GRAPE FLAVORING MAY KEEP BIRDS AT BAY

Some folks snickered when local officials considered sprinkling an artificial grape-flavored drink on the town common to shoo away some pesky Canada geese.

But researchers in the United States aren't laughing.

Birds, unlike many children, cannot abide the taste. An Ohio company is even preparing to market a goose repellent laced with a heavy dose of the same artificial grape flavoring used in punch, bubble gum, and other foods.

The key element is methyl anthranilate, a naturally occurring chemical that gives the flavor to Concord grapes, says Russ Mason, project leader for the US Agriculture Department's Animal Control Division.

He and other USDA chemists have been working with the chemical, which is also synthesized, for the past 12 years in hopes of developing the first safe repellent to use on birds.

Although simply sprinkling a grape-flavored drink on the town common won't do the trick, high concentrations of methyl anthranilate have the same effect on birds as superhot chili peppers have on humans, says Mason, who also works at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

That's important, because birds are unaffected by most things that tend to deter mammals such as tear gas and ultrasound, he says. They thrive, for example, on hot habanero peppers and compounds too bitter for mammals to bear.

The problem goes beyond the half-pound of excrement Canada geese can drop daily on golf courses, lawns, and town commons.

Mason says USDA researchers are using the grape flavoring in Alaska to keep waterfowl away from contaminated areas, such as the tailing ponds of gold mines.

Richard Dolbeer, another USDA researcher, has been working on ways to use the chemical to keep birds away from landfills and from gathering at airports where they can be sucked into jet engines.

``It works, but it's not a silver bullet,'' Mr. Dolbeer says. ``It doesn't make the birds sick, it just tastes bad to them. [But] if they don't have any other alternative, they are not going to starve to death. They are going to remain and eat it.''

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