Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pigeons - Pests

Common name: Rock Pigeon - formerly known as Rock Dove, popularly called “pigeon.”
Scientific name: Columba livia, in the Family, Columbidae.

The Rock Pigeon is an exotic species in North America. It did not naturally occur in North America but was introduced, probably by French colonists in Nova Scotia in the early seventeenth century and soon after by English colonists in Virginia and Massachusetts. It now lives wild nearly everywhere throughout North America. It is most familiar to people as the common city pigeon.

An adaptable bird and a prolific breeder, the Rock Pigeon has attained the unenviable status of pest in many of its town and city locations. This pest status has led to a multitude of creative and bizarre efforts to control its numbers.

I first met the Rock Pigeon’s pest status and the human effort to control it thirty-five years ago when I was living in Kittanning in western Pennsylvania. Located on the Allegheny River, the town was about the size of Brattleboro.

Kittanning had a pigeon problem, or at least, the pigeons were perceived as a problem. I attended meetings of the Board of Trustees of the Presbyterian Church, a stately, century old stone building situated on a downtown corner. The dour businessmen on the board were offended by the white pigeon droppings streaking the roof ridge, concerned about the effect of those acidic droppings on the church’s copper eaves, and the stone and mortar of the church’s exterior, and positively livid about the depth of the pigeon guano in the open bell tower. They also knew it was a town-wide problem, shared by the custodians of the county courthouse and the municipal buildings, and the owners of downtown commercial properties.

The town councilmen took action. They drew upon the deep rooted cultural resources of western Pennsylvania. Western Pennsylvania was settled by descendants of the Scottish covenanters. These Scots Presbyterians were religiously conservative, fiercely independent, deeply individualistic, and in constant feud with one another unless someone from the outside threatened them in anyway. Then they drew immediately together. Whether the threat came from pope, bishop, or king, they responded and took up their arms.

Drawing on this genetically transmitted cultural trait, the councilmen set aside their feuding, quickly concluded that the cost of cleaning up and repairing the damage of pooping pigeons was intolerable, and so issued a call to arms. On an appointed day and time, several dozen of the local tribesmen lined the banks of the Allegheny River, armed with shotguns, and ready for the bloodbath of a pigeon shoot.

The pigeons flew from the understructure of the bridge, and the guns blazed. A few pigeons dropped. The rest flew toward the safety of the downtown buildings where better sense dictated against the discharge of firearms. Blazing away with gunpower has been a frequent recourse to getting rid of all manner of pests. That day of pigeon shooting in a western Pennsylvania river town allowed a few to strut their hormonal toughness, but had no impact on the pigeon problem.

The Presbyterian trustees eschewed their covenanter heritage and took a more passivist approach. They considered poison-laced pigeon feed, but decided that dying birds on the church sidewalks might not present an aesthetically pleasing solution. At this distance in years, I don’t remember all the steps they took, except one. Concluding that they would never be rid of the pigeons, they decided to take a longer range approach and try to control the pigeons’ breeding. So they had the pigeon control consultant spread pigeon feed in the bell tower. The pigeon feed was treated with the pigeon equivalent of birth control pills. (Readers: please note my restraint from further comment about church sponsored birth control.)

Pigeon shoots and poison continue to be used occasionally against the pigeons, but in most places those actions are wisely prohibited. There is no registered birth control or sterility drug currently available. But there are many others anti-pigeon steps which are taken, some bizarre, some environmentally hazardous, some very expensive, and some remarkably cheap and effective. The website of the Urban Wildlife Society has information about all of these efforts and a wealth of information on Rock Pigeons.

The fact remains that pigeons, in genera, are not well-liked. I once asked someone where some others who were doing a bird count had gone. The reply was that they were downtown counting pigeons.  Behind the reply was a host of implications - why count pigeons because they don’t really count - real birders don’t count pigeons - pigeon counters are casual and lax about the serious business of birding ... and so on.

And I have a friend who refuses to list pigeons on his life list or as a species seen on any day of birding. When I insist that they have feathers, he snorts, points at his neighbors chickens and scoffs, “So do they.”

On the other hand, I know someone who loves the town pigeons. He keeps count from the beginning of winter to the end of winter, duly noting the decline in the pigeon numbers. His passion is hawks, and a good flock of pigeons means that a wintering Cooper’s, or Red-tailed Hawk will have a well-stocked pantry throughout the cold months. He not only counts the pigeons, but watches  as the flock takes flight, scanning the sky for a circling Red-tailed, or quickly checking the tree tops for a Cooper’s about to launch its attack.

I saw the importance of Brattleboro’s pigeons to wintering hawks a few years ago when I was driving north on Route 30 near the Retreat Meadows. On the ice was an adult Cooper's Hawk perched on top of a Rock Pigeon. Traces of blood were on the ice beneath the pigeon. The Cooper’s looked around warily, then took off without the pigeon. The Cooper’s had not reached her tree when an adult Red-tailed Hawk landed on the ice next to the pigeon. The Red-tail scanned the sky overhead, then climbed atop the pigeon's prone body. After a moment, the Red-tail took flight with the pigeon in its talons. The Cooper’s was going to have to hunt a second time on that day.

The Rock Pigeon is the recipient of much odium, and the victim of widespread prejudice. But the trouble with hatred and prejudice, is that they are almost always based on ignorance. We should also know that there are many people who are enamored of pigeons for various reasons. In future weeks, I will write more about the Rock Pigeon’s quite fascinating history and biology.

In the meantime, I would suggest that you do not automatically exclude the Rock Pigeon from your definition of Good Birding.

7 comments:

Steve Borichevsky said...

Might I suggest that these birds were not brought over as pets to become pests? It is my understanding that squab was fashionable fair up until the Great Depression.

Adam Pinnell said...

Great article! Thanks for the share!

Dave said...

Outstanding! And a few good giggles too...
I'm looking forward to "European Starlings, the other white meat."

Andy said...

I've seen a few other posts lately on this subject with said sentiments.

Ralph said...

As a pigeon fancier as well as a birder,I enjoyed your post.Pigeons were brought to this country not only as food but pigeons have been bred to a standard for 1000's of years.

Jen said...

Interesting post... My friend was just making fun of me for photographing a pigeon down in San Francisco.

Anonymous said...

I unfortunately saved 2 squabs and now they will NOT leave my window sill. While I don't want to kill these birds, they are incredibly obnoxious. I put up spikes and they still managed to find other parts of the house to cling to... they are practically dangling off the edge. Any ideas on how to get them to move on?

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