Pigeons and Other City Birds

When I went to look for a new place to live recently, it was already occupied. This may seem strange as the previous owner had moved months ago. The occupants were animals–not mice or rats, but pigeons.

Pigeons

pigeonMany people consider these birds to be pests. However, there’s something about this uniquely urban animal I like. It’s not the mess they make on the sidewalk or the one on the ledges above the windows. I think it’s the sound I like, and the fact that they seem to have the ability to live almost anywhere.

“Pigeons are a very misunderstood bird,” said James Mejeur, Curator of Birds at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh (www.aviary.org). Mejeur said pigeons were survivors and very good at adapting to their environment. “They are very successful birds. Unfortunately, some people don’t like those who are too successful. Bill Gates is successful–people love to hate him just like they love to hate pigeons.”

City, or “feral” pigeons, as they are known, descend from homing pigeons brought from Europe in the 1600s. After being domesticated from wild rock doves, it didn’t take them long to fly wild through America’s cities.

In parks and on rooftops, chimneys, and occasionally even wires: pigeons like to hang around the same area where they were born. They live in families and mate for life, though if a mate dies they will take on another. They usually lay only two eggs at a time and hide the nests well. Thus, one reason you don’t often see baby pigeons.

The other reason, as Mejeur explains, is that pigeons are fast growing. “I see baby pigeons all the time,” he comments. “Everyone does, they’re just hard to distinguish from old pigeons.” Mejeur says a pigeon is almost full-grown when it leaves the nest.

Pigeons are the subjects of controversy in many urban areas. Many advocate their extermination, while others enjoy the company they provide in parks, on the streets, and elsewhere. A case can be made for both sides. While providing sidewalk life and cleaning up scraps of food, pigeons carry many diseases and can damage buildings.

Both sides can be extreme in their advocacy. One web site I researched claimed pigeon droppings could present a “slip and fall” liability as well as clog gutters and cause roof damage. Routine maintenance and sidewalk cleaning can likely prevent both. On the other hand, pigeons do present some risk and irritation for humans and can’t be allowed to take over an area.

In the coming months, I will need to look at ways to convince my roof ledge occupants to find a new place to roost. With some investigation, I have found there are several humane ways of achieving this goal. Perhaps the most common way is to place a clay owl on the roof ledge. This doesn’t fool many pigeons, however.

One reason pigeons may not be fooled by a clay owl is that for the most part owls are not urban birds. In some cities with many trees and hillsides an owl might opt for an urban lifestyle, but for the most part, they need to be where prey is readily available.

Mejeur said the best way was to try to exclude them from an atrea. This is difficult, however, since pigeons, as we said earlier, don’t like to go far from where they were born. One way is to put strips of spiky material or netting above windows. This, however, is unsightly and may not be welcomed in some neighborhoods.

Falcons

Many other species of birds also prefer an urban life. Mejeur said in addition to pigeons, the most common are starlings and English sparrows–neither of which is native.

Another bird that has adapted well to cities is the peregrine falcon. Making homes atop skyscrapers, these falcons see the skyscrapers as similar to their native cliff environments. Pigeons often serve as prey for the Falcons, but the predators face many dangers when hunting in cities.

First, the falcon may swoop into traffic when hunting and be killed or injured by an automobile. Secondly, when a pigeon drinks from a street puddle, it may ingest lead and other contaminants presenting a hazard to both itself and any predator that may devour it.

The falcon may be one of the most welcomed urban birds, though they may or may not enjoy the attention they get when their lives and nests are shown on the Internet through one of the web cams set atop many a city skyscraper.

Geese and Crows

Other urban birds include Canada geese, crows, and even wild turkeys. Mejeur said the National Aviary has confirmed urban sites that provide homes to wild turkeys. Canada geese (not Canadian geese, he stresses) pay regular visits to riverbanks and ponds, sometimes seeming to threaten pedestrians.

Mejeur says an attacking goose is likely protecting its young. While an encounter with a goose may be scary, Mejeur says not to fear–the most you’ll likely get from a goose is a scratch.

Crows are another species Mejeur says about as popular as pigeons. Some consider them bad luck. Mejeur says that’s unfortunate because they are a very beautiful and intelligent bird–plus they are really good at what they do–and we all know some people like to hate you if you are too successful.

If you plan to head out to look for urban birds, Mejeur says that parks are probably the best places. If you don’t live near a park, he says that’s not a problem because there’s likely to be quite a variety wherever you are. “You might see a Carolina wren, a robin or even a red tail hawk,” he says. “There are always surprises.”

Falcon Cams:

Cleveland: www.falconcam.apk.net/
Jersey City: www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/webcams/jcperegrine/index.htm
Pennsylvania: www.dep.state.pa.us/dep/falcon/
Seattle: www.frg.org/frg/
Milwaukee: www.mpm.edu/collect/falcon/falcon.html

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me