One day last summer, as I sat on the warm sands of Assateague Island happily mustarding a corn dog, I noticed a sea gull sidestepping ever closer to me -- and, of course, to the precious wienie-on-a-stick -- so I yelled "Yaaah!" and winged my bottle of Bone-E-Bod bronzing lotion at his head. The bird flapped a few feet away, I slogged through many yards of energy- sapping sand to retrieve the bottle, I slogged back to my towel, and, natch, the little feathered rat started edging in again. After repeating this routine with the same bird nine times, I began to understand why, in confrontations between man and "pest bird," man always loses: The bird's very stupidity is an invincible weapon. The thought process of the gull I fought that day must have gone something like, "Hey! Man with food. Me go to him. Oops, he attack. Fly fly." Pause. Blink. Then, seconds later, its mind uncluttered by any annoying memories: "Hey! Man with food. Me go to -- " And so on. I eventually gave up and tossed a sizable corn-dog hunk as far as I could, just to buy temporary peace.

I know what you're thinking: Why is this person philosophizing about "pest birds"? Well, it sort of just happened. As some of you may remember, a few weeks ago I mentioned a group of Seattle researchers who were "buzzing" gulls with remote-control toy airplanes in an attempt to scare them away from a dump. Well, their report ("Strategies for Reducing {Gull} Population at the Cedar Hill Landfill") finally arrived, and in the course of rounding out my understanding of it with a little research, I, uh, got a bit too vigilant. Before long, I'd spoken with more than a dozen government and private- sector experts in the bizarre field of pest- bird management -- i.e., large-scale beating up of such undesirable species as gulls, pigeons, blackbirds and starlings. It's a truly ugly business. Among the things I heard about that I wouldn't want to hear about if, like you, I were eating breakfast: an anti-pigeon product called Roost-No-More that consists of strips of tiny upright needles on perch areas; angry posses of "seagull-egg stompers"; and a giant sprinkler system being used right now in Kentucky to spray blackbird hordes with a mixture of detergent and water that strips their feathers of insulating oil, causing millions of them to freeze to death. And if that's not gross enough, consider this: Last year a man in Tupelo, Miss., suggested spraying Tabasco instead -- thus "hot saucing" the birds to death.

Though I find it ironic that man despises the very species with which he has the most in common -- after all, gulls and pigeons prefer tacos and cigarettes over dry field corn, and so do we -- I realize that pest-bird control is necessary. Still, I would ask two things of the freaking-out townspeople and besieged mayors who are usually behind it. First, let's be sure that counteraction is really called for. Gulls at airports are a major hazard, and if we allowed pigeons to breed completely unchecked, most cities would soon resemble Pompeii -- only, we'd all be buried in bird doo-doo instead of lava. But many bird versus man disputes are rather petty. At a Massachusetts golf course not long ago, people were calling for a jihad against some visiting Canada geese because . . . that's right: Their golf balls were getting "fouled" with caca. In 1983, 50,000 cattle egrets roosted south of the small East Texas town of Avinger. Being Texans -- and I'm sorry, Texans, but you know I speak the truth -- the Avingerians decided the birds were a health hazard, demanded permission to slaughter the federally protected egrets and yelled that anybody who tried to stop them was a pinhaid gummint bew-ro-crat. "I can't sleep on a feather pillow because of my respiratory ailment," one razor-reasoning townsperson told USA Today, "and my screens are just covered with bird feathers! You tell me that ain't a health hazard!" Eventually, the gummint solved the problem by pruning the rookery trees in a way that made them unattractive to egrets, but not before one 71-year-old townie had "hacked four birds to death." In contrast, consider Jeanne Borgetti's reaction when a few barred owls roosted at her house. Did she get out the guns? No, she compromised. Not only did she leave the owls alone, she altered her life style to remove needless owl temptations. "I had to take my little dog, Bubbles, in for a summer trim," she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "and I said, 'Don't cut her too short, or she'll look too much like a rat.' "

Second -- and this is important -- let's make sure we know what we're doing. The major problem with pest-bird management is a lack of communication between the players and the experts. As a result, the locals are often unaware of what's been tried before, and they go through much needless trial and error. Consider the hated pigeon. As everyone should know, unless a mayor is willing to napalm his entire city (and the surrounding county), he should forget about trying to wipe out Mr. Coo. Still, people keep trying airheaded stunts. It was just a few years ago that Magistrate G.C. Ray of Elizabethtown, Ky., decided that the best way to blitz the pigeons perched on the county courthouse roof was -- get this -- to release a rooftop "feline patrol squad." As described in that well-known national newspaper Grit: "Dozens of pigeons circled overhead . . . as the first cat was shaken out of the bag. The feline paused briefly, absorbed the new surroundings, then raced to the ledge and hurled itself spread-eagle over the wall. It survived the two-and-a-half story leap, as did one other cat who followed the same over-the-wall routine . . . The two other cats raced around the roof like toy cars whose springs are wound to the breaking point, but stopped at the ledge."

Hmmm. The same thought patterns swirl through the Seattle report. Granted, gulls are tough -- they're federally protected and you can't just hose 'em down with deathwash. Still, I think the Seattle team could have done better. Though they list dozens of "consulted experts" who must have known better, they tried: the "scareplanes" (deemed "infeasible" because they didn't work, and the cost of "multiple crews" of model- plane aces at the site would be $100,000 a year); noisemakers; firecracker- shooting shotguns; all-terrain vehicles that roared around keeping the birds from landing (this worked, but it also tore up the landfill); dogs trained to herd birds; "human harassment of loafing birds," including "abuse of stuffed birds in sight of loafing birds" (read: Grown men standing around punching taxidermy specimens); and, finally, the report's recommendation: a $110,000-a-year falconry project. Sounds good. Unfortunately, when I described this to one of the world's leading gull-control experts, he said something along the lines of "Hahahaha!" I think they'll be needing more new ideas. So I'd like to get the ball rolling and suggest: a big billboard that says "Loaf Here No Mo'." Or "decoy" french fries made of heavily yeasted dough that would make the gulls explode. Or (to be used only if all else fails) eight busloads of Avingerians armed with BB guns, machetes and a states' rights manifesto. ::