Living the high life on skyscrapers and scraps

by: Becky Dong

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Pigeons in the urban landscape are seen as pests, swarming the streets and skies, approaching strangers for food, and dropping corrosive poop that damages buildings. They’ve got a bad reputation, even being named the “rats of the sky,” with several laws being implemented to curb their destruction. The city of Toronto has recently made it illegal to feed wild animals in hopes of population control, but is this actually beneficial to the city, or does it merely harm these animals? The argument states that feeding wildlife is risky for both animals and humans as it increases their tolerance for proximity around humans, making them bolder and more likely to approach in hopes of a food reward. If you’ve been around High Park, it’s pretty easy to tell that these birds aren’t shy at all and certainly aren’t afraid of a little human confrontation.

Additionally, the preference for the urban habitat gives pigeons access to our garbage, allowing them to scavenge despite human food being detrimental to their diets. One worry about feeding is the flocking and overcrowding of pigeons, leading to an increased spread of avian flu. But why do these birds have such a significant presence in our city centers, and what is their role in the city ecosystem? To understand more about the history of these pigeons, let’s uncover their history and lifestyle.

Pigeons weren’t always city dwellers; they were originally rock pigeons (Columba livia) from Eurasia that lived in mixed grasslands. That type of habitat allowed for ground foraging and nesting on rocky cliffs, which vaguely resembles the landscape of an urban city where pigeons are found nesting on large buildings and foraging in the streets. The Mesopotamians domesticated them and used them as messengers, leading to their high tolerance for humans to gain better access to food, improving their fitness and population growth. These synanthropes are truly unique as they live in human environments and depend on humans for food resources whilst being completely wild animals. They’ve adapted their diets to bread and other food waste despite it being detrimental to their health. Pigeons have even developed a food-begging behaviour that makes them increasingly dependent on human feeders and more comfortable approaching and provoking humans. These behaviours turned increasingly detrimental as the once domesticated pigeons were abandoned and became feral whilst still dependent on humans.

A place covered with skyscrapers doesn’t seem like the optimal habitat for any animal; it’s fragmented and disturbed, littered with buildings, and completely disrupts the ecological resource cycles of the land, but these pigeons have found a way to make it their home. One of the main reasons for this may be the lack of predators, ample nesting spots on buildings, and human feeders, surprisingly making the city a hotspot for threatened species. The population density of pigeons becomes more concentrated near old buildings due to an aversion to glass skyscrapers, food and water accessibility. They also play a role in the city ecosystem by helping with seed dispersal through their feces and eating invasive weeds and food waste on the streets. Unfortunately, their benefits don’t seem to outweigh the damage they cause. The pigeon nests cause damage to the buildings, and pigeon feces are highly acidic and toxic, wearing down buildings and causing illness to humans that unfortunately come into contact with oncoming bird feces.

Although they can wreak destruction and chaos, these birds deserve humane treatment. Therefore, further research and awareness is necessary to maintain and support their population while also finding a solution to curb their negative impact on our cities. Previously tested solutions have been ineffective and, at times, cruel by eliminating part of the population, which only resulted in temporary drops in population size. One highly used tactic is controlling pigeon reproduction using contraceptives like Ornitrol to decrease fertility or removing or replacing eggs from nests. Unfortunately, this is ineffective as it prompts the pigeons to produce more eggs in a shorter period of time, which are often lower quality.

Additionally, these shorter egg-laying cycles have a negative effect on female birds as the cost of reproduction leads to a decrease in health. Predators such as peregrine falcons were also tested as a form of population control, but their presence altered the ecosystem as a whole. Additionally, there would be a high risk of predators becoming invasive, and it wouldn’t take long to realize how an infestation of peregrine falcons would be far more dangerous than pigeons.
Currently, our best bet for controlling pigeons might be through the restriction of resource availability, leading to lower fitness, and decreased reproductive ability, ultimately reducing population size. Therefore, banning large-scale bird feeding and making food waste less accessible to feral pigeons to produce a decline in food availability may truly be the best solution for both cities and pigeons. Hated or loved, pigeons are here to stay. Next time you’re confronted by some pigeons eagerly seeking food, take a moment to contemplate whether these creatures are inherently malevolent or simply misunderstood, and scrutinize the city’s law against feeding them– is it an act of compassion or heartlessness?

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