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Milwaukee Wisconsin Sentinel Journal
July 21st, 2013
Joe Taschler

To the casual observer, they are beautiful and graceful as they soar along the western Lake Michigan shoreline. To many building owners, they are noisy, smelly, obnoxious creatures that use federal law to their advantage.

They are gulls — primarily ring-billed and herring gulls — which have increasingly adapted to human development and now often make their homes on the rooftops of businesses from Green Bay to Milwaukee to Kenosha.

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“They are an extraordinary nuisance,” said Sheldon Oppermann, president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Wisconsin and executive vice president of Compass Properties LLC in Milwaukee. “They are such a protective animal. If they are on your roof and you get near your roof, it’s war.”

Chances are the gull is going to win that war, given the protection the bird is afforded under federal law.

The gulls are covered under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which involves treaties and conventions among the United States and Canada, Japan, Mexico and Russia for the protection of migratory birds.

Essentially, that means once they are nested, you can’t even send a nasty look their way — even if they’ve settled alongside the intake vents for your heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system.

“By the time they are nesting, well, that’s it,” Oppermann said. “If they’ve nested there, you can’t do anything. They may nest near your HVAC system, for example, so maintenance becomes incredibly difficult.”

The problems the nesting gulls cause are many and varied, business owners say. They’ll chew through air filters. They’ll clog up roof drains. Their droppings, depending on location, can send odors throughout a building. And they’ll dive-bomb you if you try to make repairs.

“We do have a building in their habitat,” Oppermann noted. “It’s just that, if we can, we’d prefer they nest someplace other than where we are. If we can keep our roof floor drains cleaned and keep our tenants safe from getting dive-bombed, the rest of it is OK. We have to coexist.”

To persuade the gulls to go elsewhere, business owners and pest control professionals employ a vast arsenal of methods, including lasers, spikes, noisemakers, ultrasonic waves, plastic imitation predators, a mist that smells like grape Kool-Aid, sticky stuff that the birds don’t like on their feet, and more.

Among the property owners trying to coexist with the birds is the Wisconsin Center District, which operates Milwaukee’s downtown convention center. Gulls had been finding the convention center’s expansive flat roof a paradise.

“They were nesting by the vents that we have on the roof,” said Richard Geyer, president and chief executive of the Wisconsin Center District. “That was a very smelly situation, if I may say it that way.”

The birds were beginning to have an economic impact.

“Let’s say you’re a convention group and you come in and all of a sudden you smell this odor through the ventilation system, and you say, what the hell is that?” Geyer said. “Well, it’s the seagulls nesting up there.

“Our clients were telling us we had to do something. Plus, our staff, we could smell it through the vents. The gulls were nesting and they would feed their young, and their droppings — in summer it was just awful. We had to do something.”

The district installed a wire grid system across its roof, which prevents the gulls from establishing bird nirvana up there because the wires are spaced to prevent them from cupping and folding their wings so they can land. They also won’t go under the grid, possibly because they fear being trapped.

“It’s been a lifesaver,” Geyer said. “That was the solution and it worked. It was under $100,000 to do the whole roof. Seven years later, we look back and say, why didn’t we do this seven years before that?”

Permits to deal with nuisance gulls are sometimes issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow someone to remove eggs from a nest or coat the eggs with corn oil, which prevents them from hatching.

Powers of persuasion

There are many other methods available to deal with the gulls, as long as those methods don’t harm them.

Randy Allen, southeast Wisconsin regional manager for Sun Prairie-based Wil-Kil Pest Control, has had success using a red laser to get them to move, because the gulls by law cannot be trapped and moved as pigeons and certain types of sparrows can.

“We can’t remove them. All we can do is try to change their behavior by modifying a building or using some sort of deterrent,” Allen said.

If the gulls cannot be deterred from nesting, the situation can get nasty — so the trick is to get them to move before they settle in. “When they get in that nesting mode and start laying eggs, they get aggressive,” Allen said.

“You don’t want to be anywhere near that site where they are laying eggs,” said Craig Rohde, marketing manager for Wil-Kil.

Yet another method to deter gulls is the bird spike — specifically, a series of spikes that don’t hurt the birds, but that they won’t land on. The spikes must be spaced properly; Oppermann learned that lesson the hard way when he once placed spikes too far apart, and the birds “ripped them off the roof and they built their nest with them.”

A condo development keeps the birds at bay with a spray that smells like grape Kool-Aid, which the gulls don’t like. Other building owners spread a nontoxic goo on roof edges, or use a system that delivers a small shock to shoo the birds away without injuring them.

Oppermann said his company also is using an ultrasonic system on the roof of a building in downtown Milwaukee. The system emits a very high-pitched buzz “and they seem to not like it.” That one took more than one try, though, because the gulls found a way to beat it at first.

“They are a very smart animal,” Oppermann said. “They have figured out which wire runs the (ultrasonic) speaker and they chewed through it. I kid you not. We have gone to having to hide the wire.”

The gulls do a great job of looking out for each other, so keeping them off the edge of a roof is important, Allen said.

The gulls, which have not been considered endangered, have proved to be adaptable to manmade developments, and their populations have been growing for several decades.

“Since the mid-’70s, there’s been a veritable (gull) population explosion in this state that parallels these increasing trends in other Great Lakes states,” said Sumner Matteson, avian ecologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “Over the last 20 years, it’s really increased in number.”

Population explosion

From 1976 to 2009, populations of ring-bills increased 92%, according to Birds of North America Online. The greatest increases occurred around Lake Michigan. In the nearly 20 years between 1990 and 2009, North American populations of the ring-billed gull grew 250% to an estimated 7.5 million to 10 million.

“I think it’s safe to say that this is a species that is going to be with us likely forever because it has adapted so well to human-dominated landscapes,” Matteson said. “Having said that, there are management techniques that have evolved to address them wherever they are a concern. Generally speaking, people would be bereft at not seeing gulls. The seabird is something people associate with our Great Lakes.”

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: As gull numbers grow, building owners fight back in Sun Prairie, WI

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