The dove that rocks

How the humble street pigeon became one of nature’s greatest success stories

Feral urban pigeons recognise human faces and the Earth’s magnetic field, but the empathetic message carriers are getting caught up in our rubbish – Wild City author Florence Wilkinson talks to the people fighting back on behalf of these often maligned city dwellers

I’ve been feeding the birds for years, but it was during the first coronavirus lockdown that this habit turned into a bit of an obsession.

A pair of fiery orange eyes stare down from my neighbour’s satellite dish – I’m clearly being watched. More eyes follow my movements from the roof. Others peer out from the branches of next door’s tree.

The owners of these eyes know that food is coming. As I fill the hanging feeders in our small, North London garden with seeds, peanuts and suet balls, they grow impatient. One attempts to land, flapping wildly about my head. I step back, which the pigeons take as their cue – a whoosh of wings and a loud, angry cooing ensues as they attempt to barge one another out of the way. These feeders were designed for much smaller garden birds – sparrows, tits, robins, finches – but over time my local pigeons have learnt that by flapping furiously they can maintain the appropriate height to gulp down a large beak-full of seed or two, before crashing to the ground and starting the process anew.

I’ve been feeding the birds for years, but it was during the first coronavirus lockdown that this habit turned into a bit of an obsession. I’m not alone – a survey by the British Pet Food Manufacturers Association found that in early 2020, 41% of people with outdoor space engaged in feeding wild birds, with the UK wild bird food market reaching an estimated £235 million. The same pattern emerged in the United States, where the pandemic has initiated a surge in people engaging with nature more broadly, and birds in particular. Meanwhile in Australia birdwatching increased tenfold during the first lockdown. And yet despite our enthusiasm for feeding birds in general, few people intentionally feed pigeons, choosing to focus their attention on more colourful, prettier, rarer or what are often considered to be needier species. 

There seems to be a point in our lives when most of us cease to notice pigeons – they simply become part of the fabric of our urban environments, like a pavement, a rubbish bin or a drain cover. Children seem to take a more active interest, pointing them out to their distracted parents.

Our attitudes may also have shifted over time – when I was a child myself, feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square amounted to a popular London tourist attraction. But the last licensed bird feed vendor, 45-year-old Bernard Rayner, packed up in 2001, when the then-mayor Ken Livingstone decided to ban the sellers. “It will be a wrench for me to leave the pigeons,” Rayner told the press at the time, “I have been running around with them since I was two years old.” (Rayner’s family had been selling seed in the same spot for over 50 years.) “Everything comes to an end,” he concluded mournfully, “like the coal works, the steel works – everything.”

Ironically, Trafalgar Square is now one of the few places in the British capital where it’s illegal to feed pigeons, teaching assistant and pigeon rescuer Reeann informs me while scattering seed beside a ‘Do not feed the birds’ sign just off busy Oxford Street: “In Hounslow and Trafalgar Square you cannot feed them,” she continues matter-of-factly; “they actually have direct laws on it, but everywhere else it’s not littering because you’re giving food and the pigeons are the recipient.”

Ironically, Trafalgar Square is now one of the few places in the British capital where it’s illegal to feed pigeons.

Reeann is a member of the London Pigeon Stringfoot Group, a volunteer-led group who meet weekly throughout the spring, summer and early autumn months to assess the health of pigeons’ feet, which can easily become entangled with bits of string, thread and human hair. Over time the string tightens, restricting blood flow and eventually causing the loss of toes or, even worse, an entire foot.

Along with Reeann, who has brought her six-year-old daughter with her, the group includes a West End theatre technician, a part-time art history lecturer, a curry-house worker and a librarian.

They start by scattering seed to attract each flock of pigeons and then closely watch their feet, grabbing those pigeons that require attention and using nail scissors and a pair of tweezers to remove any string. Once the string is removed, Germolene is applied as an antiseptic and the birds are set free, unless they are in need of further treatment. The removal process is an intricate one – while it usually takes a matter of minutes, Karen Heath, a full-time animal rescuer and veteran stringfoot remover, tells me that she has spent over two hours on one bird alone.

‘Stringfoot’ is very much an urban phenomenon: the ancestors of feral pigeons – rock doves – face no such issues. It was these rock doves that were domesticated by humans when we discovered that they were superb message carriers, due to their extraordinary ability to find their way home over hundreds of miles. In the First World War they were responsible for saving the lives of hundreds of men as they carried vital communications over enemy lines.

This ability has fascinated scientists over the years, who have subjected pigeons to strange experiments in an effort to understand where it comes from. They’ve transported birds over large distances in blacked-out vehicles, attached magnets to their legs and fitted them with tiny goggles. In almost all of these experiments the pigeons continued to return home, leading the scientists to conclude that they must rely on a combination of navigational aids, including treating the sun like a compass, mapping landmarks in their head and using the earth’s magnetic field to guide them.

Over the years, with the emergence of new technologies – the telephone, the internet, mobile phones – we grew to no longer need carrier pigeons, and the service they had once provided was quickly forgotten. So the redundant pigeons built themselves a new life in our cities. They are almost perfectly pre-adapted to this lifestyle (barring, of course, their propensity to get their feet tangled in our rubbish). As their name suggests, rock doves traditionally roosted and built their nests on cliffs and rock ledges, which are closely mimicked by the tower blocks and high-rises of our cities.

They can survive in the greyest, grittiest, most impermeable of urban landscapes and are happy eating pretty much anything, from berries and grains to a doner kebab.

The redundant pigeons built themselves a new life in our cities.

But our relationship with urban pigeons is often far from harmonious. “They cause a public health problem, because of the diseases they carry,” a London council worker, responsible for pest control in his local authority, tells me, “and apart from that, there’s the huge damage they cause to buildings.” If left to build up, pigeon excrement – due to its high acidity – can wear away architectural stone. It can also turn into a fine dust when it dries out which, if inhaled, can make people with weakened immune systems sick. The reality in the UK, though, is that there are very few recorded instances of this happening.

Nevertheless, the war against pigeons continues, with landlords and local authorities deploying spikes, netting, barbed wire and even hawks to deter pigeons from using our buildings to nest or roost. Some councils have even taken out injunctions against those few individuals that repeatedly feed them. In 2016, retired library assistant Katherine Spiller was banned from feeding birds in her town centre, and then in her own back garden, after repeated complaints from her neighbours. When she refused to abide by Oxford City Council’s decision they took her to court, where she was forced to pay a £2,300 fine.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe in Mumbai, India, as part of a ‘cleanliness campaign’ officials recently banned the Jains – a religious group who believe in kindness and non-violence towards all animals – from their long-established tradition of feeding pigeons in front of the Gateway of India. “There is no space for tourists who visit the Gateway and it was not possible to keep aside so much space for pigeons,” a city official commented. 

The truth is that campaigns like these are unlikely to have much, if any impact on pigeon numbers – they simply move the birds from one space to another.

Before heading home to my own garden full of pigeons, I ask some of the volunteers at today’s stringfoot event why they’ve chosen to dedicate so much of their time to the humble street pigeon. They all give pretty much the same answer – they choose to help pigeons because few other people do. The volunteers are also keen to discuss the more admirable qualities of pigeons – their ability to show empathy for fellow birds and to distinguish between human faces.

“I’ve gone out in completely different outfits and they can spot me from the other side of the park,” a founding member of the group tells me, “and the very first pigeon that I de-strung about five years ago remembers me. He’s so clever that he’s worked out how to get my attention by sitting on the window sill next to my door so I can see him. He’s the only one that does it, and now he brings his kids to see me too!”

What’s so good about this?

No matter where you fall on the spectrum between rehabilitating, feeding or deploying increasingly elaborate deterrents, feral pigeons remain one of nature’s greatest urban success stories. And in a world where it’s increasingly hard for nature to survive, that in itself surely makes them worthy of our respect.

wild city

Florence Wilkinson’s new book, Wild City, is published by Orion Spring and available to order from your local bookshop or Amazon here. It’s a fascinating journey into why we should engage with our fellow urban species. What we might see – if we only take the time to look – and how nature is adapting to human-engineered environments in unexpected and ingenious ways. Wild City proposes a compelling manifesto for city wildlife, suggesting how we might take action to protect the often-overlooked residents who live alongside us.

Meet the writer

Florence Wilkinson is a writer, filmmaker and co-founder of birdsong recognition app and citizen science project Warblr. Her first book, Wild City – Encounters with Urban Wildlife, is available to order here. Florence lives in Camden, north London with her partner Ben, small Pomeranian dog Fox and an ill-tempered Persian cat called Bee. 

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