Eighteen frozen pigeons were recently shipped north to the suburban Albany labs of New York State wildlife pathologist Ward Stone. The birds, poisoned by pesticide-spiked rice, were a familiar sight to the medical examiner. He had already autopsied several victims, and this latest batch of corpses, found scattered around a supermarket parking lot in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, put the murder tally in the hundreds -- and confirmed Stone's suspicion that he is on the Carbofuran-laced-birdseed trail of an avian serial killer.
The pigeons were added to a pile of more than 400 New York City birds Stone has examined over the past two years. He's been cataloguing causes of death in our 126-species bird habitat, and his pigeon report joined a folder filled with more exotic necropsies: a Jamaica Bay loon with its waterproofing washed away by detergent; a swan found in Central Park Lake with a lead sinker stuck in its gizzard; two red-tailed hawks from Mary Tyler Moore's building; and a black-crowned night heron from Prospect Park loaded with four pesticides.
Besides the vigilante avicides and high-profile mortalities, Stone has examined dozens of birds killed by the commercial agent Avitrol, used legally by exterminators all over the city. "You can get caught up in the 'Carbofuran Killer,' but Avitrol is what's killing most of the birds in New York City," argues anti-Avitrol activist Mary Kelly, whose outrage at the sight of dead pigeons plopping to the pavement from lofty aeries on York and 86th Street in 1997 prompted Stone's larger inquiry. After autopsying Kelly's birds, Stone recommended a statewide ban on Avitrol (his employers at the state Department of Environmental Conservation issue licenses to exterminators). He has also found the toxic substance in at least one peregrine falcon -- evidence, he says, that the agent is passed to other birds up the food chain, since peregrines love pigeon pie.
Thanks to Stone and Kelly, avian awareness has roosted in Albany: An Avitrol-ban bill flew through the State Assembly last year but crashed in the Senate under pesticide-lobby pressure. This year's version would have given individual localities the right to ban the pesticide, but Governor Pataki clipped the bill's wings when he vetoed it at the end of July.
Stone's activism also prompted wildlife rehabilitators, bird-loving bureaucrats, and other nature freaks to begin scooping and sending the dead crows, starlings, and grackles in their neighborhoods and parks, and Stone plans to release his first-ever comprehensive city bird-necropsy report shortly. He says he was surprised at the "incredible array" of local birds he encountered, "much more than a country boy like me could have expected," and cites improved water quality -- hell, there are cormorants cruising in the Gowanus Canal -- as a critical factor in maintaining the city's "splendiferous" habitat.
The pathologist has lost track of the number of times he's been compared to seventies television hero Quincy, M.E., but he has his own unsolved mysteries to take care of: Those Brooklyn birds, it turns out, were done in by a copycat using a different pesticide (Methomyl) and bait than the Carbofuran Killer. Still, says the scientist, a bit optimistically, "only two purposeful poisoners in a city of millions -- that's not bad."