Meanwhile: They're not just rats with wings

Published: August 31, 2007

A month after the collapse of the highway span across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis that killed a dozen people, experts are investigating whether pigeon dung accelerated the bridge's demise.

I find it difficult to imagine bird dung being responsible for the catastrophic failure of a major American interstate highway bridge, but the humble pigeon makes for a convenient scapegoat, and news of the corrosive poop has raced across the United States and made headlines from England to India and Australia. Few seemingly took the time to analyze the claim and put it into context.

Yes, pigeon dung contains ammonia, is acidic, and can cause steel to rust. But I suspect the bridge's obsolete design, lack of redundant support structures, heavy use, and spotty maintenance might have had something to do with its collapse. After all, if a buildup of pigeon dung is all it takes to dismantle America's transportation infrastructure, then we're in for a world of trouble.

The bird that is derided as a rat with wings, a dispenser of deadly diseases and a general pox on urban landscapes now has another accusation to add to its charge sheet: transportation menace.

After decades of vilification, the rock dove has achieved almost cult-status as the proverbial ne'er-do-well. But the charges are usually false. Pigeons carry no more diseases than you or I, and they seem to be highly resistant, if not immune to West Nile Virus and the Avian Flu. But facts play a small role when it comes to slandering this feathered outlaw.

It's a steep nosedive for a humble creature that has served us loyally for nearly 10,000 years. In Mesopotamia, pigeons were worshiped as fertility goddesses. It was a pigeon that brought word of the first Olympics in 776 B.C., and word of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo 2,500 years later. Although finches generally get the credit, Darwin actually used pigeons to prove his theory of Evolution, and Julius Reuters started his news-gathering empire literally upon their wings.

As recently as a half-century ago, pigeons were celebrated as decorated war heroes. One million pigeons served in the two World Wars and are credited with saving the lives of thousands of soldiers by delivering critical messages through barrages of gunfire. Pigeon racing remains an internationally popular sport that can claim Queen Elizabeth II as an adherent. Race pigeons routinely fly 600 mile-long races, averaging 60 miles per hour, finding their way home from a place they've never been. (The very best racehorses rarely reach 40 miles per hour in their competitions.)

Sadly, the pigeon is now judged not by its unparalleled history or phenomenal athletic abilities, but by what it leaves behind. Although the ancient Egyptians prized it for fertilizer, and the British Crown once jealously hoarded it as a key ingredient for gunpowder, pigeon dung has apparently fallen out of favor, and the bird of peace has seemingly lost its welcome in today's increasingly hygienic world.

It's not the birds that bother people so much as the number of them. But decades of poison, trapping and shooting have done little to alleviate the problem. Some American cities are importing pigeon control measures from Europe that are not only humane, but actually work. Los Angeles is putting their pigeons on the Pill, and St. Paul is developing a system of urban dovecotes where eggs can be systematically culled.

But pigeons are hardly among the most critical threats facing America's infrastructure. Rather than focusing on a phantom enemy and further denigrating a little bird, the U.S. government might consider addressing the reality of the country's aging infrastructure. According to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, nearly 30-percent of America's 597,000 bridges have been deemed structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

Those pesky pigeons sure have been busy.

Andrew D. Blechman is the author of the forthcoming "Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird."