WALLA WALLA - A ruthless, masked intruder has made life at the Pioneer Park Aviary questionable for some of the residents there, to say the least.
It all began at the start of April, said Jim Dumont, director of Parks and Recreation Department for the City of Walla Walla. "Somehow, a really cagey raccoon has been getting into the aviary and attacking birds for food."
Indeed, about 23 exotic birds have been found dead inside the locked and netted enclosure since the predator began dining in, staff said.
The raccoon seems to prefer the peafowl - the male peacocks and female peahens - but has also killed other kinds of birds, noted Joan Schille, city parks maintenance supervisor. "We think it's a ‘she,' probably a mama, feeding herself and others. We don't know, but that's a guess of ours."
The killer is getting inside the aviary at night, but no one can figure out how, Dumont said. "In the past we've had a mink that swam upstream though an inlet pipe. We think we have things plugged, everything is tight around the trees. But somehow she still gets in and until we can find out how, it's a major question."
Much of the problem stems from the design of the structure that was constructed in 1982, he said. "It was designed by a college class using materials that just don't work in our environment."
The netting is made vulnerable by weather elements such as wind and snow. Plans for a future aviary will include pest proofing and diminish what is a now a constant maintenance issue, Dumont added. "Trying to build a better mousetrap, so to speak. A better birdcage."
In the meantime, the city has been trying everything it can think of to stop the raccoon, he said.
Included in the battle plan is using hidden cameras and cages, and teaming up with professional nuisance trappers,.
Leo Pauley has an exclusive client list and declines unsolicited jobs, but said he couldn't help himself when he understood the scope of the problem. The licensed Walla Walla trapper is one of very few able to legally trap for nuisance pests. And the Pioneer Park Aviary has an emotional connection for many in this community, he said.
With the help of the motion-activated camera in the locked enclosure, he and parks department staff have been able to see the enemy.
The raccoon is "huge" and extremely crafty, Pauley noted. Two cage traps - one a 16-inch, the other a 20-inch - have been baited with traditional raccoon bait such as sardines, marshmallows, cat food and peanut butter, with no results. Unless one is counting squirrels, who hanker after the peanut butter and end up tripping the trap.
With a big change in trapping laws in 1994, Pauley has fewer weapons at his disposal. Only live traps are legal without a special permit. And unlike the case with some pests, he will be able to relocate the critter, once it's caught.
Which may be an "if." This culprit seems to be a city raccoon, Pauley explained. "When they grow up in an urban environment the are pretty cagey. They are not afraid of noise or traffic or people."
He's even spent part of a night in the aviary enclosure in an attempt to see how the raccoon accesses his prey. As well, Pauley and trapper Ron Mings of Waitsburg are hoping the camera captures a pattern in the dinner schedule. "On a number of occasions the camera has caught the raccoon, but there was no bird loss," Pauley said. "Other times there's a picture, but there's bird loss."
People can help prevent raccoon urbanization by following city ordinance that bans leaving pet food outside, the professional said. "Raccoons, particularly, can be very aggressive and they can be rabid, also."
Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8322.