1970s Bird Strike

Bird Strike

There’s a sign downtown that says “Loud noises may be heard in the evening to deter pest birds.” Old-timers like Carly Dee still talk about the days when the city’s eaves, gargoyles, and rooftops were buzzing with thousands, maybe millions of crows, pigeons, blackbirds, hawks, and the occasional vulture. Each afternoon they emerged from their roosts and darkened the sky, sometimes mauling stray cats, smaller dogs, and trusting toddlers. This continued until 1972, when the exhausted city decided to fight back. Helicopters sprayed a cloud of orange chemicals across the skyline but this had little effect.

At a city council meeting the following year, a history professor at the junior college mentioned Chairman Mao’s 1958 campaign to eradicate all of the sparrows, in which he ordered all Chinese citizens to bang their pots and pans to scare the birds from landing, forcing them to fly until they fell out of the sky in exhaustion. Schools, work units, and government agencies competed against one another to kill the greatest number of sparrows, and the winners were rewarded with a lavish awards ceremony. “Sounds wild,” said the history professor, “but it worked.” By 1960, sparrows were nearly extinct in China and the nation faced an ecological disaster because the insect population had tripled. The professor declined to mention this part, and a resolution was put on the floor and passed the following day: all residents would bang their pots and pans during one-hour shifts from 4pm until 9pm. However, the dead birds that fell from the sky unnerved (and bruised) many residents. Children burst into tears. Families cowered inside their homes, more afraid than ever to go outside. They just didn’t have the stomach for all this killing.

In 1975, a scientist visiting from Frankfurt suggested using sound to repel the birds. Loudspeakers were strapped to the top of city vans and the cries of jungle cats and the popping of shot-guns echoed through the night. Dogs barked like crazy and nobody got any sleep. The animals and guns were soon replaced with tonal frequencies that repelled all wildlife like a forcefield. There were a few unpleasant incidents during the first two or three weeks as scientists worked to find the sweet spot between a frequency that would deter birds and a nearby frequency that caused a person to lose control of his digestive process. Soon the birds retreated and the citizens of Indianapolis could enjoy their city without fear. Over the years, the bursts of noise gradually became part of the aural wallpaper of the city, blending with the ambient hum of air conditioners, traffic, and distant police sirens, and only old-timers like Carly Dee remember how bad it was.