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A different kind of pigeon shoot

On a Sunday morning in 1967, a young man with a crew cut strolled across the Austin Peay State University campus carrying a .22 rifle. It was early, the morning sun still low, so not many people saw him. When he reached Harned Hall, which was a women’s residence hall at the time, he lifted the rifle. Gunfire echoed across the quiet campus. Birds flew up out of the trees.

Most of the APSU students sleeping in their dorm rooms didn’t get out of bed. A few might have groaned and put pillows over their heads. Others probably closed their windows if it was a nice day. The shooting was a common occurrence most weekend mornings. The man outside was just Jonathan Wert, a biology graduate student tasked with clearing the pigeons off of campus.

“Pigeons in those days were a pill,” Dr. Edward Chester, emeritus professor of biology, said. “There were big flocks of them everywhere. They were prominent. It wasn’t unusual to see 200 or 300 pigeons.”

The birds roosted atop the buildings, cooed loudly and left large messes on the sidewalks and red bricks around APSU. The smell was pungent on hot days, and when it rained, hardly anyone wanted to go outside.

“There was a guy in the Clement Building that put up a big plastic snake, and he hanged it outside the window to try and keep the pigeons away,” Chester said. “When that didn’t work, he put up a plastic owl outside.”

The problem troubled then APSU-president Joe Morgan. When he looked out his window in the Browning Administration Building, he saw pigeons fluttering around the iron stair rails and the large trees. Something had to be done. The solution came from next door, in the McCord Building. That’s where Dr. Marvin Provo, coordinator of the University’s general biology program, worked.

“One day, Dr. Provo and I were going into the McCord Building, and we noticed a flock of pigeons on the landing on top of the building near the walkway entrance,” Wert, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Alabama in 1974, said. “I told Dr. Provo that I shot expert in the Marines, and that I could easily reduce the pigeon problem that existed around the McCord, Browning and Clement buildings.”

Provo liked the idea. Not only would it rid the campus of the pigeons, but it would also provide him with free bird specimens to dissect in his classes. Morgan, the deans and Provo formed a cabal to depose the pigeons. They developed a plan with Wert as their enforcer. Shooting was restricted to Saturday and Sunday mornings when the campus was less populated. They also stipulated that Wert was to use rat or bird shot, not a single projectile, so as not to damage any buildings.

“We never had any issues because most people knew the problem and understood the solution,” Wert said. “The people that saw me knew what I was doing, and they never complained about me carrying a rifle and shooting on campus.”

Wert estimates he shot about 50 pigeons between 1966 and 1968. When those little weekend hunts were over, he collected the bodies off the campus lawns, took them back to the biology lab room and put them in five gallon buckets of formaldehyde.

Chester, sitting in his small office in the Sundquist Science Complex, shook his head as he reminisced about the pigeon shooting. Outside, students headed to class while talking on their cell phones or listening to music or podcasts on their headphones.

“Can you imagine what it would be like today, a guy on campus shooting pigeons?” he asked.