I’ve felt a strong connection to birds since I was a kid. My parents have always kept bird feeders outside their windows and, as a child with ample free time, I would stare at the feeders for hours, imagining what the birds were thinking. Growing up in large cities, I developed a particular fondness for pigeons. But as I grew older, I realized that not everyone shares my affinity for the feral pigeon. Often referred to as rats with wings, pigeons have garnered a reputation as disease-spreaders and general nuisances for city-dwellers. However, these perceptions are not only inaccurate, they overshadow the qualities that make pigeons so special. Pigeons are highly intelligent animals that contribute to urban ecosystems and connect urbanites to nature.
The modern feral pigeons that populate most American cities were transported to the U.S. by colonists in the 1600s, and are descendants of domesticated pigeons, which have long been used for their meat and navigational abilities. But they are not protected under the United States Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a major bird protection law. Though some cities and states have passed laws providing some protection for pigeons from unjust killings, they are not obligated to do so by federal law. In contrast, in the United Kingdom feral pigeons are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. If other countries can treat their pigeons humanely, the unprotected status of pigeons in the United States should not be the norm.
The belief that pigeons pose a particularly high health risk is both relatively unfounded and extremely insidious. Pigeons are not any more dangerous than other wild birds — diseases that are commonly associated with pigeons such as Histoplasmosis and Cryptococcus both arise from rare fungi that grow in droppings from birds of all kinds. Psittacosis, which presents as a form of pneumonia in humans, is also often attributed to pigeons. However, while psittacosis can be found in pigeons, it is particularly common in domesticated birds, and pet bird owners are at the greatest risk of contracting it. Pigeons provide a convenient scapegoat for the spread of diseases that they are not entirely responsible for.
The widespread perception of pigeons as vermin whose population should be culled underplays their role in urban ecosystems. Though there isn't much research into the impact of non-native birds in ecosystems, based on what we know, feral pigeons may be crucial to seed dispersal and connecting urban islands. They are also prey for birds such as the peregrine falcon and may fill the ecological niche left behind by the now-extinct passenger pigeon of North America. Beyond that, feral pigeons can be helpful indicators of air quality.
The ethical implications of eliminating urban pigeon populations are especially unsettling due to their high level of intelligence. Pigeons are capable of distinguishing words from random jumbles of numbers, even when the word is novel to them, undermining the anthropocentric idea that only humans possess the neural capacity for reading. In fact, research suggests pigeons share many cognitive behaviors with humans.
This isn’t to say that pigeon populations shouldn’t be controlled at all — I’ll be the first to admit that pigeon feces can be appalling. However, culling pigeon populations is both inhumane and ineffective. Pigeon birth control may offer a much more effective solution by reducing the likelihood that pigeon eggs will successfully hatch.
Humans are responsible for pigeons’ domestication and presence in cities, so we should strive to take care of them instead of exterminating them. We should appreciate the benefits they can offer; pigeons offer urbanites needed exposure to the natural world, helping foster passion for the conservation of nature broadly. Pigeons are living beings that deserve to live dignified lives. We shouldn’t want to live in a world where we prioritize our own biases and convenience over the well-being of animals living peacefully alongside us.