Pigeons Droppings

Pigeons navigate better than any pilot, they're more sociable than any debutante, they've adapted to the urban landscape better than any human. But they poop. So we're poisoning them.

Meanwhile, pesticide users hype the dangers of pigeon poop to human health. Just to justify West Port Plaza's toxic shooing, Casey pronounces pigeons "known carriers of 50 or more human diseases and ectoparasites."

"Fifty?" echoes avian-disease expert Bermudez. "Well, maybe if you count all the different salmonellas. Pigeons carry at least three different organisms that are potential pathogens for humans. Balance that against the fact that there are many people who race pigeons and keep pigeon lofts and are still alive to tell about it. Nothing is without risk."

Risk increases, though, when age or illness compromises someone's immune system. How do we know when a population of "rats with feathers" has grown too dense for human safety? "Problematic density is probably more determined by people getting their possessions defaced," murmurs Bermudez. "I'm not terribly worried about pigeons."

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Bermudez could be biased toward his winged patients, so we call Bill Kottkamp, a respected expert who supervised vector control for most of his 14 years at the St. Louis County Health Department. "We don't see pigeon-related-disease problems in the St. Louis region," he says. "I don't think they're seeing them anywhere in the Midwest. The only real problem is if fresh droppings are left on a sidewalk -- they can be slippery -- or if rehabbers find a roost with a dried buildup of droppings."

Next we call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, and ask whether they worry about pigeons as a public-health hazard. "We do have some concern about the indiscriminate killing of pigeons," replies Dr. Marshall Lyon at CDC's National Center for Infectious Diseases. "There are better ways." Next, he describes the disease links: As carriers of salmonella, "pigeons are like any other bird, including chickens." As carriers of another common bird germ, chlamydia, they mainly endanger pet-store owners and breeders, who -- like all sexually responsible adults -- should avoid unprotected contact with an infected bird. As for cryptococcosis, it's found mainly at elevated roost sites, where organic dust mixes with dried pigeon droppings.

That makes three. What about histoplasmosis, a surprisingly common illness that can be symptom-free, cause flulike symptoms or, in rare cases, do serious damage? Casey calls it "the most common pigeon-carried disease."

In point of fact, pigeons don't carry histoplasmosis. Their droppings simply enrich the soil where it already grows. "In St. Louis, histo is well-known, and it's in the soil, regardless of whether pigeons are around or not," says Lyon. Old, long-accumulated droppings do provide nutrients for histo, but fresh droppings on sidewalks and window sills present no risk at all, because the birds themselves are not infected.

Avitrol's Web site mentions histo prominently, says "the blame can be placed directly on the fungus-bearing droppings associated with infestations of pigeons," and cites national disease rates. But Lyon calls those rates "misleading and irrelevant, because histo's so ubiquitous. It's in the soil, regardless of whether pigeons are around or not, and it's especially prevalent in the middle third of the country." So would getting rid of pigeons make a difference? "Not in terms of histo," he chuckles. "If you've lived in St. Louis any length of time, you've probably had it already."

You'd think, after all the seizures and crashes and corpses and outcry, Avitrol would at least be a permanent solution. "When you reduce the number in a flock, you reduce the competition, and it makes the pigeons even more robust," explains Kent Robertson, executive director of the Humane Society of Missouri. "Avitrol is just going to kill a bunch of pigeons and draw more into the area." The original birds might be permanently scared off, but pigeons cover the continent, and they're always looking for a new piece of real estate.

Even some pest-management companies are seeking more permanent methods. Writing in Pest Control Today in March 1996, George Rambo said, "In some cases we resort to chemicals to reduce populations or move them out of an area. However, I see more and more management companies, as well as more and more government contracts, beginning to require longer-lasting solutions."

If you're protecting the spires of a Gothic cathedral, you might have to design an elaborate barrier system. But if you're starting from scratch, all you have to do is factor the inevitable pigeons into the design. "Pigeons are part of the environment the way cold weather is," remarks MacKay. "We build structures to expand in the cold, but we don't engineer with any thought to wildlife."

We probably never will. By definition, "wildlife" falls out of civilization's purview -- except as something to tame, evade or hunt. Senegalese poet Baba Dioum writes, "In the end, we conserve only what we love." And "pigeon lover" remains a ridiculous term.

We must settle for common sense. Eliminate attractions. Pigeons feed on trash: Contain it. They use the fine gravel on flat rooftops for grit: Avoid it. Get serious, the way New Orleans did, about forbidding people to feed pigeons in areas that are overrun. Block landing sites, make roosting sites inaccessible. Pigeon-proof.

"I know, I know, the customers don't want to pay; they want a quick solution," writes Rambo. "Bird-proofing is quick. Put it up and the birds are gone. And it is permanent. Maybe that is the problem -- no repeat customers," he muses. "Think of it this way. Build birds out, exclude them from their roost, and they have to go somewhere. And maybe you will get that call, too."

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