Las Vegas Sun

July 25, 2014

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Local man traps and sells the birds

Meet Jon Hauger, the pigeon trapper with the moves of a cat burglar and no time to spare.

Out of the back of his Chevy pickup Hauger grabs a pail full of pigeon feed, two plastic jugs of water and a couple of burlap sacks. Carrying the load in his left hand, he plucks a 40-foot retractable ladder off the truck's top, balances it on his shoulder and strides over to an apartment building.

Hauger props the ladder against a wall and scrambles up to the roof. About 30 pigeons pace inside the low-slung wire trap he set out the day before, a decent catch for a 24-hour period. Hauger flips open a small door and with one hand snatches the birds out of the trap two at a time, adroitly grasping their wings to prevent them from flying away.

Once Hauger places the pigeons snugly inside the burlap sacks, he refills the trap's water containers and lays down 15 pounds of feed in and around the cage. Then, empty pail and jugs in one hand, full sacks in the other, he scoots down the ladder -- facing forward, no less, a maneuver that might rattle even the iciest-veined jewel thief.

And just like that, in less than five minutes, Hauger is back on terra firma, sliding the birds into cages in his truck before slipping off to check the next trap. No fuss from tenants, no muss for the property manager and, most importantly for the 30-year-old urban trapper, no pesticides used on the birds.

"A poisoned pigeon dies a lengthy, painful, inhumane death," Hauger said. "No one likes to see a pigeon die from poison. I don't care how rough and gruff you are. It's a ghastly sight."

The bountiful -- at times too bountiful -- pigeon population in Las Vegas creates a persistent dilemma for commercial and residential properties. Most often business owners and property managers solve the problem by hiring pest control companies to lay out corn kernels laced with Avitrol, a federally approved pesticide.

The success of Avitrol varies, but less uncertain is that the hours-long death struggle poisoned pigeons suffer can fan an acrid public-relations stench.

Las Vegas Housing Authority officials found that out recently when the "pigeon control program" they instituted at the city's 12 affordable housing complexes upset a handful of tenants at Robert Gordon Plaza, 425 N. 11 St. Housing officials, citing health and safety risks posed by the birds, paid $39,000 to a California pest control company to thin the pigeon population at the complexes.

Gordon plaza residents claim the tainted corn laid out by Pestmaster Services Inc. workers has killed hundreds of pigeons and songbirds. One tenant's protest against the use of Avitrol nearly led to her eviction, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has asked housing officials to consider alternatives to poison.

The controversy caught Hauger's attention. As the owner and sole employee of PCS Enterprise -- the acronym stands for Pigeon Control Service -- he plans to persuade housing officials to mull another way of handling the problem: his way.

To that end, Hauger will approach the housing authority's board of directors today with an offer to trap and remove the pigeons from any one of the city's affordable housing complexes for the low, low cost of absolutely nothing.

"Pest control companies are going to use the poison before trapping because that's what they're geared to do," Hauger said. "They use poison to control insects and rodents. They don't have an understanding of birds."

Hauger's appreciation of ornithology has his business flourishing, in part because he belongs to the tiny fraternity of pigeon trappers nationwide. He catches as many as 15,000 pigeons a month from throughout the western United States and sells them for $2 apiece to bird merchants across the country.

In short, even in a city renowned for its unusual moneymaking opportunities, Hauger's job may be the unlikeliest yet.

"Sometimes I laugh that I'm a pigeon catcher. Sometimes other people laugh," Hauger said with a smile. "But it's been a very enjoyable experience."

The experience began somewhat unexpectedly four years ago when Hauger, president of the Sunrise Mountain Townhomes homeowners association, sought to winnow the community's pigeon flocks. The birds' acidic droppings were eating through the rooftops and awnings of homes, and association residents complained that pigeon nests and feathers clogged air conditioning units.

Hauger called around to area pest control companies only to hear each repeat the Avitrol mantra -- poison is the cheapest and easiest answer. The response didn't sit right with Hauger, who had trapped his share of fowl, rabbits, squirrels and other animals while growing up in North Pole, Alaska.

So relying on skills he honed in the Alaskan wilderness, Hauger built a few traps and set about trying to snare the pigeons. Soon enough he had another concern on his hands: what to do with the dozens of birds he caught.

Hauger said a flurry of phone calls and a blend of "blind luck and research" plugged him into the low-profile network of bird merchants who buy and sell pigeons nationwide. The merchants, despite operating a legitimate business, remain deliberately discreet for fear of attracting the wrath of PETA and other animal-rights groups, he said.

Typical customers of bird merchants include homing pigeon clubs, zoo and university researchers who use them for psychology tests, pigeon fanciers and film production companies that cast the birds in movies. Pigeons also end up as food for falcons, hawks and other raptors owned by private individuals and zoos, while some cultures that regard pigeons as a delicacy import them from the United States.

Hooking up with bird merchants enabled Hauger to quit his job as an assistant supermarket manager and launch PCS Enterprise. Today, after investing $30,000 and losing many a pair of blue jeans to pigeon poop stains, Hauger's list of clients ranges from apartment and condo complexes to restaurants, gas stations and small casinos.

Hauger charges $350 to $530 to clean up a property, although he will waive the fee for managers of less upscale apartment complexes because of the money he makes selling the birds. Deploying his 30 handmade traps, Hauger catches 300 to 500 pigeons a day -- his personal best stands at just under 1,000 -- while working from dawn to dusk. He holds the pigeons in an aviary, a small shed with chicken-wire walls, before shipping them out to merchants.

But beyond realizing a dream of running his own company, Hauger touts the benefits of trapping for a simple reason. "The whole point of my business is you don't have to poison pigeons to handle the problem," he said.

A small slit in the doors of Hauger's cages allows morning doves, sparrows and other songbirds to escape while keeping the pigeons in. Hauger estimates that of the pigeons he catches, one in 2,000 dies in the traps, a survival rate helped by his checking the cages every 24 to 48 hours.

Hauger also disputes the conventional wisdom that Avitrol is the best option for pigeon removal, contending that the birds quickly learn to avoid the whole corn kernels that they associate with the poison. "These companies that use Avitrol play on people's ignorance. Most people have no idea how to take care of a pigeon problem, so they just assume poison is the best way," he said.

Lee Thompson oversees 1,000 condo units and homes in the Las Vegas Valley as president of TMC Realty and Management. Two years ago he hired a pest control company to poison the thousands of pigeons that descended daily on TMC properties. When that failed, Thompson turned to Hauger, whose only form of advertising is a brochure he mails to property managers.

Some weeks later, Hauger's traps -- coupled with the installation of netting around air conditioning units to keep pigeons away -- whittled down the population to a few dozen birds.

Thompson still brings Hauger in every couple of weeks to ensure the population stays that size. The need for ongoing pigeon control differs little whether a pest control company uses poison or traps -- other birds always will take the place of those removed, owing to pigeons' non-migratory nature -- except, Thompson noted, when it comes to public perception.

"Using Avitrol was not a real great experience because the older and younger pigeons die, but it doesn't get a lot of the others. And the ones that do die, it's a pretty ugly, horrible, nerve-wracking death, and you have to pick up the dead birds. We got a lot of complaints on Avitrol," Thompson said.

"Now, I don't hear anything, and that's good news for me. I don't have to worry about kids watching pigeons die."

Nevada Division of Wildlife officials also endorse live traps over Avitrol. "Poison is non-selective -- it can kill other birds," agency spokesman Geoffrey Schneider said. "In those terms, trapping is better than poison."

Hauger tells his customers up-front that some of the birds he traps eventually will die, whether they're fed to falcons or humans. But he pointed out that, at the very least, trapping birds spares residents the unsettling sight of a poisoned pigeon convulsing on their property for hours.

Moreover, Hauger added, pigeons eaten by raptors fulfill their evolutionary role -- something easily forgotten in a city divorced from all things natural.

"I do not derive any joy from knowing some of the birds are going to die," he said. "But I also grew up in the outdoors. I've seen grizzly bears take down caribou and eat them. I've seen wolves eat other animals. That's nature. That's the food chain. Pigeons are part of that."

As for Hauger's offer to the housing authority, Dewain Steadman, chairman of the agency's board of directors, has invited him to talk at today's board meeting at City Hall. Director of Affordable Housing Parviz Ghadiri said last week authority administrators will analyze Hauger's proposal if directors request as much.

Hauger has no doubt that his company will continue to thrive even without the housing authority's business. The father of two and onetime Nevada Assembly candidate said as his waiting list of customers grows, he must soon decide whether to hire additional help or to sell the business.

Until then, the urban trapper will have plenty of work to do in this strangest of settings.

"The desert is the last place you'd think you could do this," Hauger said. "It's definitely a different way to make a living."

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