Do Pigeons Really Spread Disease?
Updated: May 6
Most of us have heard, or perhaps even used, the phrase "rats with wings" at least once in their life. The idea that pigeons spread disease has become so universal, so entrenched in the cultural consciousness, that we rarely question it. It is perpetuated by a multi-billion pound pest control industry, and is used to justify culling, cruelty, and general indifference towards this urban bird.
But, is it actually accurate?
In the UK, we share our towns and cities with approximately 18 million feral pigeons. Since pigeons are so common, it should follow, logically, that the diseases they supposedly 'spread' must be common too; but this isn't the case. In fact, even with 18 million of these birds living in close proximity with us, almost all of the illnesses that pest control companies associate with pigeons are rare. Ask yourself; have you ever met anyone that caught a disease from a pigeon? Can you name a disease spread by pigeons without Googling it? If pigeons are so common and so dangerous, then why is this the case?
Looking at each disease linked to pigeons individually provides further insight.
An infection called psittacosis is one of the top results if you search "diseases spread by pigeons", particularly on pest control websites. However, we have only around 25-50 cases of psittacosis reported in the UK every year in a population of around 67 million, and the disease is more commonly associated with species of domestic parrot and with captive, rather than wild birds. The UK government website states of the disease: "Those at greatest risk of contracting the disease include bird fanciers and owners of pet birds."
Salmonella is another common result of such a Google search, however, a 2014 study concluded that only 0.2% cases of salmonella infection could be traced back to wild birds. That's any wild bird - not just pigeons. Now compare this to the number of salmonella infections linked to the consumption of intensively farmed poultry and eggs, like the 2022, Europe-wide outbreak that led to 272 infections, and two deaths. In spite of this, many people recoil at the idea of any contact with a pigeon - but feel eating poultry and eggs is worth the risk.
- Avian Influenza
Research suggests that pigeons are unusually and highly resistant to Avian Influenza. Pigeons infected with large quantities of the virus in laboratory conditions do not become unwell, shed or transmit the virus, or develop antibodies. The virus has also not been detected in pigeons taken from Avian Influenza outbreak zones.
"In several experimental studies on infection, there was either no or low viral shedding in uninfected susceptible contact birds after infection... It has been suggested... that pigeons are resistant to an HPAI virus; therefore a high concentration of a virus is needed to cause death or infection. Furthermore, when infection occurs, the duration of viral shedding is brief and viral titer is low... Moreover, according to the results of another study, the pigeons were resistant to H5N1 infection and there was a lack of transmission of the virus to susceptible contact birds were reported."
There is a great summary of the research relating to pigeons and Avian Influenza on the Pigeon Control Resource Centre website.
- Histaoplasmosis and Cryptococcus
These are rare infections caused by a fungus. Both of these fungi live in 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 from pigeon droppings occurred. It was such an unusual event that it made headlines worldwide, and is believed to only have been possible due to the person's already suppressed immune system. There are recorded cases of immunosuppressed humans contracting Cryptococcus and Histaoplasmosis from poultry, such as HIV-positive chicken farmers in Africa. There are many causes of humans contracting diseases from their pets in general - but where other animals are concerned, these are considered such isolated incidents that they're not worthy of panic.
The conclusion you can reach from all of the above is that whilst the tendency of pigeons to deposit their droppings on our cars or homes is inconvenient and unpleasant, they are not any more "diseased" than any other bird, and in fact, many of the diseases associated with them are more common in domestic pets or intensively farmed poultry, animals that we deem safe enough to consume or share our homes with.
Whilst yes, it is technically possible for a pigeon to transmit a disease to a human, just as it is for any animal to do so, it's highly unlikely, and almost never occurs. It's so unlikely that it cannot possibly justify the reputation of pigeons, or our treatment of them as a result of that reputation.
To quote David Taylor BVMS FRCVS FZS, a pioneer of zoo and wildlife medicine: “In 50 years of professional work as a veterinary surgeon I cannot recall one case of a zoonosis in a human that was related to pigeons. On the other hand I know of, and have seen, examples of human disease related to contact with dogs, cats, cattle, monkeys, sheep, camels, budgies, parrots, cockatoos, aquarium fish and even dolphins, on many occasions.”