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23 May 1999 Issue
Pigeons: Amiable Urbanites

"Through a barrage of shells and bullets he rose, circled, and, like a dart,
headed for home. There was a sudden burst of shrapnel and Cher Ami was
hit. He straightened out and, with one leg utterly shattered, reached . . .
Rampont in twenty-five minutes, covering a distance of forty kilometers,
although the missile which carried away his leg had also passed through his
breast. The message holder was attached to the wounded leg, hanging by a
few shreds of sinew. Cher Ami that day saved the members of the 'Lost
Battalion.'"(1)

It is not the pigeons' choice to be here. Our most prevalent urban birds,
pigeons, or rock doves, were domesticated early in history and brought to this
country by the first settlers. These birds are closely related to homing pigeons,
who helped deliver messages during battles in World Wars I and II and the
Korean War. Cher Ami is not the only pigeon whose amazing flights were
documented during the World Wars.

Pigeon Facts
Pigeons pair for life, and both parents care for their young. Pigeons flock in
large numbers in order to protect themselves against cats, hawks, owls, and
rats. Even so, up to 35 percent of a pigeon population may perish annually
from natural causes and predators. Pigeons naturally stabilize their own
populations in accordance with food supply and other factors.

Many city residents and visitors find pigeons pleasant and interesting.
Pigeons are amiable and give human city dwellers the welcome chance to
interact with a species other than their own.

These birds are very intelligent. "Pigeons commit new images to memory at
lightning speed. . . . They organize images of things into the same logical
categories that human beings use when we conceptualize."(2)

The Coast Guard trained pigeons to peck a key when they spot the bright
orange color used for life vests. The birds, suspended in a transparent box
from a helicopter, are extremely adept at spotting the vests floating in the open
ocean, thus saving lives.

Pigeons' navigational abilities, which are largely dependent on keen vision
and a superlative memory for topographic details, are legendary. Although
pigeons rarely carry messages anymore, they are still used for emergency
flights in London to carry blood samples from hospitals to laboratories.

The Myth of Disease
The most widespread misconception about urban pigeons is that they are
carriers of disease. Pest control companies charge them with transmitting
histoplasmosis, toxoplasmosis, psittacosis, cryptococcosis, salmonellosis,
meningitis, tuberculosis, and encephalitis.

The truth is that the vast majority of people are at little or no health risk from
pigeons and probably have a greater chance of being struck by lightning
than contracting a serious disease from pigeons.(3) In fact, a child attending
school is many times more likely to get a disease from another child than from
a pigeon.

Of these diseases, histoplasmosis and cryptococcosis are the only ones that
could be linked to large bird populations, even though pigeons themselves are
not infected with and are not carriers of the diseases. These fungi occur
naturally in soil. When bird droppings mix with the soil over a period of years,
they can enrich the soil in a way that favors development of airborne spores,
and people who live near sites where pigeons roost may be exposed. The
symptoms of infection generally resemble a mild cold. People recover without
medical intervention and develop a natural resistance against further infection.
Much of the population has already been affected, developed an immunity,
and never been aware of it.(4) Histoplasma fungus and infection are prevalent
on intensive chicken farms.

Salmonellosis and toxoplasmosis are more commonly contracted from
undercooked, contaminated meat.(5)

There is no evidence linking the other diseases to pigeons and, in fact, most
of them are so common in nature, so rare in humans, or so mild in their
symptoms that pigeon control is pointless.

Humane Pigeon Control
When it comes to controlling populations of pigeons, an ounce of prevention
is worth a pound of cure. Pigeons and other birds settle in areas that suit their
needs. Therefore, an effective program of pigeon control consists of making
the designated area as uninviting as possible. For starters, don't feed the birds
and eliminate food and litter from the area. Excluding birds from an area and
conditioning them to avoid the area are both effective and humane ways of
dealing with a pigeon overpopulation problem.

Very simple modifications in a building's structure can discourage birds from
landing or nesting on the building. Steel, wood, or stone angled on building
ledges prevents pigeons from nesting in the holes. Open areas, such as vents,
lofts, or eaves, can be sealed up to prevent pigeons from nesting in the holes.
Bird barriers, including a thin metal coil resembling a "slinky" toy, can be
fastened to a building ledge to discourage birds from landing.

NEVER use sticky, transparent, bird "repellent" caulk. This substance is
applied to ledges in the hope that birds will land, feel the stickiness of the
caulk, and fly off, never to return. It is extremely dangerous because birds
can easily get stuck to the ledges and lose wings and/or legs trying to free
themselves or their wings may stick to their bodies, causing them to fall when
they try to fly. They can also ingest the substance trying to clean themselves
and die miserably of poisoning.

Conditioning birds to avoid an area should be done as early as possible, in
order to effectively discourage the birds from settling in. Recorded pigeon
distress calls are available to warn birds away from an area. Loud noises,
such as radios or windchimes, are sometimes effective, as are visual deter-
rents such as revolving lights, mirrors, or effigies of predator birds. In
Frederick, Md., citizens installed brightly colored balloons with huge "eyes"
on them which scared the pigeons into moving away from the downtown area.
When conditioning birds to avoid an area, it is important to vary the deterrents,
so the pigeons do not get accustomed to the noises, mirrors, etc.

Poisoning pigeons is not a humane method of population control for obvious
reasons. Moreover, poisoning is unlikely to have any lasting impact on the
number of pigeons in a given area. The number of pigeons that occupy an
area depends upon the availability of food, space, and shelter. If some
pigeons are shot or poisoned, more pigeons will only take their place, bring-
ing the flock back to its original size. Any successful method of bird control
must concentrate on prevention and making the location inhospitable to birds.

References
1.Levi, Wendell M., The Pigeon, (Sumter, S.C., 1969). 2.Browne, Malcolm W., "How Do
You Tell a Chair From a Cat?" The New York Times, December 6, 1988. 3.Donnally,
Charlotte, Ph.D., Report for the Cincinnati Environmental Advisory Council, 1983.
4.Garza, Nora N., "Pigeons," Bartlesville (Okla.) Examiner-Enterprise, Feb. 18, 1990.
5.Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, Ga.

5/15/97
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