May 30-June 5, 2007

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Silicon Alleys - Gary Singh

Silicon Alleys

The Pigeon Invasion

By Gary Singh

WITH ALL the recent hoopla surrounding peregrine falcons nesting at the new San Jose City Hall and the webcam capturing the whole scenario, folks are getting the birdwatching itch again. Silicon Valley has always been a birdwatching hotbed, with expeditions extending out into the nearby wilderness and some folks merely tromping through their own back yards to identify, say, an oak titmouse (Baeolophus inornatus) or a California thrasher (Toxostoma redivivum). Since I know little of such things, I decided to embark on my own birdwatching adventure and gawk at all the dead pigeons underneath the overpass at the Lawrence Expressway Caltrain station in Sunnyvale. In Latin, we shall call them Mortuus pigeons procul syrma constituo.

You see, there has always been a tremendous pigeon problem at the Lawrence Station. The trains run underneath the overpass, perpendicular to the expressway, and hundreds of pigeons were setting up shop on a network of green steel girders that support the overpass. The horizontal girders run underneath the overpass and have lips jutting out on which the pigeons would sit while pooping all over the tracks and the station platform, including anyone sitting on the benches there. So somebody somewhere found a temporary answer and a massive wire mesh grid was installed, blocking off all access by the pigeons to the girders. But several still managed to find their way inside and get to the girders in order to nest. Unfortunately, many who got inside had not much room to fly around and ended getting themselves stuck in the wire mesh, either crushing themselves or choking to death. So there you have it—a dozen dead pigeons stuck in a wire mesh underneath an expressway overpass. At least that's what it looked like had happened.

But there's more. The pigeons also apparently used to sit on the exposed girders outside, the ones that run the length of the overpass, just below street level. As a result, massive spikes were installed on these girders so the pigeons could no longer sit there anymore. I watched one pigeon perched on a steel support cable, just a foot away from the spikes, and he was looking down at them with a very sad and confused look on his face, like he didn't know what to do, as if he had just lost his home. Even the most tactless, unfeeling person would have felt something for these dead pigeons. I freakin' hate pigeons and I still felt a peculiar sense of guilt about all this. If peregrine falcons had swooped in and eaten the pigeons—like they do at the new San Jose City Hall—then it would have seemed a lot more natural.

However, the Sunnyvale anti-pigeon counteroffensive doesn't stop there. All throughout the station, one finds small, electronically controlled devices hidden in various nooks and crannies. These small boxes randomly emit shrill, pulsating blasts of electronic sound designed to drive the pigeons away. And they work.

Out on the outside portions of the platform away from the overpass sit the actual booths where folks can buy their tickets and then sit down. The roofs of these booths are made of wooden rafters and the pigeons would inhabit them obsessively. But not after the electronic noise–generators were installed. The pigeons now pretty much leave the booths alone. Sure, anyone sitting there waiting for the train has to endure the piercing sounds, but at least no one gets pooped on. The entire picture is downright bizarre.

San Jose's answer to its own pigeon predicament at the Federal Building downtown was to install fake owls everywhere to scare off the pigeons. "They don't work," one security guard told me. I told him maybe they should hire more peregrine falcons instead.

Anyway, this entire pigeon scenario should be included in any birdwatching guide to Silicon Valley: Hundreds of pigeons flying all over the place, in and around an overpass while the dead ones remain stuck in a wire mesh grid. I may have to install a webcam myself.

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