We’re the problem, not 'flying rats'.
Arms raised skyward, squinting through the haze at Admiral Lord Nelson perched above London in the middle of Trafalgar Square, I’d wait to feel a tug on my coat sleeve, a wing-whipped breeze against my pudgy cheek, and scratching in my upturned hands. If I stood very still I might tempt one to land on my head, just like Nelson.
Every Sunday my grandma and I hopped on the tube to Charing Cross to feed the pigeons. I got my thrills from mangy, limp-winged birds eating over-priced seeds out of my palms, laughing when one left a parting gift on my arm.
"Once heroic carriers of wartime correspondence, pigeons now symbolise the dirty, the down-trodden"
Letting your only grandchild play with 'flying rats' might seem like grounds to give social services a call. But in the early 1990s, before Ken Livingstone, former London mayor, brought in hawks to hunt down the pigeons and transform Trafalgar Square into a cultural venue, it was good clean fun — as long as I washed my hands afterwards.
Now pigeons, once heroic carriers of wartime correspondence, symbolise the dirty, the down-trodden and, in 2019, official negligence.
In January 2019, a child died after contracting a fungal infection passed through pigeon droppings at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, local health authorities confirmed.
"Moral responsibility for this tragedy lies with health care officials, not the pigeons"
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde said the fungus, cryptococcus, was a “contributing factor” in the death of the child, exposed to the pathogen while staying at Scotland’s super-hospital, which treats 750,000 patients a year. Many details, including the patient’s identity, are still unknown, but it appears the source of the infection was a 12th-floor store room, closed to the public, where a crack in the wall allowed the infection into the ward.
Caused by an overlooked defect in the £842 million hospital’s design, were rightly asked about sanitation and why the pigeon problem was not addressed months earlier, when another patient’s family wrote to Health Secretary Shona Robinson expressing concern.
Moral responsibility for this tragedy lies with health care officials, not the pigeons. But this story awakens a familiar trope and feeds public fears about our fellow feathered city-dwellers.
It’s time we reconsider our damning perception of pigeons, one not based on scientific truths but on our own disdain for the grimy cityscapes we share with them.
"It wasn’t until the 60s that pigeons became 'menacing vermin to be exterminated'"
Nostalgia hasn’t blinded me to the health risks posed by contact with feral animals. Inhaling their droppings can lead to several diseases, including cryptococcus, which attacks the lungs and the central nervous system. According to Medical News Today, birds can carry up to 60 diseases, many of them airborne.
Still, the health risks pigeons pose are largely overblown. Thomas Hugh Pennington, a retired professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, has said it is rare for people in the UK to contract diseases from wild birds. Most who come into contact with non-domesticated pigeons do not become ill. Only those with weakened immune systems, like hospital patients, are at risk.
If scaremongering scientific half-truths don’t hold up, neither does the flimsy social construct we’ve developed in recent years about pigeons. Sociologist Colin Jerolmack wrote in a 2008 paper that it wasn’t until the early 1960s that pigeons, part of the same bird family as the holy dove, became “menacing vermin to be exterminated.” Jerolmack writes:
I contend that pigeons have come to represent the antithesis of the ideal metropolis, which is orderly and sanitised, with nature subdued and compartmentalised. While typified as a health issue, the pigeon's primary ‘offense' is that it ‘pollutes’ habitats dedicated for human use.
While I agree that Trafalgar Square is a much cleaner place to enjoy open air art exhibitions and summer music concerts, we sanitised the famous landmark because pigeons crossed an invisible boundary laid by our need to achieve order and cleanliness. We aren’t able to appreciate their beauty because we’re revolted by our surroundings.
"Trafalgar Square was as close to nature as I got"
For an inner-city child growing up in the pre-pigeon war era, Trafalgar Square was as close to nature as I got. London Zoo’s hefty entrance fees meant it was reserved for birthdays and end-of-year school trips. Our nearest free zoo, Bunny Park, had no bunnies, just one lonely albino boa constrictor and a few goats. The 8-foot snake terrified me and the goats smelled. The pigeons were just pure fun.
My weekly playdates helped me see pigeons not as vermin to kick into the gutter or shoo out of sight, but as part of the city’s charm and a privilege to encounter.
For others, pigeons are nothing but harbingers of disease and disarray.
What we think about pigeons says more about us than it does about them.