Could you please check out reports of bird calls (hawks, owls, etc.) broadcast from speakers attached to the World Bank Group headquarters building? We often hear these bird calls, with the patterns repeated, but we see only small birds in the vicinity, not raptors. My friends and I have a bet about this: If I am right, they pay me. If they are right, I seek medical attention.
— Jim Levy,
Imagine you are walking in a strangely deserted neighborhood when up ahead you see an inviting building. There is something about the building’s architecture you find appealing, and so you start to walk toward it. It would be nice, you think, to stay there for a while, eat there, possibly defecate there.
But as you draw near, you hear anguished cries. Amid the bloodcurdling screams are identifiable words: “Help! Danger! The horror! Run away!” You also hear scary sounds: gunshots, chain saws, the roars of grizzly bears and lions.
Would you continue walking toward that building?
Of course you would. You’re a curious human. Chain saws and grizzly bears? This you gotta see.
So maybe this analogy doesn’t quite work. But the bird sounds you sometimes hear outside the World Bank — and other buildings in Washington — are the avian equivalent of the scenario Answer Man has just sketched. They are designed to frighten passing birds and make them decide to spend their time somewhere else.
A World Bank employee told Answer Man that speakers are hard-wired at spots around the roof of 1818 H St. NW. The speakers are connected to the Super BirdXPeller Pro, manufactured by Bird-X . It is just one of dozens of bird-vexing products the Chicago-based company markets, including windowsill spikes and a plastic coyote with a faux-fur tail.
The firm says bird recordings are among the most effective countermeasures against the unwanted visitors. They combine recordings of distressed birds with an occasional cry from a predator: sharp-shinned hawk, kestrel, merlin, peregrine falcon . . .
“Birds come into that area, they hear that and they say, ‘Oh my gosh, birds are in trouble over there,’ ” said Kelly Nelson, content marketing director at Bird-X. “It’s not about hurting the birds or irritating them with sounds. It’s to make them feel like the area’s unsafe so they simply go somewhere else.”
The BirdXPeller can be loaded with various recordings. The World Bank said its version has the distress calls of pigeons, starlings, sparrows and gulls. Another has crows, blackbirds, cormorants and ravens. The third version targets woodpeckers.
“Believe me, we have a lot of demand for that one,” Nelson said. “If they have a woodpecker waking them at 4 a.m. every morning, they really want that guy gone.”
Answer Man knows what you’re thinking: What about geese? Geese are notoriously hard to startle. When a flock feeds, one bird will always have its head up. While geese do issue alert calls, they seldom issue an alarm call, the sort of noise that demands immediate retreat.
Wisconsin biologist Philip C. Whitford spent seven years on a literal wild-goose chase, hoping to capture an alarm call. One morning in the 1980s, Whitford was on his way to Lake Evinrude in Milwaukee for another day of goose observation when he saw a group of boys sneaking around some bushes toward an area where he knew waterfowl congregated.
“I had a directional recorder I had turned on, pointed where the commotion would be,” Whitford told Answer Man. “Just as the boys jumped out, the geese gave a tremendous cacophony of calls: alarm calls. They flew right over my head, six feet up.”
That recording — the first of a goose alarm call, Whitford said — is still in use in Bird-X’s Goosebuster line of products.
The World Bank does not play the recordings constantly. The nuisance birds would become inured to them. Pigeons are the primary targets, since they leave behind unpleasant souvenirs. And we’re not talking golden eggs.
“I always try to emphasize the fact that we like birds,” said Nelson, of Bird-X. “We just don’t want them where we are.”
Have you heard something — or seen something — in the Washington area that made you think, “What the . . .?” Send a question to email@example.com.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.