11 February 2002


Experts keep crime scene in NY from going to birds

By Tina Hesman
Of the Post-Dispatch
02/10/2002 09:15 PM

Wildlife specialists from Missouri and Illinois are helping defend the world's most high-profile crime scene from looters.

The crime scene is the landfill on Staten Island where hundreds of detectives search through piles of twisted steel, rubble and ash from the World Trade Center. The looters: sea gulls - and an occasional crow.

About 35 wildlife specialists from 19 states - including three from Missouri and one from Illinois - have answered the call to drive birds away from the sensitive site.

The Fresh Kills landfill, which carries the name of a creek in the area, is one of the world's largest. It closed in March 2001 after more than half a century of processing New York's trash, but it reopened to handle tons of rubble and debris created in the attacks Sept. 11 on the World Trade Center.

The New York City Police Department has declared the approximately 80-acre site a crime scene. Police officers and volunteers go through the rubble looking for evidence, personal effects - including wallets, watches, drivers licenses and jewelry - and human remains that might yield DNA evidence.

But this is no mere crime scene. It is sacred ground. And marauding gulls and crows are not welcome, said Richard B. Chipman, the New York State director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's wildlife services unit. The birds had become a nuisance by foraging through the rubble and disturbing workers trying to gather evidence. The agencies managing the site called Chipman on Sept. 18 to ask for help. Before dawn the next morning, wildlife biologists were on the job.

Long memories

In 1986, more than 100,000 gulls swarmed over the landfill. Gulls live long lives - 20 years or more - and have good memories, Chipman said. Some from 1986 may still be alive today. And young birds probably learned from their counterparts how good the site was for gulls, he said.

So when the birds spied workers bringing rubble to the site, "it was very logical for them to go there and start loafing," Chipman said.

The gulls don't build nests at the landfill. They choose islands and other places to mate and hatch eggs, Chipman said. But gulls seem to find Fresh Kills attractive for just hanging out, grabbing a bite to eat or surveying for predators. It's a place where the birds can feel safe, Chipman said.

"We have to re-educate gulls on a regular basis that this is not a place they want to be," Chipman said.

Teams of two patrol the landfill and dock where barges bearing debris from Ground Zero are unloaded.

"Our job responsibility is to harass gulls away from the landfill," said Richard C. Hinnah, a wildlife specialist with the Agriculture Department's office in Missouri. Biologists have developed several methods to bother birds.

Inch-wide mylar tape woven between stakes in the ground flash in the sun and buzz when blown by the wind. The sight and sound are enough to keep gulls from loafing on several dirt mounds, Chipman said. Scarecrows keep the birds away from other areas. Red laser points sweeping the ground get birds that have landed up and out before dawn, he said.

But the weapons of choice against the feathered menaces are screamers and bangers - fancy fireworks that scare the birds from the site. Screamers resemble bottle rockets without the stick, while bangers are modified firecrackers, said Illinois wildlife biologist Aaron Spencer. The biologists alternate between screamers and bangers so the birds don't get used to either, Spencer said.

Spencer is a repeat defender of the rubble piles. He spent a total of three weeks at the site during two visits.

After a few days at the landfill, the wildlife specialists learn the birds' regular flight plans and hunker down in key spots for maximum harassment, Hinnah said. On a typical day, biologists may shoot more than 200 pyrotechnic devices from a launcher that resembles a starter's pistol, Hinnah said.

The number of shots depends on bird activity, and that varies with the weather. On a cloudy day in November, Missouri wildlife specialist Dan McMurtry fought off about 15,000 gulls. The birds don't go out to sea when the weather is bad, he discovered. On sunny days, McMurtry said, only about 5,000 gulls tried to visit the site.

The whiz and bang may frighten birds, but they don't disturb the hallowed ground, Spencer said. Although the landfill is a solemn place, it's not silent, he said. In addition to hundreds of fireworks frightening away gulls and crows, bulldozers, cranes, trucks and conveyor belts create an almost constant din, he said.

Willing workers

All of the biologists said they didn't hesitate to offer their services when Chipman sent out an e-mail requesting help.

"It was something more than money that I could give," McMurtry said.

"Everyone in this country wants to do something to help," Chipman said, "and if you get a chance to do something in which you have professional expertise, it can be very rewarding."

It also can be exhausting. The wildlife specialists get up before dawn and work until after sunset. It's the least they can do, the bird chasers say.

"I felt kind of bad that I was only working 12 to 14 hours a day," McMurtry said. That's because work goes on at Fresh Kills 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and many of those searching the rubble work far longer hours, he said.

It's an overwhelming and awe-inspiring task, the wildlife specialists say.

"The trucks just keep coming, and coming and coming, unloading all the debris," said Spencer. "And the piles never seem to get any smaller."

Work at the landfill was originally expected to last more than two years but may be completed later this year. Many birds will move on to nesting grounds in the spring, but the biologists will remain, Chipman said.

"We're going to stay here as long as they need us."

Reporter Tina Hesman


Phone: 314-340-8325