Man with a secret helps city say bye-bye to birdies

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Totally sounds like the premise to a sci-fi tale. The guy has some way of communicating directly with the birds: meets the King of the Flock, and bribes the birds to leave for a season. If the city/town doesn't renew the Bird Man's contract, next year the birds return.

Or something.

Man with a secret helps city say bye-bye to birdies
Every fall, the starlings descended on Decatur like a plague. Screeching and flapping, thousands of birds seized control of the park and dive-bombed residents, who fought back by lobbing firecrackers and blasting them with a propane cannon.

Nothing worked until town officials called in James Soules. As owner of the Decatur-based Bird Repellent Co., the quiet man said he could beat the birds, but there was a catch: He refused to tell anyone how he would do it. He demanded complete secrecy, warning officials not to spy on him.

Soules might have seemed like a swindler, but over the next few weeks something astounding happened. The starlings began to fly away. “I was amazed,” said Dan Mendenall, a city official in Decatur. “It was almost like he wished them away.”

The last of those birds flew out of Decatur in the 1990s, and in the years since, the 83-year-old Soules has driven off others using tactics that are a closely guarded secret. A modern-day pied piper, he has become a legend around Decatur, where people call him the “birdman,” “shaman” or even the “crow whisperer.”
“He doesn't get rid of half or a third. They're all gone,” said Paul Osborne, the mayor of Decatur. “I don't know what he does. He doesn't poison them. He doesn't use spray. You never see bird carcasses. They just fly away, and they don't come back.”

Over the years, Soules has made a steady living battling blackbirds, starlings, crows, pigeons and sparrows. These birds can be a big problem for cities and towns across the Midwest. Starlings and crows in particular can descend en masse in the autumn, mucking up parks and leaving sticky messes on sidewalks. A typical roost can draw a few hundred to 15,000 birds, and on rare occasions hundreds of thousands, so many the sky nearly turns black.

In Galesburg, where Soules had a contract two years ago, people occasionally saw him in the park, working long after midnight. As he moved from tree to tree, the birds seemed to lift up. “I'm not exactly sure what he does,” said Goddard, the city manager. “But whatever it is, it is very effective.”

The story begins with Soules' father, Jimmie, who founded the family business in the 1930s. The elder Soules had become a local hero in the 1940s, when he used owl decoys to scare the starlings from Decatur. Life magazine featured him and his fake owls in a three-page spread in 1947. In one news account, Soules and his then business partner were described as “America's foremost two-member team of bird shoo-ers.”

But the starlings eventually realized the owls were fakes, and soon Soules Sr. was back at the drawing board. By the 1950s, his son had joined him. The younger Soules tried to attack the problem by “thinking like a bird.” He studied their habits, and often rappelled down buildings to look for nests.

Today, Soules is deliberately vague about his breakthrough, saying only that he used `trial-and-error' before he hit upon a foolproof method in the early 1950s.

Soules and his father soon were selling their secret process, carrying mysterious black boxes to towns in Illinois and across the Midwest. They refused to reveal their technique, but guaranteed their work and accepted payment only after the job was done. Their company stationery announced: “We have never failed.”
In Decatur, Soules and his father kept the birds out of the downtown for a few thousand dollars a year. But in the 1980s, the city let the contract lapse.

But by the early 1990s, the starlings were back. Birds were roosting in the downtown. Birds were pecking people on their heads. Worst of all, birds were leaving a sloppy, smelly mess.

City officials organized volunteers to bang pots and pans along the streets. Maintenance workers set off a propane cannon so loud it shattered windows and triggered the alarm at the downtown bank.

Still, the birds refused to budge.

In desperation, local forester Randy Callison called Soules. But perhaps feeling jilted, Soules refused to take the job. He told them he didn't have the time, and it didn't pay enough. Two more city officials had to call before Soules finally agreed to a contract that paid $36,000 over four years.

Within a week, city officials say, the birds had flown away.
Most, it seems, are willing to live with the mystery.

“I guess there are some things in life where you may never hear an explanation,” said Steve Swanson, Decatur's director of engineering and infrastructure. “It's like the guy who hides his secret for Coca-Cola. He just won't share it.”

Soules laughs when he hears the wild guesses and strange theories.

“You're not even close,” he said on a recent day, his eyes lively, his voice ringing with glee. “You haven't even got one-tenth of the secret.”

When asked about the black “mystery” boxes, Soules didn't miss a beat.

“The boxes?” he said, offhandedly. “Oh that was a gimmick. I haven't seen those boxes in years.”

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1 Comment

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