HOUSTON (KHOU) -- Hundreds of birds were poisoned and killed at Bush Intercontinental Airport this past weekend as part of a "bird abatement project" that animal rights groups call cruel and inhumane.
Just after daybreak on Saturday and Sunday, the I-Team 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 toxicant called Avitrol, that's sold in the form of corn kernals. 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 the I-Team obtained. 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 and Avitrol's manufacturer describes it's used as a frightening agent to scare flocks away, the I-Team confirms through airport sources that hundreds of birds were killed over the weekend.
"These deaths look anything but humane," said Dr. John Hadidian, Senior Scientist with the Humane Society of the United States.
One of the effected 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," Dr. Hadidian said.
Hadidian said the Humane Society recognizes bird engine strikes as a real threat—most notably remembered with the successful 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 abatement methods. Those can range from noisemaking devices to laying down pigeon birth-control pellets to control overpopulations.
"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), said spokesman David Hebert 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 the U.S. 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," the toxicant is not without controversy.
Dr. Hadidian said several local and state governments, including San Francisco, Boulder, Colorado and the State of New York, have banned Avitrol in its entirety.
"I trust my eyes and I look it and I say that is a horrible way for an animal to die," Dr. Hadidian said.
The U.S. 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.