What’s the deal with the bird calls played over speak­ers at World Bank Group head­quar­ters?

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - John Kelly's Washington

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, Falls Church

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.”

Twit­ter: @johnkelly

“Birds come into that area, they hear that and they say, ‘Oh my gosh, birds are in trou­ble over there.’ ” Kelly Nel­son, of Bird-X, de­scrib­ing the com­pany’s record­ings of preda­tor calls and the cries of dis­tressed birds used to frighten off un­wanted visi­tors

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