In which it all goes a bit Hitchcock

As I approach the door and reach for the knob, I find that my heart rate has accelerated. Behind me, one of our research nurses cowers a few paces back: she needs to get inside, but – quite understandably – doesn’t want to go in first. This, then, is one of the many aspects of being in charge of a lab that isn’t listed in the job description.

I know exactly what to expect, but somehow, that doesn’t make the atmosphere any less tense.

The Terror Within

As I pull open the door and slip inside, all at first seems well: the thrumming of the four massive freezers, ancient but still serviceable, produces its usual white noise, and a faint cool breeze from the open windows ripples my white coat, dispelling the breathy heat of the machinery. I’m just about to turn to my colleague and proclaim the all-clear when suddenly, an explosion of sound like an out-of-control helicopter blasts through the room. My colleague and I emit involuntary shrieks, duck and cover our faces as two grey, blurry objects rocket out from behind the freezers and make a bid for freedom through the open windows. In the shocked silence that ensues, a dozen feathers spiral lazily to the floor, already coated in the weekend’s layer of downy fluff and guano.

Only then do we laugh, and then go about our business retrieving samples.

Forget the spherical cow; dear reader, we have a massive pigeon problem here in the lab. It’s all down to the lack of air conditioning. Having four immense freezers attempting to keep a core inner temperature of minus eighty degrees Centigrade in a room barely larger than a closet, the ambient temperature quickly exceeds the machines’ capacity to do their jobs if there is not sufficient ventilation.

Freezer Room

There were a few weeks over the long, bitter winter when we could actually shut the windows, but those days are long gone. As the warm spring sunshine pours through the Victorian panes of glass, the freezer room quickly overheats unless all five windows are wide open. And with spring also come the roosting pigeons, which seem to particularly like hanging out with a bunch of hot freezers. The fair weather also, of course, happens to correspond with the end of term, when there are no longer any undergraduates around to bribe into being gun dogs to flush out the pests.

Try as I might, I can’t come up with a solution that doesn’t involve a ridiculous amount of effort, such as buying lengths of chicken wire at a home improvement shop and nailing them up as barricades. We could learn to live with the shock factor, but we’re worried about hygiene: the freezer room abuts our main microbiology lab, where we are culturing uropathogens with fastidious care. And for some reason, the pigeons that hang around the Archway Gyratory seem particularly scruffy and insalubrious.

Post-Pigeon Lab Carnage
Post-pigeon carnage

All ideas, serious and otherwise, gratefully received.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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12 Responses to In which it all goes a bit Hitchcock

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    Have you thought about cutting out silhouttes of sparrowhawks and sticking them on to the windows? I’ve seen this used before to discourage small birds from flying into windows and it might work for pigeons.

  2. cromercrox says:

    ‘Sparrowhawks’ was also the suggestion that occurred to me. Legend has it that Queen Victoria became quite exercised by the number of sparrows flying around inside the Crystal Palace before the Great Exhibition of 1851. The sparrows couldn’t be shot, for fear of breaking the glass. The Queen asked the Duke of Wellington what to do – his reply: ‘try sparrowhawks, Ma’am’.

  3. cromercrox says:

    But srsly, you don’t need chicken wire – all you need is some floppy plastic mesh bird netting of the kind used to protect pea plants or soft fruit. This is available at any hardware store or garden centre for much less the price of a centrifuge or a next-generation sequencer. You could then fix it over the window gap with gaffer tape, in such a way that it wouldn’t impede your opening of the window. It wouldn’t look very stylish, but needs must.

  4. Oo, I do like any excuse to use gaffer tape in the lab. Now if only I could incorporate some aluminium foil as well. Then I’d feel like a proper mad scientist.

  5. cromercrox says:

    Gaffer tape, nylon cable ties, and superglue: the Triumvirate of the Toolbox.

  6. Ah, cultural differences. In this part of the world no opening window would be missing insect screen, which also keeps out pigeons (or in our case, Mourning Doves).

    Seriously though – and I think I suggested this before – is this not a job for *shudder* Occupational Health and Safety? Could you not convince them that such a safety and health hazard as live pigeons would require their intervention (and their budget) to install screens, or some other kind of window that isn’t of the tilty kind?

  7. Winty, I can’t tell you how much I miss screened windows – especially in one’s bedroom on a hot summer’s night. (See also, crickets and fireflies, also sadly lacking.) They just don’t *do* screens in the UK. Our nurse has asked Estates if they could rig up some netting as per Dr HG of Cromer’s suggestion, so we’ll see what they say.

  8. /double-take. I always thought they were *Morning* Doves, back when they sang outside my window in Ohio. You learn something every day. “Mourning” makes much more sense, given the plaintive nature of their call.

  9. We got used to screened windows in the States, and definitely missed them when we got back to the UK. As a result, in the 70s my dad used to occasionally re-appear from trips to North America with things like this.

  10. Steve Caplan says:

    May I recommend my neighbor?
    He may be all scoped out for pigeons as well as opossums…

    Seriously, I’m told tin foil scares the bejesus out of pigeons, so taping it on the window sill might help.

  11. John Gilbey says:

    I thoroughly endorse Henry’s idea of sparrowhawks. They are VERY effective with pigeons, although they are extremely messy eaters… The best bit, from the standpoint of academic impact, would be if you could train one to fly from your hand under voice control: Adopt a suitably steam-punk outfit, stand within sight of the Senior Common Room and sweep the hawk skywards while yelling “Fly My Pretty One!” at the top of your voice. That should keep the lab free of random (human) visitors for a bit, while enhancing your image no end… 🙂

  12. At the end of my first year of undergrad, I travelled around Europe by train with one of my friends. We discovered many, many differences in taste and temperament during this trip (we were barely talking by the time we reached Switzerland), not least our reaction to pigeons – she would freak OUT any time one got within a few feet of her, while I wasn’t bothered at all. Given the amount of time we spent in stations and public squares in large European cities, this ended up being a frequent source of annoyance – she’d yell “WAIT FOR ME!” as she ducked and covered in fear, while I’d march off, deriding her for being a wuss and yelling “GET OVER IT, PIGEONS DO *NOT* FLY INTO PEOPLE!”. During one such incident – I believe it was in Bruges station at the very end of our trip – I was yelling just this, for the hundredth time that week, when a pigeon flew RIGHT into my back.

    The laughing fits did much to save our friendship…

    Over here it’s the season of nesting crows swooping at me while I’m riding my bike to work. Thank goodness for helmets 🙂

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