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Courthouse beset by fowl situation

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By Lisa King

Some describe it as slimy; some call it nasty and disgusting.

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But everyone agrees that the sidewalk outside the back door of the Shelby County Courthouse is not sanitary.

The reason: piles of pigeon droppings.

But the pigeons that call the courthouse ledges home soon may have a bird's-eye view of a different perch if county officials have their way.

Shelby County Deputy Judge-Executive Rusty Newton said the county is - once again - devising a plan to make the birds flock together someplace else.

"We are working to get those pigeons eradicated and get them away from the building," he said.

The county's actions are prompted by concerns about health-related problems that could arise from the accumulation of bird droppings around entrances to the courthouse.

One of those is histoplasmosis, an infection caused by a fungus that the Centers for Disease Control says primarily attacks the respiratory system.

In some cases, it can become harmful and even fatal when the fungal spores are inhaled and settle into the lungs. The spores, which are very tiny and lightweight and float on air currents, also persist in the environment for an extended time before dying.

Most courthouse employees and visitors think the building would be better off without those pesky pigeons.

"They make a mess, and they make it hard for people who stand outside and smoke," District Court Clerk Angie Abshire said.

Clerk Camilla Newton said she's relieved she hasn't had a close encounter of the worst kind with them.

"I come in the back door all the time, and I'm just glad I've been missed," she said.

Another woman, who wished to remain anonymous, was more vehement in her dislike of the birds.

"They're nasty, and they should shoot them all," she said, pursing her lips in distaste.

Others said they didn't mind them so much.

"They don't bother me any," said Bruce Graham in the Circuit Clerk's office.

District Court employee Donna Cantrill said she likes the pigeons.

"I feel sorry for them," she said. "Their color is beautiful with all the lavender markings. I don't think they should be killed."

Frank Jimenez, new minister at the Church of God Prophecy Church on A Street, who recently went to the courthouse on business, said although he harbors no animosity toward the birds, he thinks they did make a mess.

"Having them here in the city like this is not good, but they were here before us," he said.

Shelby County Clean Community Coordinator Kathy Ranard said that someone had counted as many as 30 pigeons perched above the courthouse door.

Chief Sheriff's Deputy Gene Witt said what he is concerned about is that most of the birds perch in the back of the courthouse.

"The bad thing is, a lot of the public comes in the back door, and it's the only handicapped entrance to the courthouse," he said.

He added that back in the 1970s, one method of controlling the pigeon population was to hold a pigeon shoot.

Deputy Fred Rothenburger remembered that as well.

"They'd shut the town down, and the hunters would come in and get on top of buildings, and they would clean out the pigeons," he said. "They stopped doing it because of animal rights."

Newton said the problem has been and will continue to be an ongoing one.

"This morning we are putting a sticky substance made just for this on the ledges where they roost," he said. "Pigeons light on that and it gets their feet sticky and they don't like that. So they won't light there anymore."

He added that the disadvantage of using Birdproof Sticky Repellent is that the county has to pay someone to come in and apply the substance to the ledges that are difficult to reach. And it has to be reapplied every year, which gets expensive.

Shelby County native Kerri Richardson, media spokesperson for Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson's office, said she remembers back about 20 years ago a woman who lived in the Town and Country area had severe consequences after contracting histoplasmosis from starlings.

"The sky would be black from all the starlings, and one woman actually contracted Histoplasmosis and was blinded," she said.

Richardson said two years ago, Jefferson County launched a bird-removal program to rid the area around the courthouse in Louisville of starlings, who were roosting in large Magnolia trees.

"They tried a number of things. They put nets over the trees, and when that didn't work, they sprayed them, but that didn't work, either," she said.

The city finally had to cut the trees down to get rid of the birds, she said.

Newton said past efforts to eradicate the pigeons here haven't worked, either.

"We put cages out a few years ago, and then we tried putting wire prongs on the ledges, but the birds just landed all around them," he said.

How likely would it be to contract histoplasmosis or another similar disease from pigeon droppings?

David Kammock, environmental director of the North Central District Public Health Department, said he doesn't think it's very likely that anyone would contract the disease as long as the courthouse maintenance staff cleans the sidewalk on a regular basis, which officials said they do every other day.

"It's nasty; it could be a problem, but I don't think it's likely," he said. "However, there's always that concern."

The Centers for Disease Control seems to agree. Its Web site says that Histoplasmosis grows best in soil enriched with bird manure or bat droppings.

"On the other hand, fresh bird droppings on surfaces such as sidewalks and window sills have not been shown to present a health risk for histoplasmosis because birds themselves do not appear to be infected by H. capsulatum," the site said.

It's only when the birds continually infect the soil that a real health hazard arises.

But people still don't like the mess they make.

"Well, it's just really gross," said Tara Hackworth, from underneath her mask as she swept up feathers, a broken bird egg and mushy wet feces.

"This should be on that TV show about dirty jobs."