Originally Posted on November 24, 2012.
Pigeons were considered a nuisance at the Coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma. They left their droppings in the most unfortunate locations. Invariably, you would reach up to grab a rung on a ladder only to feel the cool squishiness of new fallen droppings.
The Power Plant Men had a conflict when it came to pigeons. Most of the plant grounds are designated as a wildlife preserve and the electric company wanted to maintain a general acceptance of wildlife around the immediate plant as much as feasible. The pigeons, however, seem to have been taking advantage of the free rent space supplied by the boiler structures.
It was decided early on that we couldn’t poison the pigeons for various reasons. The main reason was that other non-pigeon entities may find themselves poisoned as well. Other birds may eat the poison, and other animals may eat the dead pigeons causing a poison pill that would work its way up the food chain.
It was decided that the plant would use live traps to catch the pigeons and then the trapped pigeons would be properly disposed of in an efficient and useful method. That is, all the live pigeons were given to a very thin elderly welder named ET. ET wasn’t his real name. I believe he received this name because he reminded you of ET from the movie.
Especially when he wasn’t wearing his teeth. ET was a small older African American man that you just couldn’t help falling in love with the first time you met him. He always wore a smile from ear-to-ear. He was lovable. He would take the pigeons home and eat them. He would say, “They are called ‘Squab’ you know.”
I realized what a great honor and responsibility it was when I was appointed by Larry Riley when I was on the labor crew to maintain the Pigeon live traps. To me, it was a dream job. What could be better on labor crew than going around the plant each day to check the five live traps we had at the time to see if we had trapped any pigeons.
This is a picture of a live trap for pigeons. You sprinkled some corn in the front of the live trap, and you poured corn inside the live trap to entice the pigeons to enter the trap. Once in, they couldn’t get out.
Unbeknownst (I just had to use that word… Un-be-knownst… I’ve said it a few times in my life but have never had the occasion to actually use it when writing) anyway….. Unbeknownst to Larry Riley and the rest of the Power Plant Kingdom, a year and a half before I was appointed as the “Pigeon Trapper of the Power Plant Realm”, I had actually performed experiments with pigeons.
Ok. It is time for a side story:
One person that may have the occasion to read the Power Plant Man Posts, Caryn Lile (now Caryn Iber), who has been a good friend of mine since the second grade, actually was on my team of college students in my Animal Learning class in our senior year in college at the University of Missouri in Columbia. We had devised an experiment to test if we could teach pigeons to cooperate with each other.
My personal ultimate goal in the experiment (though I didn’t tell anyone) was to see if we could tell if pigeons actually cared for each other. The premise for the experiment was to create a situation where a pigeon would peck a button that would feed another pigeon in a nearby cage.
The pigeon in the other cage could peck their button to feed the other pigeon. Caryn and I attempted various variations (is that redundant?) on our experiment to set up a situation where the pigeon would have to watch the other pigeon peck the button before they could eat, and visa-versa, but we never really reached our goal.
The pigeons would always figure out that all they had to do was both go wildly peck their buttons and both were fed. Our professor at the time was Dr. Anger. How is that for the name of a Psychology professor? Perfect! — I have said in previous posts that the head janitor at the power plant reminded me of Red Skelton, but Dr. Anger sounded just like Red Skelton. Just like him!
The first couple of weeks in Dr. Anger’s class, I found myself confused with his terminology. He used words that were not readily available in the old Red 1960 Webster’s Dictionary that I kept in my dorm room. I finally figured out the secret code he was using and the rest of the semester I understood his every word. This gave me a leg up in his class.
There were some words that Dr. Anger would use a lot. There were various drugs that he would talk about that caused different kinds of changes in learning patterns. The ones that he was most enamored with at the time were “Scopolamine”, “Dopamine” and “Norepinephrine” (pronounced Nor-rep-pin-efrin). I know these words well to this day because I still wake up in the middle of the night with a silent scream saying, “Scopolamine!!!” (prounounced “Scoe-pall-a-meen”).
Caryn and I had discussed my obsession with Dr. Anger and my desire to hear him say the word “Scopolamine”. He said it in such a comical “Red Skelton Way” where his tongue was a little more involved in forming the words than a normal person, that just made a chill run up my spine.
I had noticed that Dr. Anger hadn’t used the word for a few weeks in class, and I just wanted to hear him say it one more time. So, I devised different conversations with Dr. Anger to try to get him to mention the word “Scopolamine”. I asked Dr. Anger once if I could talk to him for a few minutes to ask him some questions.
I figured I could trick him into saying “Scopolamine” at least once before I graduated from college in order for the rest of my life to be complete. I remember telling Dr. Anger that I was interested in testing pigeons using different kinds of drugs to see how the drugs affected their learning abilities and what drugs would he suggest…. Of course, being the dumb college student that I was, as soon as I had spit out the question, I realized how stupid it sounded.
Dr. Anger gave me a look like…. “Ok…. I know where this is going…. you just want to get your hands on drugs”…. Geez. I thought immediately when I saw the expression on his face, “Oh gee whiz. He thinks I’m asking this so that I can get my hands on some drugs….”
It didn’t bother me… because all I needed was for him to say “Scopolamine” once and the next 60 years of my life will have been fulfilled. So, I stayed with it. Unfortunately, there was no mention of “Scopolamine”. I left the meeting unfulfilled.
During our experiment, there came a time when we needed an extra pigeon. The only one available was one that Caryn Lile had tried to train during the first lab. Her team (which I was not on) during that experiment had this pigeon that did nothing but sit there. It never moved and never pecked the button.
They would place it in the cage and try to get it to peck a button, but it just never understood that in order to make all those humans standing around smile, all he had to do was go to the button on the wall and peck it.
When I told Caryn that we needed to use that pigeon for our experiment she became slightly annoyed because they had spent weeks trying to teach this pigeon to peck a button. It was the only one left.
We had to use their “bum” pigeon. She retrieved the pigeon from its cage in a two-quart plastic pitcher (pigeons had a natural reflex which caused them to climb into a two-quart pitcher automatically once you place it over their head and were glad to be held upside down as you carried them around).
She placed it in the cage and left to go back to make sure she had closed the cage in the other room. This gave me a few moments alone with the pigeon. I went to work to teach the pigeon to peck the button.
I knew this pigeon had caused Caryn trouble, so I went straight to “Stage 3 Therapy”. I turned on a white light on the button and turned on a cross on the button as well, I waited a second, and then lifted the feeding tray. The tray stayed up for the regular 3 seconds. By the time the pigeon had looked up from gorging on grain, I had turned off the cross (or plus sign) on the button.
I waited a few seconds and turned the cross back on again… a couple of seconds later, I lifted the feeding tray, and the pigeon went straight to eating. The cross was off again when the tray dropped. The third time was the charm. After watching the cross turn on, the pigeon went straight to pecking the grain in the tray, I knew at that point that I had him.
He was mine. The Manchurian Pigeon was all mine! Then I performed the clincher move on the pigeon. I turned on the cross on the white lit button, but I didn’t lift the food tray. “What?” I could see the pigeon think… “The cross is on! Where is the food?!?! Hey button! What’s up?” — PECK! The pigeon pecked the button. Up went the food tray…. the food tray went back down… the pigeon pecked the button — up went the food tray…. etc.
Caryn walked back in the room and here was a pigeon pecking away at the button and eating away at the grain in the food tray. She asked me what happened to her pigeon. I smiled at her innocently and I said, “That IS your pigeon.”
“No Way! This couldn’t be my pigeon! We spent weeks trying to teach this pigeon to peck that button! We came out on weekends! We even taped pieces of grain on the button to try to get the pigeon to peck the button, but it never would.” I could see the tears in her eyes welling up from thinking about the useless hours spent on something that only took me moments.
You see… I felt like I had a personal relationship with the pigeons. I understood them. The pigeons and I were one…. — yeah, right….. my faith in my abilities as “Pigeon Whisperer” was about to be tested. Anyway, the last day of our Animal Learning class consisted of our team sitting down with our professor in a meeting room to present our findings.
I explained to Dr. Anger that even though our experiments were successful, we didn’t show that the pigeons could actually cooperate with each other to keep both of them fed. I ended our meeting by saying to Dr. Anger that when we began our course, he had talked about different drugs and how they had different effects on learning. He had that suspicious look on his face again.
I went on explaining that he especially had talked about the drug “Scopolamine” many times. My teammates all looked at me (ok… they glared at me) as if they were saying to me, “No! Don’t! Don’t say it!!! I did anyway. I told Dr. Anger, “There is something about the way that you say ‘Scopolamine’ that I really adore. I have tried to trick you into saying it for the past couple of months, but nothing has worked. Before we leave, would it be possible to hear you say ‘Scopolamine’ just one more time?”
Dr. Anger looked around at my other teammates who were all about to pass out as they were all holding their breath. Then he looked right at me and said, “Scopolamine! Scopolamine! Scopolamine!” Caryn couldn’t contain it anymore. She broke out in a nervous laughing jag.
The other girl on our team, just sat their stunned that I would risk receiving a bad grade on such an important thesis. Dr. Anger and I both had a look of total satisfaction. I politely said, “Thank you”. My life since then has been “complete” knowing that the last word I have heard from Dr. Anger was “Scopolamine”. — Oh… yeah. We received an A on our thesis paper.
Ok. End of the long side story.
I told this story so that you would understand why I was eager to become the pigeon trapper of the Power Plant Realm. Pigeons and I were one…. Who could be a better pigeon trapper than me? I knew their every thought…. So, since I already told the long side story… I’ll try to keep the rest of the story shorter…. (I hope)
I was a decent pigeon trapper. I captured a couple of pigeons each day. I carefully put pieces of corn in a row up to the entrance of the trap where I had a small pile of corn inside to entice them to enter their last welfare apartment.
Unfortunately, word had gotten out that the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was the perfect spa for pigeons. Carrier Pigeons had been sent out globally alerting pigeons as far as Rome that this Power Plant had more roosts than the Vatican! Just avoid the one dumb Labor Crew hand that had a few live traps set out….. Before long… This is what our plant looked like:
Around this time, I had been sent to torment Ed Shiever in the Sand Filter Tank (see the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space by a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“) and the job of managing the Power Plant Pigeon Live Traps fell to Jody Morse. Jody was a janitor with Ed Shiever and joined the labor crew just before Ed. He had worked in the warehouse before becoming a company employee.
He liked to ramble as I did, but unlike myself, he was truly a real Power Plant Man. I remember leaving the confines of the Sand filter tank to return for lunch at the Labor Crew building in the coal yard only to hear that Jody Morse had caught 10 or 12 pigeons in one day. What? I could only catch one or two! How could Jody be catching 10 or 12?
This is when I realized the full meaning of the Aesop’s Fable: “The Wind and the Sun”. Ok. I know this post is longer than most. I apologize. I originally thought this would be short…. But here is another side story.
Here is the Aesop’s Fable, “The Wind and the Sun”:
“The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveler coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveler to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger You begin.” So, the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveler but the harder, he blew the more closely did the traveler wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveler who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.”
Isn’t it a great story? Persuasion instead of force. This is what Jody had figured out with the pigeons. He had them lining up to go into the Hotel California pigeon traps (you know… “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave”) until they couldn’t fit any more. He had poured a heap of corn inside the trap and another heap of corn in front of the trap. I bow to Jody for his genius.
My arrogance had blinded me. My belief in my past experience had kept me from seeing the reality that was before me. I resolved from that time to live up to the expectations of my Animal Learning Professor Dr. Anger who had blessed me in May 1982 with words, “Scopolamine! Scopolamine! Scopolamine!” Aesop had the final lesson from our pigeon experiment. “Persuasion is much more effective than force.”