Late last year, mysterious green lights appeared on the walls surrounding the State Capitol's open-air courtyard. Here's why. Credit: Newsday/Michael Gormley

ALBANY — It’s an eerie sight. Since late last year, neon green lasers have been beaming up and down across the granite walls above the State Capitol’s courtyard day and night, perplexing some statehouse denizens who wondered if it was a prank, a protest or maybe an alien probe.

They were all wrong.

It’s a pigeon deterrent system.

The battery of four lasers cost the state $58,000. They randomly trace the ledges to drive pigeons from the four-story gray walls surrounding the open-air courtyard. For decades the enclosed area has been a prime roosting spot where pigeons flocked and did what pigeons are known for doing on public property.

Generations of pigeons had hung out on the droppings-spattered ledges of the courtyard, which had been the site of a shelter for electrical works that provide power, heat and hot water to the Capitol. That has changed. A $9 million project is reviving the courtyard to its original design from 1873. It will include a bluestone floor, plants and windows that had been covered decades ago.

The renovation, now in its late stages, is designed to provide a place for workers and visitors to take a break or enjoy lunch. But the pigeons had to go.

At first the unannounced use of beams of light were a curiosity.

“I was wondering what the hell those lasers were,” remembers Ron Deutsch, a longtime Albany activist and lobbyist.

“I assumed it was someone messing around with a laser pointer or that I simply had not had enough coffee yet that morning. When I found out that they were a bird deterrent, I was a bit surprised,” Deutsch said. 

The lasers appear to work so far. The ledges were once packed with rows of pigeons but have been increasingly clear since the trial program began late last year with one laser. Installation of the full, four-laser system began this month, according to the state Office of General Services.

“When the pigeons see a laser, they immediately scatter to another location,” said Georgina Parsons, spokeswoman for OGS. “Each laser is programmed to randomly change how it follows the ledges, making it difficult for the pigeons to sense a pattern.”

“The green laser is nonlethal and does not harm the pigeon,” Parsons said.

U.S. Wildlife Services generally recommends the type of laser used by the state and suggests several safety precautions, including making sure no “people can cross the laser beam and that the beam does not contact eyes of wild or domestic animals.”

The state’s lasers have been programmed so they don’t cross windowpanes that look onto the courtyard so people “aren’t in the line of sight,” Parsons said. The lasers “are also programmed not to go below the second floor in the event of utilizing the courtyard for scheduled events.”

Old school methods such as netting, spikes, poison and sonic blasters were rejected. The state previously tried several methods, including a fake hawk affixed to the Capitol ledge, which seemed to fool no one.

It was time for government to take bold, decisive action. So, it hired a consultant.

“The consultant did extensive research on ways to control the number of pigeons in the courtyard,” Parsons said. “The lasers were determined to be the best option from a maintenance perspective.”

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months