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Last Updated: Monday, 23 April 2007, 12:54 GMT 13:54 UK
Why do we hate pigeons so much?
The Magazine answers...

Feral pigeons are a problem

The Mayor of London's legal battle over his ban on feeding pigeon in Trafalgar Square is the latest salvo in a perennial bitter feud against the critters. But why do we hate them so much?

Affectionately known by most people as rats with wings, sky rats, gutter birds and flying ashtrays, pigeons must be one of the most unloved birds around.

The hatred can be extreme, with extreme pigeon fearing labelled as peristerophobia, but it is so widely shared several clothing manufacturers produce "I hate pigeons" T-shirts.

In the mayor's latest operation in the Pigeon War, he is defending his ban on feeding in court. He opened hostilities several years ago, throwing money and some interesting tactics at the problem - a pair of Harris hawks being just one.

Pigeons are seen as the disease-ridden source of myriad droppings.

Concerns over disease, damage to property, their impact on other bird species and an inbuilt survival instinct in us all

But for years pigeons were viewed as a huge asset to man, with lives depending on them during the wars.

In ancient times they were revered as companions and they were extensively studied by Charles Darwin for his theory of evolution. In both world wars they were used to carry vital communications and have been credited with saving thousands of lives and honoured by the military.

Even today some still love them, with a hardcore of pigeon lovers fighting Mr Livingstone's plans every step of the way.

'Bad reputation'

But when it comes to hating pigeons, the focus of most people's dislike is the feral pigeon. It is a domesticated rock dove that has returned to wild or semi-wild conditions. It is usually grey and can be seen in most villages, towns and cities across the UK - and Europe.

Even some pigeon fanciers dislike them, because they supposedly give their "superior" breeds a bad reputation.

Many people firmly believe street pigeons spread disease. But this belief is attacked by pigeon lovers, who say the threat has been exaggerated and there are no documented cases of a disease being transmitted from a pigeon to a human.

Mike Tyson
Mike Tyson is a pigeon fan

They are known to be susceptible to some diseases like tuberculosis, although no more so than any other bird species or wild animals. But the fact there are so many of them means people have good reason to raise the point, argue critics. There are millions.

We share the UK with an estimated 18 million feral pigeons and they can breed up to up to six times a year. They are one of the few birds recognised by the government as a nuisance pest and can be controlled using humane methods and with a licence.

The sheer scale of numbers has resulted in two other commonly cited criticisms - they damage property and drive out other bird species.

A regular feature in the BBC News Magazine - aiming to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

But the public's general dislike of pigeons also comes down to an inherited survival instinct. Our bodies are programmed to play it safe when it comes to some species, says Felix Economakis, psychologist and hypnotherapist in BBC Three's Panic Room.

"A dislike of any bird is an evolutionary survival instinct that has been passed down through our DNA. Back in cavemen times birds were bigger and posed a real danger.

"Our system still plays it safe, it generalises and paints all possible dangers with the same brush. Our brains are telling us not to take a chance. It's the same with snakes and spiders."

Below is a selection of your comments.

It always strikes me as strange that people dislike pigeons - they perform a useful service by clearing discarded food from the streets for example. If someone were to make cigarette ends and chewing gum edible to pigeons then we would no longer need to clear these things up. Pigeon excrement is at least bio-degradable.
Fitz, Manchester, UK

I am a self-confessed "peristerophobe". I am terrified of birds in general, but most especially pigeons. I detest flapping wings, beady eyes and sharp beaks of all kinds, even large birds like swans petrify me. But pigeons, I think, are the worst because they are fearless. They have become so used to people that they do not fly away when you approach them, as most birds do. Walking round the city centre when pigeons are flying straight at your head is truly terrifying.
Sarah, Norwich

Like rats - and like humans - pigeons are an over-successful plague species. Any of these things is fine in moderation, but excesses of any of them can be pretty foul. I'd love to hear Ken Livingstone's ideas on how to reduce the human population of Central London - it really does need doing!
JA Booth, North Yorkshire, UK

I'm less disturbed by pigeons than I am by herring gulls. These are more of a menace than the humble pigeon, yet they are a protected species. Ken should be grateful he hasn't got to deal with flocks of them in Trafalgar Square!
Howard Parker, Ramsgate

I hate pigeons because they eat growing crops in the vegetable garden and allotment. Thus depriving me of my home-grown organic veg.
Jen, Ipswich

Another reason is the fact that they can make an unwelcome deposit on your head!
John Hethrow, London

What about those "seaside pigeons" AKA Herring Gulls. Here in Brighton they provide more of a nuisance that pigeons. I have never seen a pigeon rip open a bag of rubbish and drag it all over the road...
Chris, Brighton UK

Pigeons are a total pest. They annually infest the tree in front of my house, covering my drive and our cars with droppings (and I do mean covering). They must be a health risk - I slip on their droppings probably every other day and it can't be healthy to touch their droppings when they are all over the door handle of your car!
Mario, Manchester

Don't forget the famous psychologist B.F. Skinner who spent much of his life training pigeons. His work forms the basis for many training schemes even today.
Paul Gill, Leicester

They are indeed airborne vermin. Culling of these pests is essential, if only to keep benches free of mess, let alone to stop the spread of disease.
Gordon Leonard, Saffron Walden Essex

For goodness sake, leave the poor birds alone !! Don't they have enough to contend with? I love to be woken by them cooing while sat on my next-door neighbour's bird house/table. We are at more risk from gun-totting and knife wielding people than we are from these feathered creatures.
Shirley Lynch, Halifax

Calling pigeons "Rats with wings" is an insult to rats. Having pet rats I can only say that rats are friendly, clean, affectionate and intelligent.
AndyB, Newport

I love pigeons. They're full of character, have that great walk which is actually really funny if you take the time to watch them. Some have beautiful markings as well as that lovely green or purple sheen on their feathers. Seagulls on the other hand...
Tanya Morris, Canterbury, England

I am so very happy that this issue is finally being addresse. I work and live in London and i have to cross Trafalgar square to get to and from work everyday, and although it might seem like fun for toursist to feed these birds it is quite a hassle walking through them on a daily basis. It is not only the fact that they are taking over the square but their droppins are everywere and belive it or not you have to watch your step or you can seriously slip on them. On occasion i see a man on the mornings with a Hawk walking around to scare the birds away but it seems to not do the trick when several hours later a man comes by with a huge bag of seeds and bread to attrack them back to the square, I do think something needs to be done about them, I love animals but sometimes if you dont take controll over a situation such as this it can be a nuisance.
Nadine Pfendtner, London

I am not sure about pigeons, but I have always believed that Squirrels are rats with very good PR agents
Phil gibbs, Portsmouth

I wouldn't hate them half as much if they would just learn to stop swooping towards your face as you're going about your innocent daily business in town! The more people feed them, the more unhealthy, fat, unhygienic and unable to fly the foul pests get. It worries me that they're getting so tame as to start taking over the streets - those irritating little kids have to get near enough to kick them before they fly (or attempt to fly) away now.

I find pigeons to be a pest because of the huge levels of damage they inflict on some of our crop fields. This mainly occurs on oil seed rape. Whole fields have been wiped out, that is why i feel that we need a cull to thin out the numbers of this species.
Anthony, Shrewsbury

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