June 2005

The Nation Reviewed

Stop the pigeons

By John Harms

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In The Meaning of Liff, Douglas Adams’s book of words that should exist but don’t, he proposed the term “sheppy”: the closest distance, equal to approximately seven-eighths of a mile, at which sheep remain picturesque. Someone should invent an equivalent measure for pigeons.

In recent months vigorous debate has broken out among people who hold vastly different views on that distance. One small but active group believes pigeons are always picturesque. The other group argues pigeons can never be picturesque, simply because they are pigeons, and it seems this group holds the power. Either their publicity machine is stronger or most people have a genuine antipathy for pigeons. Recently I decided to form my own position on the matter, with a view to sending a suggestion or two to the keepers of The Meaning of Liff. Should the term for pigeons be “nano-sheppy”, or “mega-sheppy”, or perhaps something else?

After catching the Epping train to Flinders Street Station, in Melbourne, I emerged from under the clocks to the bustle of the Young & Jackson’s corner on Swanston Street. Immediately my eye was drawn to three pigeons (wishing they were doves) arcing their way gloriously across the spire of St Paul’s, swooping towards the number 67 tram and, in a flap of blue-greyness, gliding to a landing point among some schoolkids having their excursion smoko at Federation Square. Even if I wasn’t on the lookout for pigeons I would have noticed the beautiful shape of their trajectory. It was an affirmation of the metropolitan. As one bird dropped its little bomb I felt linked to London, New York and the great cities of the world, and all that happens in them. As if being shat on by a pigeon was a measure of my cosmopolitan-ness.

Only a handful of pigeons loitered at Federation Square, with a couple of sparrows pecking away neurotically. I wandered along Swanston Street. There didn’t seem to be any pigeons at all around, although there was plenty of evidence they had been. Then, outside Melbourne Town Hall, where for years people have fed pigeons as part of their daily ritual, I stopped to read the sign that has created outcry among pigeon-lovers:

PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE BIRDS HERE

Feeding the birds is a litter offence under S45E of the Environment Protection Act. Penalties of $205 may apply. If you wish to feed the birds please do so at the end of Batman Park, Located near King Street and Flinders Street, which is a designated Feeding area.

Still I’d barely seen a pigeon. Maybe the policy was working. Either that or the many spikes on window ledges were. I went next door to the cafe.

“Do you get many pigeons here?” I asked Jade.

“Yeah,” Jade said, looking at me like I was an idiot. “Hundreds.”

“Are they a problem?” I probed.

By this time, Jade had confirmed I was an idiot. “They’re filthy. They’re disgusting. They’re smart.” She paused for breath. “They’re like little kids. They’re naughty. I whack ’em. I kick ’em. I throw water on them. They don’t care.”

Suspicious of the lack of evidence, I started to ask Jade if we might conduct a little experiment. Before I’d finished getting the words out she sat me down at one table, divided two slices of bread, and plonked them down on another table. The following observations were made:

0 seconds: No birds.

30 seconds: No birds.

60 seconds: One pigeon.

65 seconds: Eight pigeons.

70 seconds: 25 brawling, Brereton-like, centre half-forward pigeons.

72 seconds: 28 pigeons and three Platten-like sparrows, front and square.

75 seconds: 40 pigeons, three sparrows and a seagull.

90 seconds: No bread. But the posse was hanging around waiting for a better offer.

Jade gave me a knowing look. “See. I hate ’em. Everyone hates ’em. They said they’d got rid of ’em. That professor bloke came out from England. But they’re still here.” She gestured up towards the hundreds of window ledges on the tall buildings all around. Pigeons everywhere, like border guards.

The professor bloke was Guy Merchant, director of The Pigeon Control Advisory Service in England and hired by the City of Melbourne to deal with the CBD’s 40,000 to 60,000 pigeons. Merchant, a pigeon lover and protector, says they get a lot of unfair press, particularly in relation to the transmission of diseases: “If we believed everything we read in the media about pigeons, and the farcical propaganda distributed by the pest control industry, we would never leave our homes. The fact of the matter is there is probably a greater risk to human health from contact with domestic pets such as cats, dogs and caged birds.” Dealing lethally with pigeons, Merchant decided, was neither practical nor appropriate. His conclusion was that Melbourne didn’t have a pigeon problem; it had a people problem. If people feed pigeons they over-breed. So it’s a matter of educating people.

The role of the state in that process is unclear. When a Melbourne property developer asked City Hall to alter the by-laws and make the feeding of pigeons outside his heritage-listed building illegal, the council found it couldn’t. The developer took matters into his own hands. He employed a large security zombie with an industrial strength backpack vacuum cleaner. When the pigeon feeders turned up – one with his daily wheelbarrow load of seed, another with his daily seven loaves of bread – the zombie was instructed to set about vacuuming everything in sight. He was not to engage in any debate (which came as a relief to the zombie, known for his ability to lift heavy things) and he was to appear completely neutral. He needed to have the air of a man who hadn’t even noticed any pigeons. (“What pigeons? I’m just vacuuming.”) After a while the feeders got the message and moved.

This, though, is a national quandary. “Pigeons,” says Perth’s Bert Tudori, a councillor in the inner-city cafe suburb of Northbridge, “are all right in their place. I’m just not sure where that place is.” He is firmly entrenched in the flying-rats school of pigeon appreciation: “They’re full of lice and germs, they poo everywhere. They shouldn’t be encouraged.” In Perth there’s a $1,000 fine if pigeons are found roosting in your building, on top of a public education campaign and a program of baiting pigeons with poisoned seed. Asked whether the program works, Councillor Tudori announces triumphantly: “The pigeons would be flying along and they’d just drop out of the air.” I assume that means he thinks it works.

Adelaide’s beautiful Mediterranean climate is great for alfresco dining and even better for pigeons. But the legacy of former premier Don Dunstan is still to be found in the city’s pigeon policy. Adelaide’s authorities feed pigeons with seed enhanced by a hallucinogenic drug. “They fly off,” says a spokeswoman, “and forget who they are and where they come from and never come back again. The drugs are approved by the RSPCA.” I am reassured to know the RSPCA has a list: Banned Hallucinogenic Drugs for Pigeons.

Sydney has no pigeon program in place but is keeping a close eye on Melbourne’s tactics. In Hobart, I’m told, pigeons are not a problem. But they have been known to haunt Brisbane, where there are also issues with tame, scavenging ibises. Once, when pigeons could be seen in King George Square, outside Brisbane City Hall, former lord mayor Jim Soorley came up with a novel plan. He hired a falconer, Paul Mander, a man more likely to be found on the set of a medieval movie, to bring his huge wedge-tail eagle, named Soren, into the city.

Soren would sit on his gloved arm for several minutes, in front of a gathering crowd, and then Mander would release him. Soren would start on his lap of the square, bordered by a church, the stately city hall and a few skyscrapers. The first thing the pigeons would notice was the dirty great big shadow cast by Soren’s 2.5-metre wingspan. If they hadn’t taken off for Adelaide by then, they’d soon see the eagle himself, and then it was definitely time to go. Mander would whistle Soren back down to his arm, pat his neck and take him home. This went on twice a week for a few months. Now only the bravest pigeons remain.

Clearly, plenty of immigrant pigeons are telling the Brisbane yarn all round the nation. And many of them are in Melbourne where, as I get on the train to go home, I think about penning a note to the Liff publishers explaining the immediate need for the word “pidgyfrown”: that sharp look fired at you when you tell someone you are writing a story about pigeons.

Cover: June 2005

June 2005

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