Pigeon English

Published: June 26, 2006
Great Barrington, Mass.

IT should come as little surprise to Americans, especially those living in cities, that Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, has declared war on the pigeons of Trafalgar Square. Mr. Livingstone's primitive and cruel tactics — forced starvation and the use of raptors — are all too common, particularly in our own country.

Take New York City, where over the years there have been numerous reports of the poisoning and purposeful torture of pigeons. And while the city has thankfully outlawed the use of avicides, it has turned a blind eye to the weekly poaching of thousands of pigeons, which are then sold to Pennsylvania gun clubs for use as live target practice. Last year, to much fanfare, one New Yorker even came out with a book that illustrates 101 ways to murder a pigeon.

While most birds in the United States and abroad are protected by a series of federal laws and international treaties — the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act, for instance — pigeons have fallen through the avian safety net. While hummingbirds, piping plovers, the spotted owl and even New York City's famous red-tailed hawk known as Pale Male are afforded stringent protections and favorable news media attention, it is open season on one of mankind's most loyal and gentle friends, the pigeon.

The history of urban pigeon control is as short as it is brutal, and it closely parallels the rise of the modern pest control industry. Far from being reviled, the pigeon has been revered for thousands of years, ever since a pigeon (or rock dove) brought the biblical Noah news of subsiding waters.

Humans have had a particularly long and proud association with the rock dove. Pigeons brought news of the first Olympics in 776 B.C. and some 2,500 years later, of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. Charles Darwin (himself a fancier) relied on them to prove his theory of evolution; Julius Reuter built his mighty news empire literally on their backs; and perhaps most important, pigeons saved thousands of Allied soldiers during the two world wars. Keep in mind that a modern racing pigeon can fly 60 miles per hour without stopping for 600 miles and find its loft from a place it has never been before, and that the House of Windsor has proudly raced pigeons for more than a century.

And yet, in a matter of decades, one of the world's most venerated creatures and one of nature's most phenomenal athletes has been reduced to the status of vermin by governments on both sides of the Atlantic. The peaceful co-existence of man and pigeon has deteriorated into a war of attrition.

The bird's crime? Its gregarious nature. Pigeons are simply attracted to people as well as the company of other pigeons. Unfortunately, their unsightly and unhygienic droppings rapidly accumulate. But we really have only ourselves to blame: pigeons subsist on the food we drop.

A policy built on hatred is hardly a recipe for success, and it has unfortunately blinded Mr. Livingstone — like so many of his counterparts across the United States — to the basic facts of bird control. Starvation, poisons and nesting deterrents don't work in the long run, and succeed only in alienating a public already skeptical of attempts to pick on a little bird. Indeed, such measures often rejuvenate and strengthen the pigeon population. As they say, nature abhors a vacuum, and healthy new residents quickly replace those violently evicted.

Responsible bird control is actually quite simple. It's already being practiced in cities across Europe, many of which have witnessed a 50 percent drop in their pigeon populations. Britain's own Pigeon Control Advisory Service invented humane pigeon management more than 25 years ago and offers its services free of charge.

One thing alone leads to an overpopulation of pigeons: overfeeding. Pigeons breed only when food is available. When food is overly bountiful, as was the case at Trafalgar Square for many years, pigeons will mate as often as possible — up to six times a year. When food is scarce, mating drops drastically as the flock anxiously forages for food.

But ban public feeding outright, and residents will express concern for the birds and continue to feed them anyway. Given this reality, the Pigeon Control Advisory Service recommends building attractive lofts around a city and designating them as places where feeding is encouraged. Some cities even hold design competitions for dovecotes that double as public art.

Not only do the dovecotes offer the birds a safe and comfortable place to roost and engage with the public, they allow caretakers to routinely cull eggs, which is a far more effective and responsible way to manage the bird population.

Although some view pigeons as "rats with wings," we should keep in mind that they also bring joy to millions who appreciate how they animate our cities. After all, it's not Lord Nelson's column that attracts flocks of tourists from around the world to Trafalgar Square; it's the birds. When the socialite Paris Hilton was fined for feeding London's pigeons not long ago, she claimed that she enjoyed feeding the pigeons at Trafalgar even more than shopping.

Britain and the United States should adopt a win-win approach to pigeon control by promoting the use of carefully managed urban dovecotes: the flocks will diminish, the pigeons will be treated humanely and the bird-loving public will approve.

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