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Birds seen at the Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. / KHOU

HOUSTON -- Just after daybreak on Saturday and Sunday, employees at Bush Intercontinental Airport saw birds in distress mysteriously begin to drop from the sky.

"It was going around and around in circles, you know, like how somebody is drunk or dizzy," parking lot worker Betrice Miles said of the one she saw.

Pigeons and grackles were exhibiting seizure-like behavior, and the beginnings of a slow death. Miles' co-worker Shara Kelly shot video of one dying bird on her cell phone.

"It was right there for a long time just flipping and flipping and flipping," Kelly said. "And I was like, why are these birds dying like that, I don't know if it's something that somebody fed them."

The birds had been fed a toxic bait called Avitrol, sold in the form of corn kernels. Hundreds were poisoned and killed at the airport last weekend as part of a "bird abatement project" that animal rights groups call cruel and inhumane despite its sanction by government agencies.

United Airlines said it hired a licensed pest control contractor, in cooperation with the Houston Airport System, to distribute the Avitrol to "reduce the health and safety risks posed by birds at airport property."

The airline called the birds "pests" in an internal company e-mail that maps out 20 different bait tray sites throughout the airport's terminal as well as a United maintenance hangar.

Avitrol Corporation describes its product as a "chemical frightening agent" intended to flush flocks out of a given location. Birds eat grain bait treated with 4-aminopyridine, which affects their central nervous systems. Their jerky, seizure-like movements and distress cries serve to frighten the rest of the birds, causing them to leave the site.

According to Avitrol's website, birds who ingest a small amount recover with no lasting effects. Birds that eat a lethal dose can die within an hour.

"These deaths look anything but humane," said Dr. John Hadidian, senior scientist with the Humane Society of the United States.

Hadidian said the Humane Society recognizes bird engine strikes as a real threat. Five years ago, Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenburger successfully landed of a U.S. Airways jet in the Hudson River, saving 155 passengers, after birds were sucked into both engines shortly after takeoff.

But the Humane Society and other animal rights groups advocate for non-lethal abatement methods. Those can range from noisemaking devices to laying down pigeon birth-control pellets to control overpopulations.

"The birds that are dying after ingesting this compound are suffering and in great distress," Hadidian said.

In a written statement, airport spokesman David Hebert defended the weekend abatement project.

"The Houston Airport System employs a multi-pronged system in addressing the need to keep the wildlife outside the operational perimeter (of all its airports)," Hebert said.

"This program primarily includes the utilization of loud noises, in an effort to displace the animals, and the installation of traps, but can also employ the use of mitigation chemicals that have been approved for use by the Federal Aviation Administration, the United States Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."

He added the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed the action Tuesday and "it was determined that all measures in question fall within the accepted regulatory guidelines."

While Avitrol is a federally approved chemical and the company's website states that affected birds "are not in pain," the toxicant is not without controversy.

Hadidian said several local and state governments, including San Francisco, Boulder, Colorado and the State of New York, have banned the use of Avitrol.

"I trust my eyes and I look it and I say that is a horrible way for an animal to die," Hadidian said.

United Airlines said it contracts to handle bird abatement about once a year.



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Houston airport pigeons poisoned by the hundreds

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