“They’re just rats with wings!” That’s the common refrain, heard in breadcrumb littered town centres, with painful Perspex spikes edging the rooftops, the lintels and the girders. It is honestly hideous what we do to persecute a mostly harmless and surprisingly non-intrusive species for mere inconvenience.
Whilst Columba livia, the rock dove, is the common pigeon, where the line between it and its domestic cousin Columba livia domestica is can be hard to tell. Escaped domestic pigeons have interbred with rock dove populations and in many countries with a pigeon fancying tradition it can be hard to tell them apart.
In the UK it is generally considered that the rock dove lives only on the North and West coast of Scotland, and on the surrounding islands around the Northern Irish coast. The rest of the UK’s population is considered ‘feral’.
For one thing they are considered an ‘invasive species’, which, for a bird, is stupid. Birds disperse, it is one of the significant benefits of evolving wings. Take, for example, the collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto) (it’s the one that goes hoo-HOO-hoo) this was basically unheard of in Britain until around the 1950s, dispersing out from warmer, more Eastern parts of Eurasia and very rapidly colonising the entire continent of Europe. By the 1970s they had started making their way to the United States! They weren’t brought there, they were not carried. They flew under their own steam. Can we truly consider that ‘invasion’?
We are talking about a family of birds, the pigeons and doves, the Columbidae, whose entire modus operandi seems to be ‘lots of us and see how far we can go’ and humans are like “Whoa there, whoa there! There are now hundreds of millions of you dispersed across nations you weren’t in fifty years ago! You may have to stop, it’s for the good of the environment!” whilst they set off a mortar, throw their lit cigarette into a patch of dry scrubland and drive their SUV that gets ten-to-the-gallon back home to keep fucking and reproducing despite the fact that there are 8 billion of us just exponentially growing.
Pigeons are successful. That’s why we kept them, that’s why we bred them, that’s why we had domestic populations. They are also eminently adaptable, hence the rock dove’s preferred cliff tops and rocky outcrops have been replaced with building ledges, nooks and eaves.
They were never a problem when they were using their innate abilities to navigate and their exceptional flying skills to be exploited for racing, or to deliver messages in conflict zones. Pigeons really do have a remarkable sense of direction, believed to be influenced predominantly by the Earth’s magnetic field and their sense of magnetoception, although there also suggestion they may use celestial clues such as the sun or other bright objects like stars to navigate. For a species we’ve been exploiting for thousands of years for these abilities they remain quite unknown to us.
And yes, our relationship goes back thousands of years. Cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia mention the domestication of pigeons dating back around 5,000 years! The relationship is probably older than that.
So when did we stop loving our pigeons?
Probably around the time they stopped being useful to us. Pigeon fancying and pigeon racing declined, invention of electronic signalling whether it be telegram, radio or telephony suddenly made the birds redundant and that was really it. They became little more than a feature of town squares and parks, our once close friend, no longer of use to us, became little more than a scruffy park beggar.
Now our relationship with them mostly involves coming up with soft, padded ways to say we’re killing them – Under the justification that they are capable of transmitting disease, or cause property damage. Almost all of the common pigeon diseases are rarely transmissible to humans without consistent, direct contact with the bird and/or their droppings and I don’t often see people crawling on the floor picking up hunks of pigeon shit. Not only are they not great at spreading their diseases to humans, only rarely doing so, but they also appear quite resistant to avian specific diseases, like the worrying H5N1 avian flu. Not only do they seem to exhibit some resistance but they do not appear to readily spread it to other avians. They are clearly not the plague-addled menace we have been led to believe.
Just about the only pigeon curbing tactic I can support is support for urban birds of prey. London, for example, has one of the highest populations of peregrine falcons of any urban environment, and in the city they prey mainly on pigeons. This keeps pigeon population numbers in check whilst also supporting another incredible bird and its adaptation to our artificial environments. Red kites and buzzards are also sometimes spotted above London, although whether they are building nesters like the peregrines are is unlikely.
So birds of prey to manage spiralling pigeon numbers I can get behind. But what else do we do? Well there are those awful anti-perching spikes. They’re effective, of course they are. A relatively tight pack of spikes, either plastic (that’s environmentally conscious) or metal, up to 30cm long will definitely stop large birds from landing on surfaces. Are they good, though? I mean, what looks better to you? Historic buildings covered in man-made spikes or historic buildings covered in birdshit? One is perfectly natural, the other looks like we’re at war with pigeons. I don’t like them, I never have.
Then there’s poisoning. A simple, effective way to pollute the environment whilst also doing nothing to stop pigeons from just having more pigeons. It really doesn’t work. Poisoning is ineffective. I mean, unless your intention is to completely wipe out a species, ecologically the answer is rarely, if ever “Just fucking kill it!” I know it’s a sort of human inclination because we’re a brutal murder-ape, but we are also conscious and conscientious. It was our problem-solving skills that led us to being such effective murderers, not the other way around. We really should be able to come up with something better than just “SMASH!” Poisoning is too broad, affects too much of the wider ecosystem, creating too much damage, to ever be a first-line consideration. Yet it is one of our first lines.
We can use dummy egg nesting, you basically set up a nesting site with access for people and then when the pigeons are away you snatch their real eggs, destroy them and put in dummy eggs. It kind of works but also it’s a bit Wacky Races.
So is there a reasonably way to limit problematic pigeon populations without resorting to Wacky Races trickery, poisons or unsightly spikes? As a matter of fact, yes. In the late 1990s the US National Wildlife Research Centre and a USDA lab began working on an avian contraceptive.
It can be delivered in feed, so without discomfort to the animal, is also an anti-parasitic drug so can make the pigeons more healthy, does not disrupt the natural egg-laying behaviours, any squabs (that’s baby pigeons) born on the treatment appeared to show no ill effects, and in one study group 11 breeding pairs produced just 2 young whilst on the medicated feed but 18 following the end of the treatment! So the effect that it can have on colony sizes is quite profound. The medication does not appear to have effects further up the food chain, with predators of pigeons, even avian ones like falcons.
So why, then, at least according to stories from 2017, is the UK spend on tackling problem birds rising with introduction of spikes being the main form of control? Because the UK is run by pricks.
Look, you can claim they’re unsightly, they cause property damage, they poo everywhere but let’s be honest pigeons are another victim of better-than-us. We don’t like pigeons because pigeons are good at doing what we’re doing. Going where they want, doing what they want with the environment and then flying away and ignoring it. They have found a way to exploit us in all of our messy glory. We give pigeons ledges to live on, food to eat and an environment in which they clearly thrive and if humans don’t want anything it’s other species besides them thriving in their little artifice.
How many enduring memories have been made in cities by pigeons, in Trafalgar Square in London or Washington Square Park in New York City? How many lonely people have sat eating their lunchtime sandwich on a bench to be comforted by the bobbing heads and faint, thrumming “Coo,” of a pigeon or two come to peck at the crumbs. How many children have been amused by their own potency as they throw themselves at a passive flock of pigeons and delight as they flap and fly away? Do we not want that? Are we done having fun with pigeons? Do we not want to co-exist anymore? It was okay when we bred them for racing or communications but we’ve got emails and videogames now so are we just going to eliminate all pigeons?
We haven’t even mentioned their plumage! I mean, what an unbelievably beautiful bird, this dusky grey, with darker banding near the tail, that hint of structural colour, the iridescence on their necks, they’re actually gorgeous birds.
We have human answers and, if we’re honest, it is not impossible to design buildings with pigeons and their nesting sites in mind. It is not impossible for us to design our lives around pigeons. We just choose not to spend money on that, but spend the funds we could be investing in co-habitation on spikes and poisons. We’re idiots. Pigeons are damn adaptable, with a high birth-rate. Pigeons are highly disperse and highly successful species. I think we resent that.
But they’re gorgeous birds. Maybe not the symbols of peace people think they should be pigeons and doves can actually be exceptionally violent. But they are beautiful and successful, populating just about everywhere besides the very far North and Antarctica. That the rock dove, snatched from its home and bred by us to be more domestic, to live in an urban environment, found an efficient way to exploit it is remarkable and, all credit to them as far as I am concerned.
We hate them. We seem to hate them for no other reason than that they’re there, in our faces, in our environments. We seem to hate them for no other reason than there are enough of them to take for granted. It’s sad, because they clearly thrive being around us.
Catch up with the rest of the Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals top ten!
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals : Introduction
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Bats
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Wolves
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Foxes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Aye-Ayes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Pika and Moles
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Vultures
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The European herring gull
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Brown Rat
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Wasps
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