London’s biggest airborne pest, the feral pigeon, has recently become something of a film star. The evil Professor Moriaty, adversary to London’s most famous detective in the movie, “Sherlock Holmes: A game of shadows”, has a habit of feeding the winged vermin in the city’s parks.
But when they’re not to be seen alongside the likes of Jared Harris, Jude Law, Robert Downey Jr. and Stephen Fry where do feral pigeons spend their days?
‘Rats with wings’ were not always pests
Today’s feral pigeon, or town pigeon, is descended from birds who were once bred in captivity, often for meat. This happened for thousands of years. Some of the world’s earliest writings, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, mention the domestication of the Rock Dove or Rock Pigeon.
Over the centuries, millions of birds have escaped from captivity and formed huge colonies in our towns and cities. Trafalgar Square alone was home to around 35,000 birds before the Mayor of London took action to reduce their numbers.
A day in the life of a feral pigeon
As their name suggests, Rock Doves live on cliffs. Today’s tall buildings with their miles of ledges provide an attractive alternative to their feral pigeon descendants.
It’s here that birds begin the day, on some precarious perch or rooftop that’s not been coated in pigeon spikes or netting. Some will be nesting, as pigeons can lay eggs at any time of year.
They like to nest in groups, if they can, with derelict buildings being favoured spots for housing a pigeon nursery. Both parents take turns at incubating the eggs, while their partners go in search of food.
Much of the pigeons’ food comes directly from the human inhabitants of the town or city. Some feed the birds deliberately, although this is increasingly discouraged. But many of us feed feral pigeons by accident, by dropping pieces of food onto roads and pavements. They also eat berries, seeds and insects.
Pigeons can live for up to fifteen years in captivity. However, it’s unlikely they survive this long in the wild, with most feral pigeons probably dying within their first five years of life.
Feral pigeons pollute and damage
While pigeons help to keep our streets clean of food waste, they make plenty of mess of their own. Stonework, vehicle paintwork and the personal dignity of town and city dwellers are the daily victims of pigeon droppings.
Once prized as a quality fertilizer, pigeon excrement is not just unsightly, it’s also highly corrosive and a health hazard. The acids it contains will eat their way through paint, wood, steel and stone. Millions of pounds have been spent restoring historic buildings which had suffered major damage from a build-up of pigeon droppings.
Their waste, and the birds themselves, can also contain parasites and other sources of diseases. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the feral pigeon has been associated with the villainous Professor Moriaty on the silver screen, as both can present a rather nasty hazard to human health.