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Wednesday, April 25, 2007 07:27 am

Fowl play

Downtown businesses say “bird whisperer” is working

Untitled Document He’s been attacked by flocks of crows and fought a six-month bout with the pneumonia-like birdborne disease histoplasmosis. When he was just 4, he almost became an eagle’s meal. “If it happened to you, you won’t ever like a bird again,” says James L. Soules, who turns 85 in June. A lifetime of bad experiences helped Soules, owner of Decatur-based Bird Repellent Co., become one of the region’s most sought-after bird-removal experts. In November, Soules was awarded a $164,000 contract by the city of Springfield to rid downtown of pigeons and starlings by the spring of 2009. The contract was approved without dissent by the City Council. According to the ordinance awarding the contract, bird removal is “in the best interest of public health and safety in the downtown area.”
Soules got the job because Mayor Tim Davlin was tired of the mess the birds were leaving and tired of public employees’ having to clean up after them, says Ernie Slottag, city communications director. “Especially in light of our expanded tourism, we want downtown looking as nice as possible,” Slottag says. Downtown business owners say they’ve seen improvement in recent months. On the basis of what’s she’s heard from shop owners and her own observations, Downtown Springfield Inc. executive director Victoria Clemons says that the starling situation is now pretty good. And Trout Lily Café owner Kate Hawkes says that she’s noticed fewer pigeons as she walks along Monroe Street. But it’s hard to quantify just how good a job Soules is doing — he doesn’t disclose his methods, nor will he allow a reporter to watch his employees in action. Slottag says that although he’s not obligated to submit written reports, Soules does provide Davlin’s office with weekly progress reports. Last fall Soules started with starlings on parking garage and ramps. He tells Illinois Times that his crew has driven 100 percent of the starlings — 1.2 million birds, by his calculation — far north, “where’s there’s trees and shrubbery, where they can enjoy the life.”
Pigeons, Soules says, take a little longer, but he appears to be making progress on that front as well. “It’s much better,” says Philip McFadden, who owns a building at the corner of Monroe Avenue and Fifth Street. “The man’s done a very good job,” McFadden says. “He’s an old man, but he’s the only one who seems to know how to do it.”
In addition to not using pesticides, smells, lights, or sounds, Soules says he doesn’t train the birds (for instance, in the way one would train a homing pigeon), either. Under his contract, which Mayor Tim Davlin signed on Dec. 5, Soules received $72,000 between Nov. 30 and March 31. He will receive another $46,000 between Oct. 1 and March 1, 2008. The final installment, $46,000, will be paid between Oct. 1, 2008, and March 1, 2009. Soules says the amount, his standard, is well deserved because he employs five to seven workers who work three days per week for about 10 hours each day.
Despite the seven-month payment gap, Soules says, his crew’s work schedule won’t change. The length of the contract, he explains, is needed because the offspring of the banished birds might find their way back to the city. He’s found that after three years the birds stay gone.
On any given day, Soules says, there’s one company-owned truck and several vans at work. “After a little while I take the signs off of the truck so I can get around a little better,” he says, “because people like to stop and talk.”
Each member of his team, he adds, is licensed by and registered with the Illinois Department of Public Health as a pest-control technician. Although he doesn’t use poison on the birds, Soules himself is a certified pesticide technician because a small portion of his business is devoted to rats — known by some as featherless pigeons without wings. Soules isn’t as nice to the rodents as he is to the birds: “You have to use pesticides. I don’t talk to them.”  

Contact R.L. Nave@illinoistimes.com
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