off the spoon," Gilbert says proudly. "He's sleeping through the night now, too. I might keep this little bugger till his tailfeathers come in. A week or so."
"My 95-pound golden retriever puppy found him," says Cynthia Schwartz of the blue jay, which came from her back yard. "There were three at first, and I thought they were all dead, but then this one fell four feet into a window well. I'm not a nature freak, but I decided this bird needed a fresh start. The thing is, I didn't know who to call."
Looking in the business pages under "bird," Schwartz came across Gilbert's number. He told her to call Catharine Hurlbutt, the South Denver samaritan who drives a bird ambulance and rehabilitates hurt birds in her home. "But Catharine was deathly ill with bronchitis," Schwartz recalls. "So I called Doug back, and he came about twenty miles out of his way. He took no donations, not even gas money, and it turns out it has nothing to do with what he does for a living, but he went out of his way to save one bird."
"Yeah, well," Gilbert replies, "it happens all the time. They see BIRD. They call.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.