Written by Matthew Bruns and April Tobias
Pigeons are the most numerous of all the birds in the city of London. While many 19th- and 20th-century Londoners admired the pigeons, others viewed them as a nuisance. London’s Medical Officers of Health mentioned pigeons and complaints about pigeons in many of their reports. The attitude of the MOH toward pigeons was generally negative, and they were characterized as a public health threat. The MOH worked with the city council and national government to pass laws so that they were able to control the large number of pigeons in London (Velten, 231).
A significant part of the pigeon nuisance was the constant and, in many cases, very disturbing noises that pigeons make. Early complaints about the “cooing” of pigeons begin in 1870 with the Medical Officer of Health’s report for Paddington, who noted that the cooing sound was a significant nuisance to people trying to sleep, and an annoyance that should be dealt with (Paddington 1870).
The cooing sound of a pigeon may be heard in this video:
Examples of individual King Pigeon cooing, taken from multiple clips and put together by YouTube user EniamRej, uploaded April 4th, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvVBFFhAssE
While the cooing sound is a quiet one individually, pigeons, and most other birds, congregate and travel in packs. Bird specialist Glenn Olsen terms this behavior “flocking” and goes on to describe in his article, “ Why do birds huddle on power lines?” that flocking offers birds protection from predators (Olsen, GO Birding). With more pigeons flocking, their noises became more abundant in cities like London, and further developed into a bigger nuisance for citizens. Pigeons continued to be seen as a nuisance for many years following these original reports. The noise nuisance continued to grow, and some residents would viciously target pigeon nests with objects in attempts to injure or kill the pigeons in order to stop the noise (Velten, 228).
One may ask however as to what constitutes the sound of pigeons as “noise.” In the report of medical Officer of Health for Harrow, this very question is contemplated stating “the world of hearing consists of two types of sound, that which causes communication, and that which interferes with it. We define this latter unwanted sound as “noise.” Thus the same sound can be a communication to one person while being a “noise” to another” (Harrow, 1962). The video above shows a person making the same cooing sounds as pigeons do and after he stops the pigeon responds by cooing back. This person is making this pigeon coo because he likes the sounds that this pigeon is making. To this person the cooing sounds of pigeons are not considered noise but are rather considered entertainment.
Since pigeons travel in colonies, and their numbers grew in early 20th-century London, the noise of the pigeons became increasingly disturbing to residents. A report from the City of Westminster 1929 states that these noises can actually become a health risk:
“It is certain that noise of particular pitch or repetitive character can cause nervous exhaustion and perhaps nervous disease of functional nature. Loss of sleep, interference with concentration and other contributions to loss of human efficiency may in some cases be justifiably attributed to noise” (Westminster, 1929).
The Medical Officer of Health for Chelsea made a similar report in 1930 (Chelsea 1930).
Noise from pigeons contributed to the on going distress of residents in London, which lead to the labeling of pigeons as the most hated birds (Jerolmack, 84). The Public (London) Health Act of 1936 allowed for mitigating any nuisance, annoyance or damage that might be caused by the congregation of pigeons (Lewisham, 1953). The MOH saw pigeons as one of the larger factors affecting health in London. This Medical Officer of Health report describes pigeons as an annoyance, but states that they are beginning to be dealt with by the 1927 General Powers Act. The 1927 General Powers Act allowed for the Sanitary Authority to “take necessary steps to reduce the number of pigeons within its area.”
According to the Metropolitan Borough’s Standing Joint Committee, the pigeons became such a nuisance that they began holding a “Pigeon Week” in order to promote abating the nuisance (Camberwell 1935). With pigeon noise nuisances still abundant, this was yet another step in the direction of mass pigeon destruction. Shortly after the “Pigeon Week” effort to abate the nuisance, the London General Powers Act of 1937 decreed that killing pigeons was a reasonable way to eliminate the pigeon annoyance (Finsbury 1937). The General Powers Act of 1937 resembles the rights that British marksmen have today in England. By implementing this act, citizens now had a right to essentially destroy any pigeon that annoyed them in any way, including by making too much noise. These laws are further explained in detail in the Pigeons and Government Intervention section of this site. Today, while it is illegal to kill pigeons, marksmen also may apply pest control reasoning to destroying pigeons in public or private events, such as the Wimbledon tennis tournaments described in BBC News’ article “Is it illegal to shoot pigeons?” (BBC News, Shooting Pigeons). The article goes on to explain that marksmen are essentially protected by the law if the killed pigeon was creating any type of nuisance, including bothersome noises. This correlates to similar laws described by the reports near the year 1937. This method also resembles methods described by Velten in Beastly London, which included throwing rocks at nests. These types of methods would prove to be some of the most effective in eliminating disturbing noises within the boundaries of the law.
In the City of Westminster in 1937, some 700 pigeons were killed as a result of the 1937 General Powers Act and the 1936 Public Health Act, but as response to only eight complaints, showing that these abatement programs were mass killings of pigeons (City of Westminster 1937). With more mass destructions seen within the nuisance abatement measures, it is can be inferred that many of these were due to the noise created by pigeon flocks. This is because, as stated earlier, the cooing sound pigeons create becomes more abundant with more pigeons present. Mass destructions are effective ways to eliminate the irritating sounds created by the large flocks.
Pigeons and noise are both listed as sanitary circumstances in the Camberwell Medical Officer of Health’s 1949 report, which goes to show how significantly noise can affect everyday life for people, and how pigeon populations continued to persist even with the destruction of noisy flocks (Camberwell 1949). According to a report of the Medical Officer of Health of Battersea in 1934, “the Council have power to destroy doves or pigeons congregating in such numbers as to cause nuisance, annoyance or damage” (Battersea, 1934). This statement implies that when pigeons come together they have the ability to cause nuisance. However, a report from the Medical Officer of Health for Finsbury says “it should be noted that no complaint to a court shall be effective unless it is made by not less than three persons, either householders or occupiers of premises within hearing of the noise nuisance which is the subject of the complaint” (Finsbury, 1938). In summary, as long as more than two complaints were made regarding pigeon noise the public health authorities could take action to resolve this problem. Furthermore, another MOH report from Islington asserted that as pigeons congregate it is probable that they will cause a nuisance: “The Council renewed the authority of the Pigeon Catcher and engaged him to give specific treatment where nuisances arose from the congregation of pigeons” (Islington, 1962).
With the new abatement laws in place and continued pest removal, pigeon noise nuisance complaints did eventually begin to decline. Of the thirty-three noise complaints in Marylebone Borough in 1951, not one was due to pigeon noise, proving the 1936 and 1937 Acts to have been effective with time, at least as regards pigeon noise nuisances. There were also only four general pigeon complaints filed in that report (Marylebone 1951). With the program of the pigeon nuisance abatement, noise complaints were still seen throughout London, but were more often results of new technology. New technologies in London included record players and ventilating systems, in Islington in 1961, for example (Islington 1961). As machinery began to replace manual labor through the mid-1900s, manufacturing and industrial machinery were to blame for most of the noise complaints seen in Shoreditch in 1958 (Shoreditch 1958). In 1963, although we see even further efforts to reduce the number of pigeons in Woolwich, there were no noise complaints as a result of pigeons, but more and more due to new technologies (Woolwich 1963). Three hundred and three inspections were made in the city of Hounslow with thirty-six complaints made in reference to noise, only one of which was pigeon noise (Hounslow, 1965).
By analyzing the new types of noise complaints seen in the middle of the 20th century, it can be inferred that Londoners became less annoyed with pigeons, and more annoyed with the noise that new technologies made throughout the city. Through most of the post-1937 Medical Officer of Health reports, noise complaints are still filed, but pigeon complaints begin to decline. This trend is due to multiple factors that include the Abatement Acts, the General Powers Acts, the Public Health Acts, mass destruction, and new, loud technologies being used in London. Even today, pigeons continue to be a noise problem in London, although not as big of a nuisance as before. Pigeon fanciers, like Roy Day, may receive complaint notices filed by people affected by their hobby of domesticating pigeons. Day, a pigeon-owning Londoner featured in an article in The Telegraph, received a notice that highlighted the noise and smell of the birds as the primary nuisances. With seven days to “get rid of them,” he explained that the only way to get rid of the pigeons was to kill them. This is because the pigeons are trained to return to Day’s home, and will return, without a doubt (Telegraph, Pigeon Fancier). These present-day situations are a simple reiteration of past laws that had been put in place, and further prove that the only way to progressively deal with this noise nuisance is to kill the pigeons off.
In the year 1965 the MOH for Islington reported that pigeons were continuing to cause a nuisance on “buildings, windows, courtyard, footpaths etc. and thus occasioning annoyance” (Islington, 1965). As the complaints continue to increase about pigeon noise in London the need to deal with them will continue to be brought to light resulting in the destruction of the pigeons. However, because pigeons are such an attraction in the city of London, there is a policy under the City Corporation to not exterminate all pigeons but to instead control the number of pigeons “as will ensure that the pleasure they give to
residents and visitors is not outweighed by the nuisance they cause” (City of London, 1960). The noise that pigeons make themselves and cause contributes to the other excessive noise in London. The Noise Abatement committee met to address this problem and determined noise as a health hazard to residents (“Noise in London”, 1513). The nuisance caused by pigeons can therefore potentially result in the detrimental to the human population.
Primary sources (MOH reports on pigeon noise)
“Pigeon fancier ordered to get rid of birds.” The Telegraph. October 18, 2012. Accessed April 02, 2017. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/9617840/Pigeon-fancier-ordered-to-get-rid-of-birds.html. (Pigeons and noise nuisance today)
Velten, Hannah. Beastly London: a history of animals in the city. (London: Reaktion Books, 2016).
Olsen, Glenn. “Why do birds huddle on power lines?” GO Birding Ecotours. February 28, 2012. Accessed April 02, 2017. https://gobirdingecotours.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/why-do-birds-huddle-on-power-lines/.
“Is it legal to shoot pigeons?” BBC News. June 26, 2008. Accessed April 02, 2017. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7474567.stm.
Jerolmack, Colin. “How Pigeons Became Rats: The Cultural-Spatial Logic of Problem Animals.” Social Problems55, no. 1 (February 2008): 72-94. 2008. Accessed April 7, 2017. doi:10.1525/sp.2008.55.1.72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.1525/sp.2008.55.1.72.pdf.
“Noise in London .” The British Medical Journal , Vol. 2, No. 2395 (November 24, 1906): 1513. Accessed April 7, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/20292104.pdf.