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  • Rae Gellel

Do Pigeons Really Spread Disease?

You've probably heard the phrase "rats with wings" at least once in your life. The idea that pigeons spread disease is so universal, so entrenched in the cultural consciousness, that it's become near impossible to shake.

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; a huge number. And since pigeons are so common, it follows, logically, that the diseases they supposedly spread, must be common too - right? Isn't it odd, then, that it's so unusual to encounter someone that has caught a disease from a pigeon, or that these diseases are not well-known household names?

Nonetheless, there must be something to this popular idea, since a quick Google search will bring up a bunch of frightening-sounding diseases associated with pigeons.

Let's take a look at them.

- An infection called psittacosis is one of the top results if you search "diseases spread by pigeons", particularly on pest control websites. However, in spite of our 18-million-strong pigeon population, we have only around 25-50 cases of psittacosis reported in the UK every year in a population of around 67 million.

Many of these are linked to domestic birds with whom the infected individual has had close contact. 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. ANY wild bird - not just pigeons. Now compare this to the number of salmonella infections linked to the consumption of intensively farmed chickens and eggs, like the 2022, Europe-wide outbreak that led to 272 people becoming infected, and two deaths. In spite of this, many people recoil at the idea of any contact with a pigeon - but are happy to continue eating poultry and eggs. This is a clear double standard.

- Research also suggests that pigeons are unusually resistant to Avian Flu compared to many other species of bird, which is transmitted to humans in only isolated cases anyway. The virus originates from and is again, very often linked to the intensive farming of chickens and other poultry.

- Then we have Histaoplasmosis and Cryptococcus, 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 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 person's already suppressed immune system. There are many recorded cases of immunosuppressed humans contracting Cryptococcus and Histaoplasmosis from poultry, however, such as HIV-positive chicken farmers in Africa; none have made the news.

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.”

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