The reign of the pigeons

The reign of the pigeons

Pigeons have become emblematic of urban areas. Varsha Gowda explores how city dwellers perceive these 'pets-turned-pests'

Representative image. Credit: DH photo

Sat atop schools, metro stations, palatial monuments, apartments, dilapidated buildings, pigeons have become fixtures of cities. City-dwellers will tell you that, apart from incessant honks of vehicles, the bird’s ‘gutergoo’ is one of the most familiar sounds in an urban environment.

They are not wrong. Cities across the world are faced with burgeoning pigeon populations. In India, according to a 2020 report, the species Columba livia, commonly called rock dove, has seen a 150% increase in numbers after the 2000s.

Originally from Europe, North Africa, Western Asia and some regions of the Indian subcontinent, pigeons have made their homes in every continent on Earth but for Antarctica. Bengaluru is no exception.

The city has been wrestling with the consequences of an increase in the flocks of pigeons. After grappling with the mess that the birds leave behind, Namma Metro sought to install large boards with bright concentric circles to scare them away.

Residents of high-rises have had to ‘pigeon-proof’ their houses by installing metal mesh or nets to keep the birds from nesting. Other building owners even install spikes.

In most cases, these measures have dissuaded the birds for a month or two. Then, they find a new route, a new crevice to nest. An employee at a metro station located in Central Bengaluru said that the dartboards did little to keep pigeons from roosting on pillars. “They continue to make a mess everywhere,” she says.

It is this persistence that has had a disastrous effect on the perception about the birds. Aditya Dalwani, a resident of the city, called them, “the rats of the sky.” Many have a similar comically vehement response to pigeons.

They all ask, why are there so many pigeons in the city?

The answer, bird experts say, is largely because of the natural habitat of the avians. Known as rock doves, the birds would roost on rocky cliffs and hills.

“Tall buildings in the cities imitate the structures of their natural habitat, so there are ample spaces for them to make their homes,” says Sanjeev Pednekar, founder of Prani, an education centre and pet sanctuary for rescued birds and animals in the outskirts of Bengaluru.

The changing topography of the city has encouraged an increase in the number of pigeons over the years. High rises with straight ledges, balconies and other crevices in tall buildings have helped pigeons dominate cities.

This combined with a variety of factors has caused the birds to multiply. Ashwin Vishwanathan, a researcher with Bird Count India, says that pigeons also thrive in localities that sustain them through feeding. “They are also voracious breeders, laying eggs about 2-3 times in a year,” he said.

Other birds

While the changing topography of the city has benefitted pigeons, other birds have not been so lucky. As cities grow vertically and real estate grows dearer, garden spaces grow scarcer and trees become fewer. Birds that were once common in cities like sparrows, parakeets, bulbuls, mynas and crows need branches and twigs to nest in.

“Independent houses are giving way to apartments. In the past, these houses had microhabitats. They would have at least had a tulsi katte, coconut or fruiting trees or some other vegetation,” says Pednekar. The microhabitats supported small animals and sustained many different species of birds.

As landscaped gardens with exotic flowers grow in vogue, birds like the ashy prinia, wagtails, and sparrows have all but disappeared.

The generalised reduction in the number of insects due to the use of pesticides in urban spaces has also adversely impacted birds. “This has led to a reduction in food sources for many species of birds that are dependent on insects, like the bee-eater. When birds are faced with reduced food sources, they have moved on to other regions. Few are able to find alternatives,” says Kiran Vati K, a biology lecturer at St Aloysius College, Mangaluru.

Insects provide birds with necessary fat and energy. This is particularly helpful for migratory birds that travel long distances seasonally.

Pigeons thrive in close proximity to humans and are easily adaptable to urban environments even without garden spaces. Vati says that they don’t have specific dietary requirements and consume all kinds of grains.

The increase in the number of pigeons is not without consequence. Their proliferation not only disrupts the fragile urban ecological system but also has an impact on human health. “Pigeon excreta can cause a variety of respiratory illnesses,” says Dr Y B Rajeshwari, a veterinarian.

Like other birds, their excreta also has high levels of uric acid which is known to corrode masonry, putting monuments at risk of erosion and discolouration according to many studies. This contributes to their bad reputation.

Once loved

But pigeons have not always been called ‘rats of the sky’. A decade ago, they were prized pets with iridescent green-purple necks, whose presence commanded entire rooms or terraces.

They were once also associated with delivering mail, due to their high homing ability. The explosion in their population has earned them the tag of 'pests' and has even led to instances of mass poisonings.

It is hardly the fault of the birds. According to Vishwanathan, they have merely adapted well to urban spaces. Their increase in numbers, in fact, supports the population of predators like kites, hawks, falcons and owls.

Dalwani recognises that it is human action that has promoted their growth. "Adopting inhumane methods like installing spikes and poisoning them is not the way out," he says.

Responding to the charge that they carry diseases, ecologist and ornithologist M B Krishna explains that humans are far more dangerous. “No species carries more diseases than humans. We don’t see ourselves as a problem. Pigeons have only grown in population because of our actions,” he says.

A simple fix according to Vishwanathan is to stop feeding them in public spaces. Easy availability of food encourages the birds to breed more. Besides, feeding existing pigeon populations builds a dependency on humans.

Like it or not, the bird is here to stay. "As long as buildings continue to come up, pigeons will not leave the city," Vishwanathan says.

Citizens may have to make peace with the birds. In a way, they have become emblematic of cities and blend right in with the grey concrete of the noisy cities that they inhabit along with humans.

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