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Friday, 19 January, 2001, 14:55 GMT
In defence of pigeons

Towns and cities across the UK are battling to curb the recent pigeon population explosion. But have we got this winged multitude all wrong?

The 30,000 pigeons who daily flock to London's Trafalgar Square will have to do without the aid of Bernard Rayner, the famous plaza's only licensed bird feed seller.

London mayor Ken Livingstone
"Shoo!"
London's mayor, Ken Livingstone, has declared war on the capital's pigeons and decreed that Mr Rayner's stall, a family concern for 50 years, must close.

The authorities cite the 100,000-a-year bill for clearing up after the fattened flappers and the dazzling array of diseases the creatures carry.

And London is not alone in such avian troubles. While British song birds - and even the humble sparrow - are on the decline, the number of pigeons across the UK is said to have doubled since 1995.

They may be "rats with wings" to Woody Allen, but these much-maligned birds do have their admirers.

What have pigeons ever given us?
Flu
Tuberculosis
Encephalitis
Ornithosis
Paratyphoid
Toxoplasmosis
Lyme disease
Friends of the "rock dove" - the reviled street pigeon's more sympathetic moniker - ambushed Mr Livingstone with a jug of water during his current fact-finding trip to the US.

"Your plan to poison pigeons is all wet. Mayor Livingstone starves pigeons to death," said the animal activist culprit in Washington DC.

Even at home, and among birds of his own feather, Mr Livingstone has his critics. London MP Tony Banks is a willing character witness for pigeons: "They are intelligent and sociable."

Eagle
"I'll give you 'rock dove'"
Indeed, pigeons have been getting on with humans for the best part of 6,000 years as possibly the first domesticated birds.

Strong muscles make the pigeon an impressively swift flyer, which has come in useful as city councils, and even Railtrack, draft in birds of prey to fight the feathered menace.

Julian Godfrey's raptors - Rowan, Jed and Rufus - conduct a frustrating patrol in skies over Bristol. "My hawks can't fly as fast as pigeons, so they don't catch them."

The ability to cover long distances - at speeds approaching a mile a minute - has also seen the pigeon become a vital human ally in times of war.

Special air service

The UK's National Pigeon Service called up more than 500,000 birds to serve during the two world wars.

So important was their contribution, ferrying vital messages to troops and secret agents alike, Hitler ordered all Britain-bound birds to be fired upon.

Winston Churchill statue in Westminster
"The pigeons are back from France, I gather"
Stories abound of pigeons shot or badly injured delivering their life-saving dispatch then dying on the spot. Some 26 birds earned the Dickin Medal - the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

In peace time, the flying prowess of the pigeon has retained its admirers. The Royal Pigeon Racing Association, the UK's largest such body, boasts 46,000 members. Even the Queen has a loft of the birds.

Pigeons are the racehorses of the sky says Peter Bryant, the association's chairman.

Fancy prices

"Some fanciers will pay 20,000 or 30,000 for a bird with a good pedigree for breeding. The record price was 106,000. It's very much the same as stud horses or show dogs."

So are racing pigeons as adept at finding their way home from hundreds of miles away, as myth would have us believe?

Racing pigeon
"Love me"
"Well, that's the theory. A few get lost and we lose 20% to birds of prey. But they do have an inbred homing skill, and I'm not sure anyone really knows what's behind it."

Fanciers who subscribe to the theory that pigeons navigate using the earth's magnetic fields are currently up in arms over the sprouting of mobile phone masts across the UK - which they accuse of confusing their racers.

Feathered friends

Mr Bryant says fanciers are fiercely protective of their birds and not best pleased by the bad press their "feral" cousins give the species.

"Handling them and caring for them everyday, fanciers do get attached to certain birds. They try to distance their birds from the feral, unvaccinated ones."

Dastardly and Muttley
"We're with you, Ken - stop the pigeon!"
Another attribute of the pigeon, and perhaps the root of Mr Livingstone's gripe, is its stunning ability to reproduce.

The endearingly monogamous birds mate all year round, with the young going from fresh egg to Trafalgar Square scrounger in as little as four weeks.

Given that pigeons can live for 35 years, the maths of the present population explosion isn't hard to grasp.

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