The Natural Resources Management and Biological Sciences Departments are collaborating with the Operations Division to devise a humane method of studying and mitigating the bird's numbers and effects on facilities.
They are, literally, almost everywhere.
Walking across the Texas Tech University campus, it is impossible to avoid them. Working in one of the buildings, it's common to see them roosting on the ledge outside the window or hear the familiar cooing sound.
Yes, Texas Tech has a pigeon population problem, so much so that officials from the university's Operations Division are combining with experts in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts & Sciences and the Department of Natural Resources Management in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources to try to mitigate the issue.
But in order to control the pigeon population, researchers are first trying to understand its origin, whether the birds are breeding outside the campus and flying in or whether the campus itself is the breeding ground for the invasive bird.
"Sean Childers in Operations decided it might be interesting to try to go at this from a bottom-up approach and to obtain a reasonable idea of the ecology of these birds as well so we can reduce the population size and design or retrofit buildings to where they won't like to put their nest in them," said Richard Stevens, an associate professor in Natural Resources Management.
Stevens said the City of Lubbock also has expressed concern about the birds and the damage being done to facilities and infrastructure outside the campus.
"It could be that the university is a breeding population and then pigeons are going out into the city and the surrounding area, or it could be that they are breeding elsewhere and coming in," said David Ray, an associate professor in Biological Sciences. "What my lab wants to do is take some samples and identify whether it's one or the other, if we can. We want to identify the genetic structure of the population here on campus and the surrounding population to see whether we are a source or a sink (receptor)."
Capturing and tagging
Pigeons are an invasive species of birds originating in the Middle East, according to Erin Bohlender, a Natural Resources Management doctoral student working on the project. Pigeons spread through Europe before reaching North America and have a negative impact on the native bird population, competing for food and nesting spaces.
Sean Childers, assistant vice president for Operations at Texas Tech, said the university spends between $150,000 and $200,000 each year in bird cleanup and deterrent measures. Workers tasked with cleaning pigeon waste off of ledges and other structures are required to wear hazardous material suits due to its toxicity.
Plus, pigeons that roost on building rooftops produce waste that can't be cleaned up by workers and is washed into the gutters of various buildings, potentially producing damage when the gutters clog and water seeps into the walls of the building.
Grounds maintenance has tried various methods in the past to discourage the birds from roosting on buildings, including lining ledges with electric wires. Eventually, however, the pigeons find a way, leaving grounds maintenance and operations to explore new avenues of both prevention and deterrence.
"All efforts to date have been reactive and have not focused on preventative or proactive measures," Childers said. "To understand and make these types of solutions possible, we need to better understand the habits, life cycles and habitats of the pigeon. We have set out to understand pigeons, their needs and their habitat preferences. When the study is complete, our goal is to offer non-lethal, proactive options that would reduce the attractiveness of Texas Tech University buildings, structures and landscape to bird species, primarily the pigeon."
But in conducting this study, researchers are sympathetic to those concerned about bringing undue physical harm to the birds. Stevens and Ray both stress that, at this point, the research is strictly to study the pigeon population and nothing else.
To do that, researchers have set traps at various locations around campus, both on the ground and on buildings. These traps have food in them to attract the pigeon, but at this point the traps do not close to cage the pigeons. Researchers want them to get comfortable with the cages by coming and going freely.
Once the pigeons have grown accustomed to the traps, researchers will begin rigging them where the door will shut the pigeon inside. At that point, researchers will begin fitting the birds with a metal tag that does not cause any harm to the bird whatsoever, and the bird will be released back into the wild.
That will allow researchers at a future date to study which birds remain on or return to campus compared to other birds which will be captured at the same time that aren't tagged.
Bohlender said the researchers understand and are aware of concerns about harming the birds, but stressed no birds will be intentionally harmed during this project.
"It is an animal, and we don't want the animal to be hurt or injured," Bohlender said. "We are not going to hurt them in any way."
Once researchers develop a baseline abundance estimate for the pigeons, the plan for late fall is to put down a contraceptive called Ovo Control that prohibits the birds' eggs from fertilizing. Once that treatment is administered, researchers can then go back and do another population estimate to determine if it has any effect.
Stevens said if the pigeon population is being fed from outside the campus, then the Ovo Control will have little effect. But if Texas Tech is a source for the pigeons, it will help control the population explosion.
"It's probably some combination," Stevens said. "These birds are very mobile; you see them on every single overpass on every highway going in and out of here. It all depends on if the Texas Tech campus is being fed from the outside."
Stevens, Ray and the other researchers are also aware that some on campus treasure the birds. There's even a Texas Tech University pigeons Facebook page devoted to the winged wonder.
"We are not doing anything lethal to the birds," Stevens said. "This approach we are taking with the Ovo Control going forward will, hopefully, reduce the number of birds without killing them or just moving them to another part of Lubbock for a while."
The research, Stevens added, also will facilitate some educational modules in Natural Resources Management that could lead to other teaching and research opportunities for students. It has already produced one collaborative opportunity as Texas Tech is working with researchers at Fordham University in New York City, which is having the same issue.
Childers added one of the most important things to remember is that researchers and operations crews alike are taking great care not to harm any bird in any way while conducting this study. He said he is thankful to have the quality people in Biological Sciences, Natural Resources Management and the Operations Division who are dedicated to this study and ensuring the safety of the birds.
"The trapping, when it occurs, is used to collect blood for genetic analyses and to tag and track the pigeons to get a better understanding of their migratory and breeding cycles, habitat use on campus and their resource needs," Childers said.