Flying High to Flying Feral

Vijaylakshmi

It has been almost a month in lockdown, and while most of my time goes in procrastination, I also spend some time early mornings and evenings in a small balcony adjacent to my room.  Having an interest in bird watching (ornithology), like a typical bird watcher, I keep an eye for new or not so regular species around my house. It was during this daily ritual that I watched carefully the construction of a nest in a tight space at the edge of my balcony. I must confess, I made a few attempts to discourage the bird from building a nest, firstly, because I thought that it wouldn’t be very safe for the chicks once they hatched, and secondly because I was apprehensive about my small balcony being territorialized by the nesting bird.  The bird that I am referring to here is one of the very common bird species we see, quite likely, all around the world. It is the Feral Pigeon (Columba livia domestica). In this article, I trace the journey of the pigeon from its historical status as ‘favoured’ to its present status as ‘feral’, while briefly touching upon concepts in urban political ecology.

Pigeons have been part of city life for thousands of years. They were the first birds that were domesticated over 5,000 years ago, and in contemporary times, they exist in close proximity to humans despite their highly negative image ( Jerolmack, 2008; Skandrani et.al 2014). According to historical evidence, domesticated pigeons had different uses in everyday life. While they were consumed as food in many parts of the world, their utility to humans ranged from the use of their nitrogen-rich droppings as fertilizers to their use as messenger pigeons in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome for postal services, and later during various military conflicts.

Flock of Feral Pigeons (Columba livia domestica) (Source: Vijaylakshmi/CUES)

Despite their utility, in the mid-twentieth century, they started to become irrelevant for a number of reasons. Firstly, their function as providers of fertilizer diminished with the advent of chemical fertilizers. Secondly, with the end of the second world war, their use as messenger birds also became obsolete. Thirdly, the consumption of pigeon meat drastically reduced as people began to consume poultry chicken. With unchecked breeding, pigeon numbers exploded and with that started the proliferation of the birds in urban areas. And with this, the reputation of the pigeon took a hit, and the birds began to be viewed in a negative light.

Presently, feral pigeons have become a matter of great concern across many cities in the world. In fact, they are despised to the extent that they are also referred to as ‘rats with wings’ (Jerolmack, 2008). Often accused of creating a mess with their droppings, plucking leaves of garden plants, being aggressive breeders and also being highly territorial, these birds are seen as a ‘nuisance species’.  For instance, in countries like France, there were claims of nuisance created by pigeons which were dirtying historical buildings and monuments with their droppings. Due to reasons such as this, they are often not so welcome in urban areas and are categorized as a species of least concern. From a biological and conservation point of view, invasive or nuisance species such as feral pigeons are considered to be more dangerous than environmental degradation (Skandrani et. al., 2014).

While there has been a change in the status of the pigeon from a favoured species to a feral and nuisance species, many times, the status of a species as ‘nuisance’ is often exaggerated. Though the environment is a co-construction of physical, ecological and social elements,  nuisance species are the consequences of interwoven socio-ecological processes. In the case of feral pigeons, non-ecological factors could be used to study the species. It is advocated that nuisance species belong to ‘socio-nature’ – which is away from ecological consideration, is historically produced, and which constantly changes by networks of human and non-human ‘actants’.

Since most of the prior discussion on feral pigeons has been focused on the urban landscape, it then becomes impossible to ignore the interactions between nature and human beings in the city. As a matter of fact, most conservation efforts in urban environments depends largely upon the level of people’s interaction and involvement with nature. While there is tremendous potential for such interaction in the city, the fact that urban ecosystems are drastically altered by humans means that the organisms and species that exist in urban nature are often non-native species such as pigeons. This concept has been termed as the ‘pigeon paradox’. If the future of several species and ecosystems depends upon the urban human population’s interactions with urban nature, there is a need to carefully consider how humans manage, conserve and interact with nature. One possible solution to the pigeon paradox would be to restore native species and habitats in cities in order to facilitate the interaction of people with native ecosystems (Dunn et al. 2006).

References:

  • Dunn, R. R., Gavin, M. C., Sanchez, M. C., & Solomon, J. N. (2006). The pigeon paradox: dependence of global conservation on urban nature. Conservation biology20(6), 1814-1816.
  • Jerolmack, Colin. “How pigeons became rats: The cultural-spatial logic of problem animals.” Social problems 55.1 (2008): 72-94.
  • Skandrani, Z., Lepetz, S., & Prévot-Julliard, A. C. (2014). Nuisance species: beyond the ecological perspective. Ecological Processes3(1), 1-12.

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