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Passion for pigeons guides bridge work.

Byline: MATT COOPER The Register-Guard

SPRINGFIELD - If you're a pigeon, you've got a friend in the state Department of Transportation.

Consider the scene Tuesday morning under the Highway 126 bridge over Pioneer Parkway:

State bridge workers, high in the air in cherry-pickers, gently scooped newborn pigeons from the underside of the span and delivered them to the ground, where they wrapped them in paper towels for warmth while arranging their delivery to safety.

Bystander Joe Coelho could scarcely believe his eyes: "They're going way above and beyond what I figured they would," he said. "These guys are trying to make everyone happy."

Bridges and pigeons go together like ham and eggs, and pedestrians suffer the consequences.

At best, the birds' droppings are a foul nuisance. At worst, the excrement can cause psittacosis, a bird disease that can be transmitted to humans as fever or pneumonia.

The solutions for keeping unwanted birds off structures include needle-like spikes and protective netting. A state Department of Transportation worker once planted a stuffed owl, said Don Angermayer, a state bridge maintenance manager.

But pigeons are stubborn, and "they have a terrific homing instinct," he added.

Angermayer was mulling his options for the Highway 126 bridge last year when he started hearing from Coelho, who had read news reports about the pigeon problem there.

Coelho is to pigeons what Jane Goodall is to chimps. The 46-year-old handyman - he looks a little like ESPN personality Chris Berman - grew up in the Azores islands off Portugal, where he climbed the highest cliffs seeking out the young pigeons, or "squabs," and caring for them as his own.

Coelho called transportation officials repeatedly and persuaded them not to use spikes, predicting a pigeon bloodbath if they did.

The officials agreed to try preventive screens that should force the birds to perches where pedestrians won't be exposed to excrement. Angermayer estimated the project would take two to three days to complete and cost about $5,000.

"There are much higher priorities but we still have to make time to fit these in," he said. "Pigeons on a concrete bridge isn't going to cause any harm, but it's terribly gross and it's unsightly."

The department also agreed to notify Coelho before they removed the fragile squabs, which is how he came to be on hand Tuesday in a hard, chilling rain.

His reputation preceded him. "As soon as I walked up, they said, 'Are you the bird man?' ' Coelho said. "I said, 'Yep,' and they said, 'Here are your birds.' '

Seven squabs 1 to 3 days old - some no bigger than your thumb, all of them covered in yellow peach fuzz - were tucked into a box, along with five eggs. Coelho later delivered them to Willamette Wildlife Rehabilitation, where employees hope to save at least the stronger squabs.

As he watched the workers install screens over the ledges, Coelho praised both their care for the birds and his reception.

"They weren't laughing or mean or making fun of me," he said. "They came over and were very gently and carefully holding the birds, and they had them wrapped up in paper towels."

Pigeon patrol is not the kind of work that 31-year-old bridge worker Mike Lenocker envisioned when he joined the transportation department. And it's safe to say that animal care is not one of the lengthier training classes for a job where hard hats and heavy machinery are the norms.

Still, Lenocker said he and his co-workers warmed to the task, rising 20 feet in their machine-powered baskets to pluck the tiny birds from the ledge, cooing softly all the while, "Oh, it's OK little baby, I'm not going to hurtcha, simmer down."

In fact, Lenocker confided, one worker "kind of got all tender-hearted up there. We did a lot of joking about it."

CAPTION(S):

THOMAS BOYD / The Register-Guard Joe Coelho holds a baby pigeon, called a squab, that was rescued from underneath the Pioneer Parkway/Highway 126 overpass.
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Title Annotation:Highway 126: Workers install screens to keep birds from dirtying the Springfield pedestrian path.; General News
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 13, 2002
Words:660
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