Courthouses' cleanup, netting strictly for birds

Removal of droppings, addition of protection included in project

October 02, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

A veil of netting is gradually enveloping Baltimore's downtown circuit courthouses, a response not to tragic national events but to bird droppings so odious they have incited street demonstrations by court employees.

For weeks, workmen wearing respirators and rubber gloves have stood in the buckets of 120-foot lifts, disinfecting and then scraping bird refuse off the two Calvert Street buildings' century-old facades with putty knives and wire brushes.

After debris is collected, workmen hang bird-proof netting from roofs to the tops of first-floor windows. From some angles, the black netting with three-quarter-inch gaps is almost invisible. From others, it looks like a gauzy shroud, as if the artist Christo had wrapped the buildings in the night.

The prevailing reaction from courthouse employees to this dirty work is that it's about time. They have complained for years about pigeons nesting on their office balconies, peering down at them from ledges as they buy hot dogs from the sidewalk stand and generally fouling the area.

Mostly, though, employees have worried that pigeon droppings are making them sick.

But Dave Holsopple of J.C. Ehrlich Co. Inc.'s bird division, which is doing the work, has news for those who have vilified the pigeon: Most of the droppings his workers have encountered are not from Columbia livia, but from Sturnus vulgaris, also known as the starling.

Starlings, stocky, dark birds about the size of robins, move to Baltimore by the thousands to roost from about the second week in October through March, Holsopple said.

At dawn, they fly to greener spaces to feed, mostly on berries. At dusk, they swoop in to sleep on city buildings, including the courthouses, where the thick stone is warm from the day's sun.

The pigeons, which have made nests on the buildings' balconies, live there all year. They feed on the seeds contained in the starling droppings, so the time-sharing arrangement suits them well.

But the droppings of both birds are equally unhealthy to breathe, according to doctors. They can contain parasites, harmful bacteria and viruses, and dust from droppings can aggravate the respiratory system.

Holsopple's company, which the city is paying $174,000, is rushing to hang the netting before the starlings return.

His four workers are days behind schedule because of bomb scares in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks Sept. 11.

But they've dealt with worse. "My guys have been in church bell towers where this stuff is 6 feet deep," he said. "This here is a moderate to heavy" infestation.

Holsopple estimated that the workers would remove 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of droppings from Courthouse East, and 8,000 pounds from Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse.

All of it will go into a refuse bin at Holsopple's office on Joppa Road, and then to a landfill.

Holsopple said he is looking forward to when the starlings return and find netting over their turf.

"It's comical to watch them bouncing off the net," he said. "It takes [them] several days to figure it out. They'll hang on it, look at it, and they'll fly away."

They don't go far.

"They'll go to the buildings next to" them, said Holsopple.

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