In Defence of Pigeons

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The common feral pigeon is one of the most misunderstood, and most unfairly vilified animals on the planet.

 

Popular misconceptions about certain animals often prove very hard to shake; for example, the idea that foxes kill for fun, or that touching a baby animal will automatically cause its mother to abandon it.

Pigeons are another victim of this cognitive bias. Once a person has decided that they are “diseased”, “vermin”, or “rats with wings”, it becomes very difficult to persuade them otherwise.

 

This mindset is further perpetuated by the pest control industry, which rakes in billions in profits from methods of pigeon deterrence, and thus has a vested interest in sensationalising the risks that pigeons pose to human health.

 

If you are someone who holds such beliefs about pigeons, then we ask that you read this article with an open mind, because the reality is that the negative perception of these birds is not justified, nor is it grounded in fact, particularly when placed in the wider context of animal-to-human disease transmission.

The phrase "classed as vermin" is often parroted by the public in defending the ill-treatment of pigeons. However, the first thing that you should understand is that pigeons do not hold any official "vermin" status, for no legal classification of vermin exists in UK law - it is a purely subjective, rather than legal, term, entirely in the eye of the beholder. 

 

You may be surprised to learn that in reality, just like all wild birds, pigeons and their nests are protected by law under both the Countryside and Wildlife Act and the Animal Welfare Act; it is an offence to deliberately harm, kill or injure pigeons or interfere with their nests. The culling of feral pigeons - along with the culling of many bird species - is allowed only when specific licensing conditions are met, such as exhausting non-lethal forms of deterring them first.

Do Pigeons Spread Disease?

 

Since pigeons are so common, it follows, logically, that the diseases they supposedly spread, must be common too. So ask yourself this; have you ever met anyone who became unwell as a result of contact with a pigeon? If pigeons are so dangerous, then isn’t this unusual – considering that in the UK, we share our towns and cities with approximately 18 million of them? Are you able to name a single disease associated with pigeons without resorting to Google, and if not, why not - with 18 million harbingers of these diseases on your doorstep? 

 

The reason is this; whilst it’s true pigeons can be a nuisance due their tendency to live close to humans in large numbers – meaning they may nest or poop in appropriate spots – the likelihood that they will transmit serious illness to the average human is extremely slim. 

 

All animals, both wild and domestic, have the potential to transmit disease. All living things do, humans included; the recent man-made pandemic is a testament to that. However, many of the diseases which the pest control industry tends to attribute to pigeons in particular, are not unique to pigeons more than any other wild bird. In fact, some of these diseases are far more common in domestic pets or intensively farmed poultry, animals that we deem safe enough to consume or share our homes with.

 

Most human cases of psittacosis, for example - one of the top results if you should search "diseases spread by pigeons", are linked to parrots kept as pets; the UK government website states of the infection; "Those at greatest risk of contracting the disease include bird fanciers and owners of pet birds."  Nonetheless, it remains a very rare disease, with only around 25 to 50 cases reported in the UK per year. The chances of contracting it from close contact with a parrot kept inside the home are slim, let alone from passing contact with a pigeon outdoors.

 

Another common result of such an internet search is salmonella, despite a 2014 study concluding that only 0.2% of cases of salmonella infection in humans can be traced back to wild birds. Compare this to the multiple outbreaks linked to the consumption of intensively farmed chicken and eggs; in 2021, 480 people became infected as a result of consuming chicken products purchased at Sainsbury's and Morrison's, with at least one person dying. This was followed by a Europe-wide outbreak in 2022, with 272 reported cases and at least two deaths. There have been no notable outbreaks in the UK attributed to either wild birds or pigeons in particular.

 

This is not unlike various strains of Avian Influenza or bird flu – a virus that has been highlighted as having pandemic-like potential due to its tendency to jump species and mutate. It is most often found on intensive poultry farms, among chickens, turkeys and ducks. Research overwhelmingly suggests that pigeons, on the other hand, are unusually resistant to the virus, unlikely to develop enough of a viral load to transmit it to other pigeons, let alone humans. The vast majority of human cases of bird flu - which is rare in itself - have been linked to poultry.

 

Despite this, the majority of the human population continues to eat chickens that have been farmed in cramped, overcrowded conditions perfect for the spread of diseases, and yet recoils in disgust at the thought of any minor contact with a pigeon. With this context in mind, the idea that pigeons are unusually diseased or are to be feared becomes quite farcical - it's an obvious double standard. 

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Then we have Histaoplasmosis and Cryptococcus, rare infections caused by a fungus. Both of these funguses live in the soil and grow rapidly in the presence of bird droppings - any bird droppings, not pigeon droppings in particular. In 2017, the only known case of a person contracting cryptococcus in the UK from a pigeon occurred. It was such an unusual event that it made headlines worldwide, and is believed to only have been possible due to the patient's already suppressed immune system. Far less unusual are incidents of HIV-positive farmers in regions of Africa such as Lagos contracting the disease from chickens reared for eggs and meat.

 

Bird droppings in general tend to form a fine dust when dried, and the spores contained in this dust do have the potential to cause an allergic reaction in humans, leading to inflammation and irritation in the lungs. Again; any bird droppings! The same is true of the dander shed from bird feathers in general, with some people being more sensitive than others. 

 

This is most often a problem when birds - again, of any species - are housed in abundance in a confined space, such as in chicken farms, or pigeon coops kept by pigeon fanciers. 

For pigeons and indeed all birds encountered in the wild - often in an open air spaces such as the street, or a garden - the risk of contracting an infection falls dramatically.
 

At wildlife rescue centres, volunteers and employees often have daily contact with pigeons that are suffering from illnesses - which is the reason they have been admitted in the first place - but have learned that no special precautions need to be taken for pigeons compared to any other sick wild bird. They are treated the same because they are the same. Basic protective measures such as regular hand washing, wearing gloves, and wearing protective face masks if rescuing a bird from an area where large amounts of dried droppings have accumulated, are generally sufficient for protection. 

 

The conclusion you can reach from all of the above is that pigeons are not any more "diseased" than any other bird, and that whilst yes, it is technically possible for a pigeon to transmit a disease to a human, it's highly unlikely and almost never occurs. So unlikely that it cannot possibly justify the reputation of pigeons, or our treatment of them as a result of that reputation.

 

Because in spite of being protected from deliberate injury or harm under the Animal Welfare Act and Countryside and Wildlife Act, pigeons are common victims of cruelty. We have witnessed baby pigeons dumped in bins, nests doused in bleach and adult pigeons beaten to death. Pest controllers often flagrantly defy the law in regards to pigeons, leaving them to suffer for days entangled in anti-bird netting, for example, simply because society's view of them often means there is little will to pursue prosecution or to develop more stringent legal protections for pest controllers to navigate. 

 

This is particularly sad when you consider that just fifty years or so ago, pigeon keeping was a popular hobby; their "rats with wings" status is a relatively new phenomenon.

 

Pigeons were once revered for their homing instinct, which was employed to help carry vital messages in the first and second world wars. In 1918, a famous carrier pigeon named "Cher Ami" saved the lives of 194 allied troops by delivering an urgent plea for backup - in spite of having been shot through the chest, losing a leg and an eye in the process. During the second world war, 32 pigeons were awarded the Dickin Medal for bravery for delivering messages that made a significant impact to the war effort. The extraordinary instincts, loyalty and intelligence of the birds that we denigrate so harshly has saved millions of human lives.

Pigeons are able to perform such amazing feats because research consistently shows that they have significant cognitive abilities; they are capable of recognising their own reflections, can be trained to carry out complex tasks, can differentiate between human faces and individual pigeons, and can even learn to distinguish cubist from impressionist style paintings. They are also loving parents that form strong bonds, choosing their mate for life. 
 

By attaching the term "vermin" to pigeons, we feel we have a free pass to treat them in ways we'd never dream of treating any other animal. Yet, they truly are just like any other animal, both in their ability to suffer and feel, and in that we present a far greater danger to them than they could ever present to us. 

Accepting the truth about pigeons requires rejecting the status quo, the "rats with wings"/"vermin" mantra that we've heard repeated our whole lives, and considering the facts both empathetically and critically. 

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