Reducing pigeon numbers in towns & cities

The need to control feral pigeon populations in urban areas has been the subject of intense debate for decades with town and city councils making little impact on the problem due to lack of investment and, in many cases, a reluctance to think laterally. Although the feral pigeon has been a common feature of urban life for the last 100 years there is no doubt that urban flocks are now growing faster than their numbers can be controlled. The reason for this unprecedented rise in feral pigeon numbers is due, almost exclusively, to the availability of food and the methods used to control the birds. Other factors such as the availability of good roosting and breeding facilities also play their part.

The feral pigeon is completely at home in urban environments, exploiting humans for food and using buildings for the purposes of roosting and breeding. This is because the feral pigeon is a descendent of the rock dove, a cliff-dwelling bird that was commonly found feeding and breeding along rocky coastlines prior to its mass exodus inland to make its home alongside man.

Pigeons (Rock Doves) in their Natural Habitat

Pigeons (Rock Doves) in
their Natural Habitat

The reason that the rock dove chose to desert its natural habitat is the obvious availability of food combined with the optimum breeding and roosting potential offered by buildings, which resemble cliff faces. In its natural habitat the only real predator of the rock dove was the peregrine falcon, an extremely efficient predator that preyed on both pigeons and gull chicks.

In these natural environments flock size was restricted and maintained at levels dictated by the availability of natural food sources and the extent of predation in the area concerned. In urban environments, however, the picture is very different with man being the sole predator of the feral pigeon and food sources guaranteed.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

Today the feral pigeon can be seen in virtually every area of the globe other than the two polar icecaps, exploiting man for food and his buildings for the purposes of roosting and breeding. Man has attempted to control the feral pigeon by using a variety of lethal controls, including poisons, narcotics, cage traps and shooting, and yet the pigeon has shrugged off all these attempts at population control and continued to live and breed in close association with man undeterred. Lethal controls have been complemented by an arsenal of deterrents, provided in an effort to deny or restrict roosting and perching opportunities (thereby reducing guano-related problems). Anti-roosting systems such as anti-roosting spikes have proved extremely effective at displacing pigeons from areas that pigeons roost and nest; but may not be a total solution as pigeons may simply move to other areas nearby.

Rifle Used for Pigeon Culling

Rifle Used for Pigeon Culling

So what other options are available to control and contain the problem? The answer to the question really lies in the source of the problem: available food and the means by which we currently control the birds. The use of lethal control as a means of controlling and reducing pigeon populations has been found to have no effect in terms of reducing pigeon flock size. Scientific research has even found that lethal controls can have the opposite effect, resulting in an increased flock size as a result of rejuvenation within the flock. Although we now have the science which proves that all attempts to reduce flock size by lethal means will be a wasted effort, the use of lethal control on pigeon populations is still extensive in the UK and many other countries worldwide. Why then are lethal controls used at all? Culling has been relied upon for decades by the pest control industry as a highly lucrative and revenue-rich service. If it were withdrawn as a control option many contractors would simply go out of business.

Pigeon Loft used for Breeding Control

Pigeon Loft used for
Breeding Control

The only proven method of reducing pigeon flock size as part of an area-wide control system is to use a method pioneered by PiCAS International involving the use of artificial breeding facilities. This stand-alone method of control has been scientifically* proven to reduce pigeon flock size and is currently being employed throughout mainland Europe by councils and commercial organisations alike.The principle of a scheme using artificial breeding facilities is to provide a pigeon loft or dovecote in which feral pigeons can be encouraged to roost and breed and from which their eggs can be removed as laid and replaced with dummy eggs. This method of breeding control has been found to be extremely effective in reducing flock size and maintaining that reduction indefinitely.

Pigeon Loft on Hotel in India

Pigeon Loft on
Hotel in India

Whether a dovecote or pigeon loft is used the principle is the same – pigeons are encouraged to take up residence in the facility provided and as soon as breeding commences their eggs are removed as laid and substituted with dummy eggs. The hen bird will then continue to sit on the eggs for a period of between 18 and 25 days before realising that the eggs will not hatch, at which time she will then abandon them. If eggs are removed without substituting with dummy eggs the hen bird will re-lay immediately and continue to re-lay each time her eggs are removed.

Breeding Compartments in Pigeon Loft

Breeding
Compartments
in Pigeon Loft

This may result in long-term health-related problems for the hen bird (such as a severe calcium deficiency) and as the goal is to maintain a small healthy flock of pigeons this is clearly not desirable.

The two types of artificial breeding facility available for use as a breeding control are very different in respect of both design and siting criteria, with a pigeon ‘loft’ normally provided on or possibly even within a building and a dovecote provided in an open space and at ground level. A pigeon loft would normally be provided by a property owner on a specific building or site in an effort to control breeding flocks of feral pigeons within that localised area. A dovecote would normally be provided in a green open space, such as a public park, where the scope of the facility would be the control of large feeding flocks of feral pigeons. In the case of a dovecote-based system a designated public feeding area would normally be provided adjacent to the dovecote in which the general public would be encouraged to feed pigeons, as the food would act to attract the birds to the dovecote facility.

The additional benefit of a designated feeding area, certainly where deliberate and persistent feeding of pigeons is identified as being the root cause of the problem, is that the facility will draw feeders away from their normal feeding areas in town and city centres and relocate them to green areas where pigeons can be better tolerated. Many councils will use the ‘carrot and stick’ approach when offering a system of this nature, providing feeders with legitimised areas in which to feed pigeons but large fines if they continue to feed outside the designated areas.

The main source of all pigeon-related problems in urban areas is deliberate and persistent over-feeding of pigeons by a small number of people who normally feed large quantities of high quality food 7 days a week. To a lesser extent the methods most commonly used to control pigeons (lethal controls) exacerbate and further entrench problems caused by overfeeding. The combination of overfeeding and the rejuvenation of pigeon flocks through the use of lethal controls has resulted in deeply entrenched problems in virtually every city in the Western world.

Flock of Urban Pigeons

Flock of
Urban Pigeons

In some countries the feral pigeon has a religious significance and this fact has also acted to further embed the problem. Muslim, Hindu and Sikh cultures feed pigeons for religious reasons and although the feeding of pigeons for these reasons still continues in many UK towns and cities today, there is a view that the feeding of pigeons is the preserve of the older generation with younger generations taking little interest in the bird. In multi-racial cities like Leicester, for example, where the council embraces the concept of culling and where ethnic minority groups offer huge quantities of food to feral pigeon populations on a daily basis, feral pigeon flocks have grown to unsustainable proportions, creating deeply entrenched problems for property owners.

Monk Feeding Pigeons

Monk Feeding Pigeons

The problem has become so entrenched that several years ago PiCAS International was called in to humanely remove nearly 2000 breeding pigeons and their young from 7 residential roof-spaces in council-owned properties in the city. This indicates the scale of the problem and confirms that citywide overfeeding of feral pigeons, combined with the over-use of culling, will only ever result in upwardly spiralling pigeon flock size.

 

For any urban pigeon control system to be effective there must not only be area-wide controls provided in the form of pigeon lofts and dovecotes with designated feeding areas, but also an acceptance by property owners that they must play their part. The only body that can be a catalyst for area-wide controls is a council, but if property owners fail to control pigeons on their own properties and allow entrenched roosting and breeding problems to occur or to continue any programme provided by the council will inevitably be compromised. Breeding controls can be astonishingly effective, but if property owners fail to exclude pigeons from their properties those same birds will continue to breed unchecked, further compounding the problem throughout the area. If breeding controls are provided in the form of lofts and dovecotes, however, and if both the local authority and property owners pull in the same direction, a vast majority of pigeons that are excluded during proofing programmes will end up in loft or dovecote facilities where their breeding can be controlled.

The average property owner can provide an extremely effective pigeon control system by installing deterrents in areas where roosting, breeding or perching exists and, if the problem justifies it, by providing an artificial breeding facility in the form of a pigeon loft. The combination of these two controls on one building or site will not only reduce the incidence of soiling in sensitive areas, but will also reduce flock size year on year, resulting in a small manageable flock of pigeons. This must be the goal of every property owner based on the fact that it is simply impossible to eradicate the feral pigeon completely. Although deterrents cannot be considered to be cheap, if the correct choice is made and if the product is sourced and installed by the property owner concerned at least 20-30 years’ protection should be afforded. The correct choice of deterrents is key, with some anti-perching products such as repellent gel only providing between 3 and 12 months’ protection and bird exclusion products like nylon bird netting only offering 5-10 years’ protection. The anti-roosting spike will, however, offer the property owner up to 30 years’ protection without the need to maintain or replace the product, making it an economical and aesthetically pleasing choice.

When a council chooses to provide an area-wide control system for feral pigeons (and very few UK-based councils do provide area-wide systems) expert guidance is critically important. Control systems that are designed to resolve entrenched pigeon-related problems are complex, particularly if the root cause of the problem is persistent and deliberate feeding by the general public. Many UK-based councils have attempted to address the problem by using hard-hitting and aggressive campaigns threatening pigeon feeders with large fines or imprisonment and often undertaking deeply unpopular culling operations at the same time. In each and every case these campaigns have failed due to the fact that the council concerned has failed to understand the underlying reason why people feed pigeons. The ‘problem’ cannot be dealt with as a littering offense or an anti-social act; it must be dealt with by education and persuasion rather than by threats and legislation.

If public feeding is identified to be the cause of the problem a system of controls must be provided that take the impact of persistent feeding into consideration at the same time as identifying large-scale pigeon roosts and closing them down. The principle of an effective area-wide control system using dovecote-based artificial breeding facilities is to provide the general public with an area specifically set aside for the purpose of pigeon feeding and to confirm that feeding is allowed in this area, but nowhere else.

A high-quality public education campaign must be launched confirming what the council is trying to achieve and why. Once a dovecote and designated feeding area facility has been provided in a central and accessible area the task of encouraging the feral pigeon population to feed on the site and take up residence in the dovecote is the next step.

Where pigeon-related problems exist as a result of public feeding the public education campaign will guide feeders to use the dovecote site for this purpose and as a result pigeons will follow, thereby resolving problems for property owners. Where breeding or roosting-related problems exist, however, it will be necessary to exclude pigeons from these areas with physical deterrents or to provide a loft-based artificial breeding facility or a combination of both.

One of the main reasons that area-wide control systems break down is the failure of councils to identify large-scale overnight roosts and force property owners to close them down and exclude pigeons. Councils have the power to force any property owner to undertake works to exclude pigeons from their property or, if the property owner refuses, to undertake those works itself and then bill the property owner. Even in light of these far-ranging powers, however, councils are deeply reluctant to take this action even though it may make render the area-wide control system a failure.

Of course, it is not always advisable or desirable to exclude pigeons from an existing roosting or breeding site, particularly if there is no area-wide control system in place to provide alternative accommodation. This does not stop property owners and companies like Network Rail excluding tens of thousands of pigeons from buildings and roosting sites under railway bridges every year. These excluded birds simply become someone else’s problem and the cycle begins again. This is why it is so important to provide a system of sustainable controls, such as the use of artificial breeding facilities, that will continue to control both breeding and (in the case of dovecote-based systems) feeding indefinitely, with little or no cost involved other than the initial outlay. These systems are popular with the general public and property owners alike as they humanely relocate pigeons to areas where they can be tolerated, accommodated and controlled without the need to resort to unpopular, invasive and unsustainable controls such as culling.

For further information on area-wide control systems please see our product review entitled ‘Artificial Breeding Facilities’ and the ‘DIY Controls’ discussion document.

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