Bird Fact Friday – Feral Pigeons

Adapted from pages 69-72 of How to Be an Urban Birder:

Photo credit: David Lindo

Feral Pigeons are sometimes referred to disparagingly as Flying Rats by city folk. The term ‘Flying Rat’ first appeared in a New York Times article in 1966, but was actually popularized by Woody Allen in his 1980 film Stardust Memories, in which he referred to these pigeons as rats with wings. Along with their non flying mammalian namesake, they have got to be the most hated feathered creature in the land, surely? Pigeons poop whenever the desire takes them, with little respect for the unfortunate souls who might be standing underneath at the time. They certainly foul the pavements below their nest sites: classically underneath railway bridges or in deserted buildings in cities.

There have been many studies and surveys conducted of urban birds, some of which have come back with surprising results. Pigeons are one such fascinating subject matter. For example, research has shown that they are able to recognize the faces of the people that feed them, even if those faces are in a crowd of others. In London, some have learnt to ride the tube system, seemingly purposefully disembarking a few stops later to continue nonchalantly pecking at the pavement. They are accused of being dirty and spreading diseases. But do they? Why do they come in so many colour variations? And how come we never see baby pigeons?

In terms of their propensity for spreading disease, you would be forgiven for thinking that Feral Pigeons harboured every ailment known to man, plus a few that we perhaps don’t yet know about. This is seemingly visually corroborated by the sight of some individuals sporting gammy legs, club feet and very dishevelled plumages. Pigeons are known to carry lurgies like chlamydiosis or psittacosis, a bacterial infection that has flu-like symptoms. The jury is still out as to how much of a health risk they pose to humans, as many experts believe that the chances of catching anything from them are minimal. It is the droppings that we really have to worry about. Fresh droppings plopped on your head, whilst being unpleasant and, contrastingly, a sign of good luck, pose no risk to health. It is when they become dried that things can get dodgy. Spores from these droppings can be carried on the wind and be inhaled as dust. This can cause a flu-like illness in healthy people and a much more serious reaction in those with low immunity. Additionally, accumulations of droppings, which are highly acidic, can cause long-term damage to buildings, much to the chagrin of council officials.

Far from being boring and not very intelligent, Feral Pigeons have a fascinating life history, one part of which often flummoxes members of the public – the often-posed question “how come we never see baby pigeons?” The answer is actually quite simple. Young pigeons, or squabs, remain in the nest until they are about the same size as an adult – so when they make their debut appearances on our streets they are often indistinguishable from their parents.


LindoHow to Be an Urban Birder
By David Lindo

Urban birding is fast becoming ornithology’s new rock ’n’ roll. Birds and birding have never been cooler—and urban birding is at the cutting edge.

How to Be an Urban Birder is the world’s first guide to the art of urban birding—which is so easy and great fun! Here, urban birding pioneer David Lindo tells you everything you need to know about birds and birding in towns and cities in the UK.

  • Includes a brief history of urban birding in the UK
  • Covers the best places to look for birds in towns and cities
  • Helps you get to know your urban birds
  • Gives useful tips on how to attract birds to your garden
  • Explains what gear you need and how to go about being an urban birde
  • Features hundreds of cool images and illustrations of birds in urban settings
This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Bird Fact Friday – Southern LapwingBird Fact Friday—White Stork >>