Measuring Boxes for Pigeon Feeders: Approaching Pigeon Problem as Misconduct of Individuals

Within cities, the pigeon is popularly regarded as the bird of ambivalence: people either hate them or love them. Andrew Blechman (2006), the author of the most comprehensive book on pigeon Pigeons, stated, "while most animals trigger universally similar emotions… the pigeon somehow spans both extremes (Blechman, 2006, p.3)." Like the wide range of emotions they provoke, there is a wide a spectrum of habitats they cover. Animal ecology of each city differs greatly; yet pigeons are the common denominator. It is the little bit of wildlife that has survived and entangled in the process of human civilization. Throughout history, they were considered the symbol of peace and love; however, they are now better known as an unhygienic nuisance or rats with wings as a consequence of the recurrent downplay of the media. Associated with deadly diseases and property damage, pigeons, rather than their mess, were seen as the problem in major cities in the world such as London, New York and Madrid. When the officials took political actions to deal with the pigeon issues, people concerned with the matter either rooted for or campaigned against such measures, yet the general public was indifferent, and most of the time, unaware. Nevertheless, it is among the public the feeling of sympathy or scorn arises; it is among them the actual change and resolution takes place. With the ultimate goal of improving the man-pigeon relationship in urban areas. This design project aims to relocate the current pigeon problem from an affair of the state to the practice of individuals.

While not considered native in most places, pigeons can be found anywhere on Earth, except for the Sahara desert and Antarctica. For all that they are extremely adaptable and effortlessly found in abundance, they easily come off as the animal of least, if any, importance to many people.[1] Pigeons; however, have been intertwined with human civilization for some 5,000 years and were even mentioned in ancient cuneiform scripts (Haag-Wackernagel, 2003). While adopted as pets, pigeons were also sculpted in ancient art, signifying love. Based on their homing ability, pigeons were used as the means to send messages, which was the main source of communication for thousands of years before the telegraph. They continued to play the role of messengers in wartime and some, like Cher Ami, became war heroes. While involved in racing games with their strong wings, pigeons are also involved in scientific experiments with their exceptional intelligence. In many ways, pigeons have contributed much to human civilization, yet they are now seen to have gone from 'hero to zero'[2].

Along with the industrial revolution in the 18th century pigeons flocked into cities, following people. While many were domesticated, some escaped and augmented the population of feral pigeons. In cities, pigeons were fed by the public, but they also ate spilt crops and all sorts of rubbish ever since the earlier times (Haag-Wackernagel, 2003). Feeding pigeons came naturally to urbanites. One of the first articles regarding pigeons in New York Times (1878) reflected the joy of pigeon feeding in addition to the hostility towards sparrows on the contrary:
"Only a few years ago pigeons fed in the streets . . . without danger of attack. Their right to feed . . . has been disputed by the sparrows so persistently that the pigeons have yielded their old feeding grounds to the new-comers…" (Jerolmack, 2008).
As indicated in the article, it was the sparrow that was considered the most unpleasant bird in the late 19th century; however, the pigeon took over the title of the most filthy and disagreeable bird in the 20th century.
Although they were found innocent at first, local pigeons arose as problems slowly but surely in New York. The same issue was brought up in London as well: a New York Times article (1926) reported the London Country Council's consideration on the ways to reduce pigeon numbers, though it was disregarded soon after (Jerolmack 2008). Up until the mid 1930s, the perspective of the media on pigeons was fairly neutral. Thereafter, complaints against pigeons as well as reports on bloody conflict between man and pigeon became more periodic. An article in the Times (1938) recorded the comparison a health officer in London made of their breeding capabilities and nuisance factor to rats (Jerolmack, 2008). Since the first announcement of a pigeon-associated disease contagious to humans in 1945, pigeons as well as the feeding of the birds began to be perceived as nuisance. A song written by a satirist Tom Lehrer, Poisoning Pigeons in the Park (1959) reflects the perception of pigeons at the time.[3] Being linked with diseases, the status of the pigeon tumbled and the bird became a public issue. As reported in an article by John C. Delvin (1963), two deaths in New York City were ascribed to the diseases carried by pigeons in 1963 (Jerolmack, 2008). Despite the corrections on the false report by medical experts, fear and revulsion at pigeons prevailed over the truth. Since the 1930s, pigeons became known to be a nuisance and diseaseful; they became pests and associated with the unwanted. Hence the label 'rats with wings', first uttered by a parks commissioner of New York in 1966, formed an international consensus and became the bird's nickname. The feeling of ambivalence continued to exist; however, the mainstream media has kept its position of finding the nickname more appropriate for the birds.[4]
Pigeons are seen everyday. With their exceptional adaptability, they nest in cavities of buildings, which resemble their original habitat of rocky cliffs, and live on both food waste as well as feeding from animal feeders. According to Haag-Wackernagel, the public fed pigeons regularly since the earlier eras. Feeding pigeons has been regarded as "an important spare-time activity to many people who enjoy animals and are looking for a form of relaxation … however, regular excessive public feeding is seriously not recommended" (Haag-Wackernagel, 2003). In spite of the fact that pigeon problem has essentially been associated with the high number of birds since the 1930s, only in 1980s it became apparent by a Swiss biologist Daniel Haag-Wackernagel that "the key to controlling a pigeon population is food (Blechman, 2006, p.142)." And to many people's surprise, killing of the birds, which has been practiced by many cities, actually had the counter effect of increasing the population.[5] Various counteract measures ranging from spike installation, shooting and falconry to feeding birth control have been found ineffective but the pest control companies continue to gain profit. Even if irregular, "occasional feeding by thousands of people, as in Trafalgar Square in London, create[d] huge problems. Occasional feeding by a few people may be less serious, but where pigeons congregate occasional feeders often become regular feeders (Haag-Wackernagel 2003)."
For quite a while, Trafalgar Square in London was better known as the place to go feed pigeons until the Ex-mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, initiated the attempt to reduce the number of pigeons in 2000. The methods to pigeon expulsion included deployment of hawks, feeding of birth control and finally banning of pigeon feeding. The law prohibiting the pigeon feeding in Trafalgar Square closed down the Square’s seed sellers and discouraged visitors from feeding pigeons (Lyall, 2006). The organization named Save the Trafalgar Square Pigeons (STTSP) was created in response to Livingstone’s decision of complete removal of bird food. They argued that such decision would “lead to a large number of animals dying of starvation and that reduction of food source over a long period of time would result in the reduction of the population as they would have to find an alternative food source[6].” As a result, it is now not as easy to spot pigeons in the vicinity of Trafalgar Square. Such case is in parallel to that of Basel, Switzerland, as its pigeon population halved in five years, between 1988 and 1992, under Haag-Wackernagel's pigeon control project Pigeon Action of Basel[7]. The project in Basel was especially successful not only due to the actual reduction of food source but especially on the account of ‘public re-education’ program. It was designed to show people the downside of pigeon feeding, since it can lead to overpopulation and overcrowding (Mooallem, 2006).
Although Vater (1998) states that 53% of the 54 cities in Central Europe had a feeding prohibition by the late 1990s (Haag-Wackernagel, 1999), and some cities like London and Liverpool launched anti-feeding campaigns which were to deliver "the key message that feeding the birds is 'Bad for the Birds and Bad for the City'"[8], it has been proven difficult to control in macro-scale and strong resistance existed in many cities. There are citizens who fear the birds will starve and try to give plenty of food. As Guy Merchant of The Pigeon Control Advisory Service (PiCAS) observed, such feeders are willing “to dodge fines, absorb public humiliation, and even resort to secret night feeding to avoid detection (Blechman, 2006, p.145)." It also did not help that "pigeons living in urban areas have expanded their originally granivorous diet to eat all kinds of rubbish, to the extent that town pigeons are now omnivorous (Haag-Wackernagel, 2003)." In fact, it was the very scene of feral pigeons pecking at half-eaten chicken drums on the street, which became the motivation for my project. After reviewing the history of the relationship between man and pigeon, re-guiding of the public seemed to be the appropriate starting point to sort out the pigeon problem.
Two people, Liz and Steve, appear periodically at the college green at Goldsmiths, University of London, feeding the flock of pigeons inhabiting the school buildings. Like many other compulsive feeders, they too think the pigeons are hungry. They have been feeding them twice a day, 5 times a week for over 3 years and are familiarized with the birds. During the time of interview on November 30, 2010, they were tossing out pieces of white bread and birdseeds.[9] While the number within the flock counted up to 60+, the total amount of the distributed food amounted to two loafs of white bread and approximately 5kg of birdseeds. It was observed that such an amount is extremely excessive, considering the explanation of RSPCA that one adult pigeon only needs 28g of food a day (RSPCA, 2008). Like this, it was witnessed that overfeeding, the ground of pigeon problem, is carried on by individuals, at micro-level.
Guy Merchant believes that "a small number of persistent and deliberate feeders are wholly responsible for the pigeon problem throughout the world. … They are the pigeon problem. Pigeons overbreed when people overfeed (Blechman, 2006, p.145)." In any case, the act of compulsive feeding takes place in the absence of the awareness of its consequences. The compulsive feeders consider their act charitable, sparing the pigeons from going hungry; yet fail to recognize the side effect of their action. The Measuring Boxes for Pigeon Feeders (Fig. 1) is designed to approach the compulsive feeders with two essential rules they should keep in mind: 'No Overfeeding, but Enough-feeding' and 'No White bread, but Birdseeds'. It allows the compulsive feeders their relaxing daily routine of bird feeding while withdrawing them from the vicious cycle of overfeeding and overbreeding, the fundamental pigeon problem. Composed of 3 foldable leaflet-boxes, the Measuring Boxes for Pigeon Feeders indicates the appropriate amounts for one pigeon, 12 pigeons and 24 pigeons.
Regarding the birds as a problem and framing them as ‘rats with wings’ illustrates the human-centric conception of the environment. Pigeons already have been calling human cities their home and it has to be grasped that city is not just a space for humans, but also for nonhumans. The pigeon problem is a social issue; it is a matter derived from society, environment and history. However, it is not the bird itself that brings up the issue, but rather its inflated number which brings along large quantity of droppings and high frequency of conflicts, in addition to lack of awareness. As proven by the experiment of Haag-Wackernagel, ill feeling for the bird simply recedes when flocks thin. When there is a steady availability of food, especially from the feeding of people, pigeons cease to waste time and energy foraging and proliferate more frequently. Present urban areas already provide enough "natural food and rubbish that enable small pigeon populations to survive on their own (Haag-Wackernagel, 2003)." Hence it can be presumed that once the public takes proper care of the food waste and once the artificial intervention of excessive feeding discontinues, the pigeon problem would diminish and concord between urban man and urban pigeon can be managed as well. The Measuring Boxes for Pigeon Feeders is to encourage urbanites to rebuild the historied relationship with the little bit of wildlife left in cities; persuade individuals concerned to take part in resolving the pigeon problem; allow maintaining the compulsive feeders’ interactivities with the birds, while removing the tag 'agitator'. The rise of the pigeon issue was the result of the lack of knowledge and problematization of the pigeon. With thorough understanding and proper practice, the state of the relationship and the environment will improve.

[1] University of Michigan Museum of Zoology classifies them to have no special status under conservation status.
[2] A pest control company Deter A Pigeon™ used the expression.
[3] The lyric of Poisoning Pigeons in the Park (1959) is as follows:
All the world seems in tune On a spring afternoon, When we’re poisoning pigeons in the park. Every Sunday you’ll see My sweetheart and me, As we poison pigeons in the park. We’ll murder them all amid laughter and merriment, Except for the few we take home to experiment . . .
[4] "A January 12, 1990 Washington Post article asked: “Pigeons: Beautiful Birds or Rats With Wings?” The same newspaper affirmed that they were indeed rats with wings three months later (Welzenbach 1990). A 1991 Times article pointed out that while “some [people] take bags of grain or bread to their favorite parks to feed pigeons . . . others insist, against all taxonomic evidence, that pigeons are winged members of the order Rodentia,” and it claimed that “anti-pigeon complaints are rising” (Angier 1991). Almost every article printed on pigeons from 1990 onwards—in the Times and 51 papers from around the United States and elsewhere—engaged with the frame, even in the few instances where pigeons were cast in a positive light (Jerolmack 2008).”
[5] It is documented in Curbing the Pigeon Conundrum of New York City (2007) that wildlife experts, PETA and the Humane Society agree that killing large numbers of pigeons will not control the overall population, as remaining pigeons adjust their rate of reproduction to compensate and replenish the population.
[6] The quote is found online to have been retrieved from the official website of Save the Trafalgar Square Pigeons (STTSP) ( in 2007.
[7] Mentioned in the writing of Haag-Wackernagel, Regulation of the street pigeon in Basel (1995), the project resulted in a great success, decreasing the pigeon population of 20,000 to 10,000.
[8] Liverpool purchased robotic hawks and launched the campaign to reduce the number of pigeons in concentrated areas. Details are posted on the website of Liverpool City Council (
[9] Liz & Steve. (2010). Pigeon Feeders. [Interview]. College Green of Goldsmiths, University of London with J Y Lee. 30th November 2010.


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