Saturday, February 12, 2011
Pigeons - Pests
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the meantime, I would suggest that you do not automatically exclude the Rock Pigeon from your definition of Good Birding.