For $2 a bird, this man traps Glendive’s pigeons
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — If feral peafowl caused enough of a nuisance in 1990s Tampa Bay, Florida, you’d call Bryan Cleveland.
“You’d have 150 peacocks in a very upper-class neighborhood,” he said. “And every morning when they’d wake up, they’d see a peacock on the roof of their $110,000 Mercedes — you know what I’m saying — and just ripping it to pieces.”
Cleveland was one of just a few nuisance wildlife removal outfits in that area then. He said the work pitted him against all kinds of animals.
He got calls about hogs all the time. Roaming packs of them tore up landscaping. He evicted seagulls and pelicans from docks with expensive boats moored nearby. Raccoons grew wise and avoided his traps.
Naturally, the job also included pigeon control. He trapped lots of them — one contract came from Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team. Pigeon abatements were good gigs.
“Generally a pigeon job will last months on end,” he said.
Miles away and years later, officials in Glendive felt they were facing a pigeon problem. They swarmed the old grain elevator and congregated near the BNSF building.
Town leaders felt the best remedy was to attack the population. A 2015 poison campaign received “mixed reviews,” as district sanitarian Kevin Pena charitably put it. They ended up with lots of visible pigeon carcasses and still many more flying around.
Pena was open to suggestions. So when a friend told him about a guy who recently moved to Glendive and had made a living catching nuisance animals, Pena listened.
Eventually, they struck a deal.
“So he approached me and said, ‘What about a bounty of $2 per bird?’” Pena said.
The pigeons’ marks on Glendive sidewalks began wearing on the public’s collective last nerve.
“The birds are an annoyance, but it’s the droppings we get complaints about,” said Pena, who has been sanitarian for Dawson and Wibaux counties for four years.
They took particular refuge at the old Jordan Inn, an abandoned hotel that had been shuttered by court order and left unkempt by an out-of-state owner. Pena’s office received a public nuisance petition for the building and its pigeon population.
One business owner, Steve Bury, said that rows of pigeons had lined the Inn’s precipices. Amanda Heimbuch, who runs a craft pottery and art shop a couple doors down, said that it’s the worst in the winter. Sidewalk droppings get covered by snow, and the pigeons distribute another layer on top.
The vacant Jordan Inn takes up half the block where her shop sits. The dirty sidewalk affects foot traffic into her business.
“A lot of people don’t want to walk on this side,” Heimbuch said.
The 2015 attempt to poison pigeons wasn’t intended to simply kill them all. Pena mixed the pigeon feed with Avitrol, which takes over a bird’s nervous system and makes them act erratically. It’s supposed to scare off the other birds.
But the poison can still be lethal. Residents complained about dead birds, and the living population wasn’t affected. Pena, who also sat on the Glendive City Council, got 150 emails from people concerned about the pigeons’ welfare.
“It was ugly,” Pena said. “I apologized to everyone involved.”
It was about that time when Cleveland moved his family to Montana. He knew the state from back in his early 20s, when he worked as a guide near Darby.
But the money then wasn’t great, he said, so in the early 1990s he went to Florida to start his nuisance wildlife business.
“My grandpa was a commercial fisherman and a trapper,” he said. “But he was a different type of trapper than I was. He was an alligator trapper and basically trapped animals to profit from the animals themselves — like alligator hides, otter skins — things of that nature.”
Cleveland is a jack-of-all-trades type, working now as a mail carrier during the day but taking other odd jobs here and there. When he got to Glendive, he learned that his experience trapping birds in Florida uniquely suited the town’s needs.
The original plan was to sell captured Glendive pigeons to buyers in the south who want them for food. Squab, as pigeon meat is known, is sold by both small and commercial operations in some areas of the country.
The sales plan didn’t work out. The shipping costs for live pigeons was too much to make a profit.
So he worked out another deal with the city and county to set up a wire trap atop the Jordan Inn. Each jurisdiction donated $1,000 to the effort, and Cleveland makes $2 per bird until the money runs out.
A business owner separately contracted with Cleveland for a trap on another building. He checks them each night when the birds are calmer.
Between the two traps, Cleveland says he’s caught 408 pigeons.
“They’re a greedy species,” Cleveland said. “And when they see one of their buddies in the cage, eating, they lose all fear and they try to figure out ‘How do I get in there and get that food?’”
Not all pigeons live and die as pests.
Relied upon in modern history for wartime communication, homing pigeons can fetch hundreds or thousands of dollars on the racing circuit today. They’re raced short distances or up and down the coast.
Racing pigeons usually have identifying bands on their legs. Cleveland said he’d identify New York birds while trapping in Florida.
“They look completely different, so you can tell immediately,” he said. “Even if they don’t have a band on them you can tell a racing pigeon from a barn pigeon — what they call barn pigeons here in Montana.”
Racing pigeons often have a lighter body color, he said. They’re “salt-and-pepper looking.”
One of them lives in Cleveland’s back yard. Racer, as it’s named, was a gift from an area pigeon enthusiast.
Racer shares a coop with Leprechaun and Pumpkin, two brightly colored common pigeons caught in Glendive. The birds sit calmly in the Cleveland kids’ grasps, held closely against their chests.
Of all the animals Cleveland has trapped, three pigeons ended up as backyard pets (his family has dogs and cats, too).
There are uses for the other pigeons he catches in Glendive.
“A lot of these dog trainers want them,” Cleveland said. “Problem with that is I’ve got to house them — you know, a lot of birds at a time.”
Next to the pet pigeon coop in Cleveland’s backyard was a dog kennel with 20 or so trapped pigeons. He said the trainers take 30 or 40 birds at a time. The others go to trappers. What they do with the pigeons is their business, he said, but he’s been able to give away all the Glendive birds so far.
For now, it appears that Cleveland is making a dent in the Glendive pigeon population. Heimbuch, the business owner, wondered how long trapping would continue. Won’t more pigeons just show up next year?
The pigeon problem in downtown Glendive seems tied to the fate of the Jordan Inn building, which has become a sort of multi-level pigeon nest. The building’s owner hasn’t moved to pay for restoration or demolition, and Pena said he doesn’t want to see tax money used on that if he can help it.
So for now, Cleveland finds himself back in the trapping business.
“If you’ve got a building that’s already dilapidated a little bit, and you throw pigeons into the mix, now you’ve just damn near condemned the building,” he said.
Information from: The Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com