Written by Nour Mustafa and Mattie Witman
Pigeons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were considered to be nuisances and fiends to infrastructure and development all over Europe. The breed would cause a ridiculous amount of pestering noise and would fill various parts of the city sewage system with their droppings, causing sanitation problems. This problem was even more prominent within England, specifically in the areas in and around London.
As a result of of the increasing population of pigeons in metropolitan areas, numerous complaints became considerably salient among local property owners. Complaints of pigeons’ accumulation of filth, commotion, and waste, as well as their contribution to the pollution in the area, were all factors that led to new regulations of pigeons (City of London 1903). At the time, pigeons were considered to be “rats with wings,” which precisely conveyed the thoughts and attitudes towards these pestering animals (Jerolmack, 72).
During these times, London was considered “notoriously dirty and smelly” (Atkins, 21). In response to the growing concerns, public health officials, including Medical Officers of Health, Sanitary Committees, private firms, and other government officials attempted to resolve the frustration by taking action to reduce the number of pigeons. Unfortunately, because of the immense amount of pigeons within the city, sanitary committees were unsure how to properly cleanse the area, due to the absence of rightful owners. Additionally, because of the unknown ownership of these “wild” pigeons, local market authorities were at odds when it came to handling these problematic nuisances.
THE BEGINNING FORUM
Over time, there were many different initiatives and discussions surrounding how to rid cities of the problems with pigeons and other animals. An early report cites that one of the first evidential causes of the nuisances was the keeping of various animals including dogs, rats, horses, and pigeons on properties in England. The 1875 Public Nuisance Act was one of the first reforms to public keeping of animals before the ideas of destruction came along. It is important to note that part of this act was a change in the by-laws that regulated the amount of pigeons and the concentration of them within one’s property (MOH – Barnes 1922).
Conflicted with uncertainty from the uncontrolled growth, and filth, from the pigeon population, property owners were eventually forced to take matters into their own hands. Attempts at destroying pigeons’ nests and wiring open spaces on roofs were implemented in order to keep the pigeons under control and away from the area. Others attempted to resolve the issue by capturing the animals without any fear of prosecution. One factor that made the reduction of pigeons difficult was the Larceny Act of 1861; a government effort that proposed fining people who took the lives of pigeons (Velten, 231). Although many techniques were individually sought out, conclusions on the pigeons’ reduction was “practically impossible to effect any permanent improvement unless power to kill the birds [was] obtained.” (City of London 1925)
Around a decade later, it was recognized that the reforms to the laws weren’t as effective as what had been hoped. The next action was to look at ways to maintain places where pigeons were kept. This initiative involved things like cleaning and the destruction of pigeon droppings that were creating unsanitary conditions in public water supplies and grounds (MOH – Bermondsey 1883). Nearly three decades later, there were by-laws written around England that aimed to incorporate more food safety moves such as the provision that killed game and fish could not be cleaned or gutted around areas where pigeons, dogs, rats, or horses had inhabited (MOH – Hammersmith 1914).
By this time, London was infested with pigeons. Reports on the pigeons’ status, mentioned by Medical Officers of Health, stated that “more than four thousand” pigeons were noticeable and were increasing because of people constantly feeding them. (City of London 1925) As a result of the increasing population of these animals, officials eventually suggested placing a clause that would allow local authorities to take action themselves in order to lessen the number of pigeons. Many reductions of pigeons, on the other hand, were due to the domestication of pigeons among housekeepers, as well as locals who captured pigeons themselves. (City of London 1903)
After the attempts at sanitizing conditions, there was rumor about methods of an escalation to approved pigeon destruction because of the lack of solution coming from the other actions. As soon as these methods (to be discussed further) became known to the public, the number of complaints about the nuisances – noise and droppings, increased tremendously (MOH – City of Westminster 1928). Thus, the need for official, state-sponsored pigeon destruction was demanded by residents and government officials.
By 1927, more government interventions were taking place, including the London County Council or the General Powers Act. This act provided authorities to “seize and destroy or sell any such house doves or pigeons in excess of such number as the Council may consider reasonable, and take such steps as they deem necessary for such purpose.” In the following year, arrangements to work with a contractor were sought in order to reduce the ownerless pigeon numbers. These pigeons were to be caught and killed, but only in the “presence of the Public Health staff.” (Holborn 1928) In addition, the London County Council was in agreement with hiring certain workmen to work under the supervision of a Senior Sanitary Inspector. Because the nuisance was continuously increasing, special trappers were most often hired to reduce the number within cities, and were paid and worked under the direction of the Chief Sanitary Inspector (Shoreditch 1955). According to one report, the Borough Council had occasionally employed numerous contractors to reduce the pigeon count, and were given 1 shilling for every pigeon. That year, approximately 155 pigeons were humanely destroyed. (Chelsea 1931)
The increasing need for destruction of pigeons and removal of nuisance inspired many governmental meetings to convene about what was to be done. There was a lot of discussion and planning out in London to be modeled in other cities around England. In 1927, there were provisions established to properly address the growing problem. Some of the rules included:
1. That the pigeons be trapped in the early hours of the morning, when there is little likelihood of interruption by pedestrians and others.
2. That the pigeons be removed alive in pigeon baskets to a suitable centre.
3. That all ringed birds be separated and returned to the National Homing Union.
4. That the remainder be killed at the centre in the customary way in which pigeons are killed, under the supervision of an officer of the Corporation.
5. That the carcases be at the disposal of the contractor or burned by the Corporation. (MOH – City of London 1927)
The various rules were put in place for structure and disposal methods but also as a way to treat the animals with dignity. These weren’t always the intended results of pigeon destruction, however, legislators did invoke some thought and process into the steps. Despite the intentions of these laws, the truth was that they were still very vague and sometimes, a stretch. It was often hard to find times when the public wouldn’t be disturbed by pigeon catching given that they were active for the majority of the day (MOH – Chelsea 1930).
Other methods of achieving pigeon reduction in the cities were created, despite having disturbances from many people. Reports had stated that “specially designed traps were baited with suitable food” that lured the birds in, and ensured that only wild pigeons could be killed, and other house pigeons were captured and released. (Woolwich 1963). Other unconventional methods, that had previously been implemented, were of museum employees who legally attempted to “remove the pigeons by making them drunk with whiskey soaked grains” in order to catch and kill them. However, these methods were unsuccessful because it only resulted in pigeons flying to another location that was close by (Velten, 230). Additionally, people had used vacuum machine and industrial hoses in order to remove the grains that the pigeons would eat from (Velten, 232).
The changes to reduce the pigeon destruction, however, did not come easily. Opposition to pigeon destruction was so strong that it was found to be “almost useless to attempt to catch pigeons on a public highway owing to interference from neighboring residents and other persons, and the obstruction caused by the fixing of pigeon traps.” (Kensington 1929) Results at reducing the pigeon congregations were best observed at churches where there were enclosed spaces for pigeon catchers to operate. Reports on public pigeon catching indicated that pigeon trappers were “handicapped [in open spaces due to the] members of the public who regularly feed the birds and who endeavor to prevent the effective use of trapping nets.” (Holborn 1935) Reports from the City of London in 1938, stated that misinformed persons that cared for these animals greatly interfered with the professional catching of birds (City of London 1938). The “lack of uniformity and and cooperative effort” made capturing much more difficult (City of London 1938).
Policymakers also ran into the problem later in the twentieth century because not all pigeons were nuisances and some were used for war efforts and messaging. These carrier pigeons were later protected in revisions to certain rules and laws regarding pigeon destruction (MOH – Deptford 1927). There were provisions in place for racing pigeons as well to prevent them from being killed (Bisseru, 128).
Some of the pigeons that were caught were used not for destruction, but for sport. During the late 19th century, pigeon shooting was a popular activity among London’s elite. Fascinated by the sport, these wealthy men created traps that insured the capturing of pigeons. Other methods were put into practice that resorted to “yanking [pigeons’] tail feathers and applying pepper or turpentine to the raw skin or sticking a pin into their rumps” (Velten, 95). Additionally, trappers were notorious for accepting bribes in order to make pigeons fly, in a particular direction, by gouging out one of their eyes with a sharp object (Velten, 95). However, parliament later deemed the activity to be inhumane and officially ended the shooting of pigeons, legally. Many popular clubs still found ways around this but there was less all around (Velten, 95).
FEASIBILITY & RESULTS OF DESTRUCTION
Early estimates of pigeons within the city of London showed that there were approximately 4,000 pigeons within the city limits (MOH – City of London 1903). After the main provisions had begun in the early 1920s, the estimates of pigeons killed had been collected through city data. During the year of 1928, 2,000 of the 2,004 pigeons captured in London had been executed. The rest were “ringed” pigeons that had been sent to an appropriate Homing Union to be dealt with by the city leaders (MOH – City of London 1928).
There was a certain level of opposition to pigeon destruction. Some of the methods used to capture pigeons towards the beginning of the crusade upset civilians who were concerned with animal cruelty. After receiving these grievances, there were laws and provisions corrected within the original rules to maintain the dignity of the animals. In fact, there were even penalties put in place for catching a pigeon by other unapproved methods. For example, in Chelsea, there was a penalty for shooting a pigeon that was £2 (MOH – Chelsea 1928).
It is also interesting to note that the destruction of pigeons throughout the next few decades actually escalated to different ways, including exposure to lethal gases, shooting, and destruction of nest eggs from feral pigeons (Port of London 1966).
Although many people in society had opposing feelings toward these pigeons, they were still unaware that the integration and relationship between humans and animals was a vital part in their evolutionary history (Greene, 686). Throughout the many decades of pigeon infestation, pigeon destruction, pigeon capturing and shooting, many people had played a great part in gradually causing the extinction of particular pigeons due to their continuous interference and killing of these birds (Archive 379). People had to realize that there needed to be an equal balance among the unique interactions between humans and animals.
Primary Sources (MOH Reports on pigeon catching)
Ann Greene. Environmental History 7, no. 4 (2002): 685-87.
Atkins, P. J. Animal cities: beastly urban histories. Farnham Surrey: Ashgate, 2012. 21.
Bisseru, Balideo. Diseases of man acquired from his pets. Elsevier, 2013.
Jerolmack, Colin. “How Pigeons Became Rats: The Cultural-Spatial Logic of Problem Animals.” Social Problems 55, no. 1 (2008): 72-94.
Velten, Hannah. Beastly London: A History of Animals in the City. (Reaktion Books, 2013). 95, 230-232.