Wednesday, 4 April 2012

London's pigeon menace

A couple of weeks ago I posted this low-resolution photo of pigeons on a tree, taken on my un-smartphone one lunchtime - with the brief caption, "Be a rebel! Feed the pigeons next time you're eating a sandwich out of doors". I didn't actually feed the pigeons at the time, but it did get me thinking. Since then I've noticed what people are saying about the London pigeons in particular, and more generally the theme of nature intruding on our civilised way of life.

Two things particularly stand out.

First of all, there was an article in the Independent extolling the merits of a maze that's temporarily installed in Trafalgar Square. That square is the focus of Ken Livingstone's anti-pigeon campaign: in 2003 he stopped the bird-seed sellers operating in the square, and shortly afterwards banned feeding the birds and introduced fines to back up the ban. Now there are security guards who are quick to move in if they even suspect anyone of breaking the byelaws. The article in the Independent talks glibly about 'flying vermin' and the supposed health hazards, a standard line of anti-pigeon reasoning that is becoming mainstream self-evident wisdom (although the health issue is largely speculation with nothing much in the way of hard evidence to back it up): pigeons are a nuisance on a par with rats and dirty drunks / drug addicts asking for money. A whole industry has grown up to provide pigeon wires, plastic spikes and netting everywhere a pigeon might want to perch, and the language of their advertisements speaks for itself. Pest control. Deterrent. Reducing numbers. Unhygenic. Using hawks to scare off the pigeons is advertised as an environmentally friendly solution.

The second thing that grabbed my attention was an alleged form of malaise that's being called Nature Deficit Disorder. BBC News reported in March that "British children are losing contact with nature at a "dramatic" rate and their health and education are suffering", according to a National Trust report. The NT are latching on to the term Nature Deficit Disorder, which was invented by an American journalist and probably overstates the case for contact with nature at a formative age, but it certainly corresponds to a sense that wholly artificial surroundings can't be entirely healthy at any age.

Pigeons are related to the domestic doves that were widely bred at one time, now reverted to living wild. They look just the same as wild wood-pigeons and make the same rather beautiful cooing call that you hear in the countryside. Most of them look healthy enough - admittedly not all. Watch the way they move as one but compete for the pickings on offer, observe the pecking order in action, and the way they fly off, circle and land again in a loosely coordinated formation. The pigeons were and always had been a popular tourist attraction, as much a feature of central London as the statue of Eros and the flags on the Mall, until Ken decided to get rid of them. Is that really what we want, isn't there another side to the story? Visitors to London used to come to Trafalgar Square specially to feed the pigeons, not to look at half-baked art on the fourth plinth. The problem of course, is that eating outside doesn't mix well with begging vagrants and scavenging birds, so we discourage both as much as possible - but I'd say we lose something in the  process, another part of the natural world swept out of reach. 

So yes, feed the pigeons next time you see them and have a little food to spare. But don't even think about tempting the security guards at Trafalgar Square.

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