Bird menace, 1977
This week in my actual column, Dyspepsiana, I recall my time as a tenant in the Ferguson Building at Sixth and Monroe in downtown Springfield. The building is now undergoing redevelopment by new owners Rick and Kim Lawrence, but these worthies already have done the city a service by removing the metal cheese-grater façade that had been tacked into it in the 1960s.
That façade attracted more than approving looks, and inspired this nearly serious column from my Prejudices series that appeared Jan. 21-27, 1977.
A few years ago, when [the Springfield Central Area Development Corporation] was pushing downtown "beautification" like a group of Bible salesmen working Death Row, the owners of the Ferguson Building at Sixth and Monroe (the current tenant is Haines & Essick) decided to give the nine-story structure a face-lift. They mounted a green-and-gold-and-black lattice-on the street sides of the building. It was considered — and is still considered by many downtown businessmen — to be the sort of thing a smart operator does to keep up with the times. If you can't afford to put up a shiny new office building, the argument goes, then cover the old dull one with aluminum. It's cheaper and it looks almost as . . . well, it looks almost the same.
The plan to "beautify" the Ferguson Building had a couple of flaws, though. One of them — its looks — is obvious; the building looks like a shoebox turned on end and covered in tinfoil. The other flaw isn't so obvious, however. You see, the latticework they put over the old facade is a perfect perch for birds. Dozens of birds. Hundreds of birds. The Ferguson Building, in fact, is a de facto bird hotel.
The upper stories are especially popular with the starlings, grackles and pigeons who occasionally roost there. There is, however, no way I can describe what it is these birds do to the latticework upon which they perch without abandoning the elevated tone the Times' editors work so hard (and against such odds) to achieve. So let us pass quickly from the cause to the effect — that is, dung, also known variously as droppings, guano, doo (my favorite) or icky poo. It coats the lattice on the upper stories like snow on a windowsill.
Dung (to paraphrase the bard) by any other name would smell as bad. Luckily, all the tenants of the affected floors have to do is look at the mess. Down on the street, however, it's a different story. Droppings accumulate on the sidewalk and on the hats and overcoats of passersby. People waiting for SMTD buses especially are, to continue the avian motif, sitting ducks. (It's a shame more architects don't ride buses.) An irate rider recently wrote a letter to the editor of the Journal-Register demanding in no uncertain terms that the Illinois EPA do something to clean up what the writer described ominously as the downtown's "bird filth menace."
If bird filth is a menace at Sixth and Monroe, it's a catastrophe a block or two farther up the street. The trees planted beside the city parking ramp at Seventh and Monroe across from the Municipal Building have been taken over by thousands of birds. Droppings from these flocks (there are nine trees altogether) are piled two inches deep in places along the sidewalk and parking meters in the area are splattered so badly with dung that some motorists would rather risk a ticket than get close enough to the meters to put in their nickels.
The bird waste is unhealthy as well as unsightly, and pedestrians have complained to city hall. City council members have talked informally about what might be done to clean up the mess, but they've reached no decision yet.
According to information coming out of the Municipal Building, at least two of the council members have hit upon a solution that is as cheap and simple as it is simple-minded: cut down the trees. It's just an idea, of course; the council may well opt for some other solution. But it seems appropriate to point out that if the tree roosts are destroyed the birds will just light somewhere else, perhaps even in the parking ramp nearby. If they do move onto the ramp, what then? Tear down the ramp too? And if they move onto the Municipal Building across the street? Must that too come down?
Tempting as that last prospect is, there are better ways. The council could make each roost subject to the local property tax, for example. That's made a lot of people move to the suburbs recently; I see no reason why it shouldn't work with birds too. If that didn't work, the council could threaten to annex the trees to the city, thus touching off a mass migration to Leland Grove. Or they could appoint every bird to the Springfield Historical Sites Commission. That way nobody would ever see or hear from them again.
If all else fails, the trees could be wired for sound and broadcasts of city council meetings piped in. By the time the council gets to the new business the birds will have dozed off and fallen from their perches to the ground, where they could be neatly scooped up by Humane Society volunteers for quick transport to the edge of town.
As for who will clean up the mess the birds will have left behind. I have another idea. Hire a bureaucrat. The city's full of them, and they've been shoveling it for years.