After 11 years of bringing you local reporting, the team behind the Vancouver Observer has moved on to Canada's National Observer. You can follow Vancouver culture reporting over there from now on. Thank you for all your support over the years!

No love for pigeons from this old geezer

Flying rats or food on the fly?

It’s a favourite cliché – the old guy on the park bench sprinkling bread crumbs for a growing flock of pigeons at his feet. But it’s not just geezers who like pigeons. Their soft cooing, irridescent necks and strutting walks make them tourist favourites in city squares around the world – the pigeons, not the geezers. But pigeons also carry a host of parasites that should make you think twice about going anywhere near them.

Pigeons are survivors who need very little encouragement to put down multi-generational roots. Two years ago, we watched as a few of the nurses in the old folks home across the way put out a bird feeder. It was one of those little house-shaped plexiglas feeders that suction onto the outside of a window so you can watch the birds from inside. Pretty soon, nervous little chickadees and wrens were darting by for a quick nibble while, through the window, the nurses watched with wonder. And then the pigeons arrived.

Pigeons come in more than 200 widely diverging varieties. There’s the Cumulet, a pure white French breed that’s the ancestor of a lot of racing pigeons.

One of the most beautiful breeds comes from Turkey. The multi-coloured Oriental Frill is so-named because of the spray of ruffled feathers on its breast. 

Then there are the many types of Tumbler pigeons, bred to fly and perform acrobatically. Sadly, our urban pigeons don’t come with any such pedigrees.

Technically, they are descended from Rock Pigeons, or Columba livia. About six thousand years ago. people in the Middle East began domesticating them and pigeons have pretty much been our pals ever since. Along the way, other birds took their place in our hearts and on our tables, most notably chickens and geese. The pigeons, left to their own devices, went feral and thrived. That’s why urban pigeons are commonly called feral pigeons, unless you’re in New York, in which case they are considered rats with wings. The description is not far off the mark.

Feral pigeons are not so much birds as they are a multi-platform disease delivery system. They carry ectoparasites including yellow mealworms, chicken mites and bedbugs. Among the dozens of maladies they spread are a sort of pulmonary disease called cryptococcosis, as well as our old friends salmonella and E. coli. 

They will nest anywhere, especially cliffs or apartment blocks such as yours.  Pigeons mate for life or until something better comes along. The operative word here is mate, which pigeons like to do more than anything except eat.  They breed almost constantly, and are especially prolific in the spring and summer. It takes about three weeks for the eggs to hatch, then mom and dad are at it again. 

And so it was that by last fall there were more than three dozen pigeons living and breeding across the way. No doubt some residents of the old folks home found the pigeons’ cooing pleasant, even soothing.  But the guano was piling up, and if it wasn’t a health concern, it was certainly a mess. The birds were starting to colonize nearby rooftops and decks. 

Not surprisingly, the first thing that pops up when you Google “pigeons” is a slew of websites on how to control them. Among the techniques are owls, fog machines, spike belts and live traps. 

We finally resorted to guns. Green and red water pistols – 49 cents each at the dollar store. Pigeons like to roost, so the idea was to keep them moving.  When they landed on our roof deck, we gave them a wet reception. We also hung a plastic owl’s head from a rope, so that it lolled around in the breeze, although I think it frightened more owls than pigeons.

It still seemed like a losing battle. The pigeons threatened to overwhelm us by sheer numbers. But, good neighbours that they are, the administration at the old folks home took action.

One morning, three workers appeared on the roof next door, scooping up pigeons and stuffing them into wire cages. A few escaped and fluttered about, burbling and strutting around a few feet away from the action. I didn’t dare ask what the guys were going to do with the ones they caught, because I didn’t really want to know the answer. I wanted to think that the pigeons were taken in by somebody like Jack Duckworth on Coronation Street, who lavished them with love and cracked corn. But I’m almost sure that didn’t happen.

To some people, like our Jack, pigeons are pets to be cossetted and cared for. To others, roast squab is a treat, even a delicacy. So much so that in the last little while, more than five thousand domesticated pigeons have been stolen from Fraser Valley farms. The birds are worth at least $3 each. Some are worth up to $15. Breeding pairs were stolen along with birds meant for the dinner table. 

Instead of ripping off hard-working farmers, perhaps the pigeon pilferers want to try their luck a little closer to home. Not that I’m inviting thieves into our neighbourhood. But the city’s full of plump pigeons, and more are being hatched all the time. The guys across the way have been back a couple of times for stragglers, but despite their best efforts, a couple of pigeons are nuzzling each other on the roof and will soon...  yup, there they go. Squab, anyone?

More in Geezerville

Poet George Bowering talks baseball

The official Loudmouth Fan of the Vancouver Canadians keeps the season alive -- George Bowering offers up a beer and a dog and a damn good baseball story.

Literary stars sparkle at Vancouver International Writers Festival

Progress, a family tragedy, armed resistance, the fur trade, celebrity journalism and an earthquake -- a day in the life at the Writers Festival

Rain City

The rain returns. We can either cower under our umbrellas, or embrace one of the defining features of our city.
Speak up about this article on Facebook or Twitter. Do this by liking Vancouver Observer on Facebook or following us @Vanobserver on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you.