Finding a repellent to keep woodpeckers from attacking telephone poles has long stumped utility companies.
About five years ago, several rural electric cooperatives here whose poles have been under siege by the birds joined forces and now they claim to have found a cure.
But the birds are continuing to have a field day while government environmental watchdogs hold up sales of the new repellent.
The Texans searched for the repellent by testing various chemicals in a giant aviary stocked with captive woodpeckers and telephone poles. They claim to have finally hit on a chemical that is so safe that it won’t hurt man or woodpecker, but will nevertheless keep the birds from attacking the poles.
The chemical has been used for various other purposes over the years--as a solvent in the plastics industry and even to dilute a herbicide commonly sprayed on rice paddies.
But their initial sense of triumph has begun to fade during the last year as their product has languished in Washington awaiting clearance from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“The minute you label something a pesticide, it sets off the EPA,” said Dave Hatcher, president of Ida-Con, a small Houston company planning to market the repellent, known as ST-138.
“Even if it were chewing gum that we were sticking on the poles to keep the woodpeckers away, they’d make us go through this whole process if we wanted to sell the chewing gum as a woodpecker repellent,” Hatcher said.
Dan Peacock, an EPA biologist, did not disagree.
“Say it was Beechnut (gum) and the woodpeckers didn’t like the smell,” said Peacock. “It (the gum) would need to be registered” with the EPA as a pesticide.
The pesticide registration process, as spelled out in the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, is a time-consuming and costly process, designed to ensure that new products “don’t cause unreasonable adverse effects on man and the environment,” Peacock said.
One question about ST-138 that the Texans have not yet answered, Peacock pointed out, is what would happen to the woodpecker if he ingested the chemical?
Hatcher rolled his eyes when queried about this. Getting the answer, he said, will box him into a Catch-22 situation:
First, he pointed, out, the birds don’t like ST-138, so they would have to be force-fed the product. Then, to judge the effects, they would probably have to be cut open.
“And we could go to jail for that!” he exclaimed. " . . . It’s a crime to kill a woodpecker because they’re a protected species.”
“Now, what are we supposed to do about that ?” said Hatcher, who has managed to keep a sense of humor despite the seriousness of his problem.
In his office is a section of an old telephone pole with a two-foot cavity that was excavated by a woodpecker. At the opening, Hatcher has tacked a little sign: “Rooms for Rent.”