Written by Olivia Colts-Tegg
In his 1925 report, the Medical Officer of Health for the City of London noted: “The Sanitary Committee has had under consideration the question as to the steps which
can be taken to abate the damage and nuisance caused by the increasing number of pigeons which are to be found in the City of London.” (p. 76) According to the committee, an alarming number of pigeons were congregating in the city. However, the destruction of pigeons posed a legal challenge for public health officials. As the City of London MOH complained,
It has been found impossible for the Corporation to take any action with a view to
reducing numbers since ownership cannot be asserted, and although the birds do not appear to belong to anybody in particular, they cannot be described as wild birds. They are, therefore, protected by Section 23 of the Larceny Act, 1861, which imposes a penalty on whoever unlawfully and wilfully kills any house dove or pigeon under such circumstances as do not amount to larceny at common law. (76)
The Corporation approached the London County Council and the Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee to ask for legislative power to deal with the large congregations of the birds (76). In the year 1927, an Act of Parliament was passed that empowered the Corporation to reduce the numbers of pigeons, but limited the ways of doing so. The birds were not allowed to “be shot or killed in the public street, but should be caught and subsequently killed painlessly” (1938). By these rules, the only ways of control are catching and trapping, which proved to be unsuccessful.
The problem of the pigeons continued to grow. In 1936, the Medical Officer of Health for the City of London reported that pigeons were a continued nuisance. The growing problem created by the birds lead to the first law dealing with pigeon control. The Public Health (London) Act of 1936 was set forth on October 1, 1936. In Section 121, it stated that local authorities had the power “to seize and destroy pigeons believed to be ownerless and where they congregate in numbers in excess of that considered reasonable” (Chelsea 1963).
Even though this law empowered public health officials to destroy pigeons, the birds were not so easily eliminated. In 1936, only 490 birds were caught by the Corporation Contractor but it is noted that increased efforts were under way (City of London 1936). Further, many people were under the impression that the birds were famished and would starve if not given food. Many of those who brought food to the birds were kindhearted people, and had no intention of causing harm, but unintentionally creating a dilemma. Unknown to them, if the birds were left unfed in the city they might have had the opportunity to find natural sources of food in the wild, away from busy, human life.
By the year 1938, efforts to control pigeons were still not satisfactory in the view of public health officials. Many pushed for more legislation to take care of the bird problems in the growing city. Specifically, the Public Health Committee of the City Corporation frequently urged more aggressive efforts to rid the city of pigeons. The Public Health (London) Act of 1936 was apparently too weak in its powers. In 1938, two years after the passage of the Act, the MOH for the City of London reported that very few birds had been caught and taken care of and “existing arrangements cannot satisfactorily solve the problem” (City of London 1938).
It seems that even by the year 1948, no new legislation has been out into power regarding pigeons. Under the title of Pigeon Nuisance in that year the Medical Officer of Health stated in his report that the Corporation, in exercise of their powers under Section 121 of the Public Health (London) Act, could “from time to time cause the number of pigeons in the City to be reduced when it appears to them either that their number is excessive, or that complaints of their congregation in certain areas are justified” (City of London 1948).
By 1952 and 1953, the Public Health (London) Act is still governed pigeon control. By this year, we see a report of 581 pigeons destroyed, a very small increase over the 1936 figure. As pigeon control was unchanging, population numbers, of both pigeons and people, in the city continue to climb.
In 1963, there was a change in the methods of pigeon control. On instruction by the Public Health Committee, the practice of catching and trapping pigeons was discontinued. The new approved practice for pigeon control was limited to proofing buildings. This measure was intended to prevent both nesting and roosting. But the Medical Officer of Health for Chelsea warned that this plan was likely to backfire. Due to the continuing expansion of the city, the birds would simply move to a building that wasn’t proofed, and begin nesting there. The law would do no more than relocate the pigeons to neighboring buildings (Chelsea 1963).
Licensed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, as well as both the Public Health Act of 1936 and Section 10 of the Protection of Birds Act, the use of narcotics in pigeon control was set forth allowing the drug to be used only after inspection and approval.
Putting laws forth to combat the pigeon nuisance is necessary, but some can argue action is only required to an extent. The birds serve “pleasure to many members of the public” and this contributes to a enormous, dual problem of conflict of interest (City of London 1966). They are known as the “birds the British love to hate” (BBC 2008). The City Corporation must therefore control the number of pigeons to where they don’t cause damage and nuisance, but do not cause havoc in the public’s eye. But, when people continue to feed the birds out of amusement, the nuisance problem is only fed. In regards to law, the public and Parliament must work together to control the pigeon population.
MOH Reports concerning pigeons and public health law:
Association of London Government. “Prevention of Nuisance of Birds.” Accessed April 7, 2017. www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/node/5812.
London, Teddy T. “Is It Illegal to Shoot Pigeons?.” BBC News. Accessed April 7, 2017. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7474567.stm.
The National Archives. “Public Health Act 1936.” Accessed April 7, 2017. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Geo5and1Edw8/26/49/contents.
Velten, Hannah. Beastly London: A History of Animals in the City. Chicago: Reaktion Books, 2013.