Pigeons are generally perceived as being dirty birds, however they are actually very clean due to their fastidious self-grooming, there is very little evidence to support the idea that they are ‘rats with wings’ who spread disease.
During man’s very long association with this species, views and attitudes towards pigeons have undergone many different changes, from the representation of the divine to pests.
Why the change?
Pigeons have not changed since time out of mind.
What they have done, because they are very intelligent species, is adapt to urban living.
This change from rural to urban living has only changed their behaviour in one regard, that of their food resources.
Consequently pigeons have become stigmatized, we have vilified them.
Pigeons being dirty or not is all to do with human perception.
Back in the 1950s, it was discovered that pigeons harboured diseases.
These are what are called zoonotic diseases, which means that they can be passed from animals to humans and back again.
Shock and horror! Both humans and all animals carry diseases.
All your loveable domestic pets also carry them.
For some reason, this news about pigeons stuck in the public’s mind.
Overnight pigeons went from symbols of peace and love to a public health menace.
The fact that it was highly unlikely that any of these diseases are easy to catch from pigeons, was conveniently overlooked.
Pigeons had become polluters and villains.
Pigeons Don’t Fit Into Out ‘Imaginative Geography’
The next step in labelling pigeons dirty was a general social belief or feeling that city dwellers had about their environment.
Cities are supposed to be clean and well-ordered places that function for the well-being of their inhabitants.
They are habitats that humans controlled entirely.
Unfortunately, their cohabitants, the pigeons, were disorderly, wild and messy.
Given the discoveries of their disease harboring and their unacceptable behavior of being uncontrollable, attitudes towards pigeons began to change.
The unconscious perception of humans was that whatever kind of nature resided within the confines of the city had to fall under human domination.
Sociologists have called this ‘Imaginative Geography’, which means that people have a conception of what their environment should be and large numbers of feral pigeons don’t fit in.
Because of the pigeon’s high visibility, they became easy targets.
They Have Received A Lot Of Bad Press
Apart from some people who have a specific phobia about birds, the distaste for pigeons mainly came about because of their droppings.
As pigeons tend to flock together and congregate in certain areas, their mess is plainly visible.
Also the fact that those droppings are acidic and corrosive, causing damage to buildings in large quantities, didn’t endear them to the general public.
But the main problem was bad press.
Pigeons became a social issue because of articles in the national press.
The term ‘rats with wings’ in one American newspaper caught the public’s imagination and pigeons have been saddled with the term ever since.
It is a phrase that has been repeated endlessly and has hopped the Atlantic.
Almost universally, rats are considered to be dirty and spreaders of disease.
Linking pigeons with rats, almost certainly sealed their fate.
It has become an urban myth.
Like all these urban myths, they usually have no basis in fact but are accepted by people without a thought.
It is true that pigeons are vulnerable to parasites.
They can carry fleas, lice, and ticks.
Like all other animals, whether domesticated or wild, they groom themselves, so it is unfair to point the finger and say that they are dirty.
Domestic cats and dogs are also prone to suffer from parasites but groom themselves.
Cats are considered clean animals because they can be seen actively cleaning themselves.
Dogs do also, but dogs tend to romp around in all sorts of mess and their coats are frequently dirty because of it, but no one instinctively thinks of dogs as dirty.
Dogs get dirty but aren’t intrinsically dirty and nor are pigeons.
Sometimes pigeons may look scruffy, but this is during one of their moulting periods.
During molting, pigeons pull out loose feathers and clean away any parasites they find.
Pigeons do also bathe.
Unfortunately, it isn’t something the public sees frequently, but during the summer months, pigeons do clean themselves this way.
Any pigeon that lives in the northern countries will have ample opportunities to take showers because of the frequent rainfall.
The idea that pigeons are dirty is a perception, not a fact.
It is one of those ideas that stick in people’s minds, contrary to all evidence. This isn’t because of anything pigeons have done.
People don’t seem to consider other species of birds in the same light.
The pigeon ‘problem’ is really a people problem.
This idea has been conjured up in the minds of people and passed on.
Fortunately, there has been a new trend over recent years in the cities.
It is the attempt to re-green our urban areas and our relationship with nature.
Hopefully, this will also change the attitude towards pigeons too.