Tottering around on their little stumps-for-feet, pooing down on us from above, menacingly approaching as we scoff our lunchtime sarnies: Trafalgar Square is certainly popular with London's pigeons — but why?
The Square has been at the heart of Westminster since construction began in the 1830s. According to travel writer Tim Moore's book, Do Not Pass Go, pigeons began flocking to Trafalgar Square before building was completed in 1844.
Feed sellers soon established themselves on the square, flogging bags of seed ('tuppence a bag', if Walt Disney is to be believed) to visitors throughout the Victorian era.
These feed sellers could be the key to why Trafalgar Square became so popular with pigeons in particular, rather than with other urban birds.
According to the RSPB, pigeons – descendants of the rock dove, which have been domesticated in the UK for eggs and meat since the Norman invasion – are capable of remembering both faces and places. If fed they will return to the same location and look for the same people, a sort of self-fulfilling pigeon prophecy: the more people that fed them, the more pigeons returned to the square.
Pigeons are also unusually relaxed around groups of people compared to other birds; another reason Trafalgar Square is especially appealing to them.
According to Tim Webb of the RSPB:
Pigeons are quite comfortable around people, so are probably the easiest wild creatures to approach. In many cases a pigeon may be the only wild bird that a child, or adult for that matter, might touch in their lifetime.
Not that we're encouraging touching pigeons, mind.
Photos from 1948, on display in the National Portrait Gallery, show a young Elizabeth Taylor on Trafalgar Square, being mobbed by the flapping fowl while feeding them seeds. This demonstrates what a London pastime it had become by this point, among all social classes.
The last licensed bird feed vendor on Trafalgar Square was Bernard Rayner, whose family sold seeds in the square for half a century. He was forced off his pitch in 2001 after then-mayor Ken Livingstone decided to ban licensed sellers in the area.
Concerned that the birds’ acidic poo (lovely) was damaging Nelson’s Column and other structures, authorities started installing anti-pigeon wires and spikes.
Feeding the birds in the main square was criminalised in 2003, but animal rights protesters continued to feed pigeons on its North Terrace. Westminster City Council extended the ban to the wider area in 2007, and whacked a potential £500 fine on top.
Even more dramatic was the enlisting of Harris hawks to regularly patrol the Square (along with their handlers) and scare the birds away, at a cost of almost £60,000 a year.
But all this doesn’t seem to have dissuaded the plucky pigeons. According to Tim Webb of the RSPB:
The RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch didn't start breaking down its results by region or city until 2005, but we know that the capital's pigeon population did not crash as a result of the changes brought in at Trafalgar Square.
There was some evidence of displacement as the birds roamed further afield. However, RSPB data from 2005 has shown the population of London pigeons has remained relatively stable.
So there you have it. Despite numbers being reduced from their thousands to hundreds, Trafalgar Square’s pigeons were around far before any of us, and the chances are they’ll stick around a lot longer too.