Pigeons: Pest or Pets?
One of the more interesting facets of living in a city is the presence of urban wildlife. The noise, traffic and pollution make many people think that they are far removed from nature. However, Barcelona is a concrete jungle that provides a unique habitat for a wide variety of creatures from cockroaches to boars. And none of them have adapted better to Barcelona’s streets than pigeons. The bird, also called a rock dove, belongs to the Columba liva family and the species is over 20 million years old. Between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, wild pigeons were domesticated by humans for food, pets and racing. Escaped domestic pigeons evolved into the modern feral pigeon, which are the “rats with wings” Woody Allen referred to in the film Stardust Memories.
Nowadays, the simple pigeon sparks a great deal of controversy. While some see them as loveable and harmless creatures that are an innate part of urban culture, others see them as annoying pests that pollute the city with their droppings and constant noise. The former tend to feed pigeons bread crumbs in parks and some even provide homes to the birds with rooftop coops because, unlike some species like canaries or parrots, pigeons can return back to a base. But the Barcelona Public Health Agency (Agència de Salut Pública) strongly advises against these practices because they contribute to pigeon overpopulation.
Do they affect human health? Fresh droppings actually pose minimal health risks but dried droppings can spread infection through dust and fungal bacteria. Still, diseases from pigeons are relatively rare and the Agència de Salut Pública states on its website that there is no link between illness and urban pigeons. Whether viewed as pest or friend, pigeons are fascinating animals with a remarkable history long linked to humans.
For centuries, pigeons (with their ability to fly up to 80 kilometres per hour) were the fastest way to send messages. In 776 BCE, pigeons carried the news of the winners of the first Olympic games, while Julius Caesar sent messages home from his battle campaigns using pigeons. During both World Wars, Britain’s National Pigeon Service called up more than 500,000 birds to deliver messages, which caused Hitler to order his troops to fire upon all Britain-bound birds.
These days, their ability to find their way home is most likely to be exploited for sporting pleasure. They are carried great distances from home, then released and judged by how rapidly they return to their coops. An annual competition in which as many as 30,000 birds are released on Montjuïc draws competitors from across Europe.
With somewhere around 200,000 pigeons here in Barcelona, it’s easy to observe them in every park and plaça. One reason for their numbers is that they lay eggs six times a year. Another reason is the disappearance of most large birds of prey from the urban environment. The absence of a natural predator has caused their population in Europe to swell to between 17 and 28 million, which makes their control a common urban problem.
Here, the Agència de Salut Pública receives 350 annual complaints concerning pigeons and permanently ‘retire’ 25,000 pigeons per year, using chemical methods. While Barcelona is slowly reintroducing the peregrine falcon, which preys on pigeons, urban residents will have to continue coexisting with rock doves for the foreseeable future.
A surprising number of rooftops in the city house a pigeon coop. Pigeon fanciers are numerous, with neighbourhood associations in most of the city’s barris. All of these, in turn, are members of the Federació Columbòfila Catalana de Coloms Missatgers (FCCCM). There has been a pigeon fanciers club in Barcelona since 1894.
In addition to regularly held races there are other competitions and events. December 19th-21st mark Barcelona’s annual messenger pigeon days, and on the 21st an exhibition about them will be open to the public. For exact time and location check the website www.colomsmissatgers.cat, then go to ‘Noticies’.