Flight safety vs. animal rights issues in discussion of how airport, airline keeps birds out of paths of planes.

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HOUSTON -- Hundreds of birds were poisoned and killed at Bush Intercontinental Airport as part of a "bird abatement project" that animal rights groups call cruel and inhumane.

Just after daybreak one recent weekend, the KHOU captured on video something strange happening — birds dropping mysteriously from the sky in distress.

"It was going around and around in circles, you know, like how somebody is drunk or dizzy," said parking lot worker Betrice Miles.

She was talking about pigeons and grackles exhibiting seizure-like behavior, and the beginning of a slow death.Miles' co-worker Shara Kelly shot video of one dying bird on her cell phone.

"It was right there for a long time just flipping and flipping and flipping," Kelly said. "And I was like, why are these birds dying like that, I don't know if it's something that somebody fed them."

It was a poison called Avitrol, that's sold in the form of corn kernels. United Airlines said in cooperation with the Houston Airport System, it hired a licensed pest control contractor to put it down to "reduce the health and safety risks posed by birds at airport property."

But United called the birds "pests" in an internal company e-mail obtained by KHOU. That e-mail maps out 20 different bait tray sites throughout all terminals at Bush Intercontinental as well as and a United maintenance hangar.

While Avitrol's manufacturer says it is used as a frightening agent to scare flocks away, KHOU confirmed through airport sources that hundreds of birds were killed during the weekend operation.

"These deaths look anything but humane," said Dr. John Hadidian, a senior scientist with the Humane Society of the United States.

One of the poisoned birds, a great-tailed grackle, took a full hour to die — sometimes struggling to move its legs, sometimes appearing paralyzed with its beak open for several minutes at a time.

"The birds that are dying after ingesting this compound are suffering and in great distress," Hadidian said.

Hadidian said the Humane Society recognizes bird engine strikes as a threat to air safety. The most notable memory for most people: the successful emergency landing of a U.S. Airways jet on the Hudson River after a double-engine bird strike.

But the Humane Society and other animal rights groups advocate for non-lethal bird abatement methods. Those can range from noise-making devices to laying down pigeon birth-control pellets to control the population.

"The Houston Airport System employs a multi-pronged system in addressing the need to keep the wildlife outside the operational perimeter (of all its airports)," spokesman David Hebert said in a written statement.

"This program primarily includes the utilization of loud noises, in an effort to displace the animals, and the installation of traps, but can also employ the use of mitigation chemicals that have been approved for use by the Federal Aviation Administration, the United States Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," Hebert said.

He added that the Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed the weekend abatement project and "it was determined that all measures in question fall within the accepted regulatory guidelines."

While Avitrol is a federally approved chemical and the company's website states effected birds "are not in pain," its use is not without controversy. Hadidian said several local and state governments, including San Francisco, Boulder, Colorado and the State of New York, have banned Avitrol.

"I trust my eyes and I look it and I say that is a horrible way for an animal to die," Hadidian said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said while no violations occurred over the weekend, it said the Houston Airport System may not have reported all bird deaths as required last year. A spokesperson for the federal agency said it plans to send a letter to Houston airport officials requesting the information.

United Airlines said in contracts to handle bird abatement about once a year.

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