New law could legalize culling of urban pigeons

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New law could legalize culling of urban pigeons

Time might be running out for pigeons living in Seoul.

By next month, the ubiquitous bird found in cities around Korea, as well most urban areas around the world, could fall under the same classification as wild boars and moles.

On March 20, the Ministry of Environment, bowing to public pressure, proposed amending a law pertaining to wild animals.

“Pigeons could be added to the list of harmful animals by early next month,” said Cho Gap-hyun, officer in charge of the pigeon portfolio at the ministry.

It usually takes 45 days to approve an amendment, Cho said, so D-Day for the members of the bird family that many people regard as a rat with wings could be June 10.

“A large number of citizens want us to do something about their problems regarding pigeon droppings and feathers but there is no relevant law to control pigeon-related problems,” Cho explained by way of background to the proposed amendment.

Catch the pigeon

Once designated feral, harmful animals, pigeons will be fair game for capture or killing, with full approval of the authorities.

However, the environment ministry says it is trying to be sensitive to issues raised by animal rights groups, and it is not advocating extreme measures.

“Pigeons live around people and are found everywhere, so we won’t encourage local communities to kill pigeons or use poisonous chemicals. Two major initiatives might well include starting a don’t-feed-the-pigeons campaign and removing pigeon eggs from nests. This might help curb the pigeons’ very high fertility rate,” Cho added.

It’s a bird’s life

The bird under scrutiny was actually invited to Korea, and is now regarded by many as an unwelcome guest.

Columba livia, to give the proper scientific name, is often called the rock pigeon because it nests in cliffs and ledges, but now the birds are just as at home in urban areas and number in their millions worldwide.

The Seoul city government began introducing the birds around the capital in the late 1970s. It could not have escaped the attention of urban planners here that pigeons were a tourist attraction in places like London at that time.

The pigeons were used as symbols of peace at official ceremonies in Korea, such as presidential inaugurations and at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Until August 2006, the Seoul city government used to give the pigeons 25 kilograms (55.1 pounds) of feed per day, a healthy supplement to the scraps of food they gorged on during the day.

Just like in Trafalgar Square in central London, you could feed the birds with pouches of pigeon feed from snack bars in parks. But over the past few years, pigeons’ stock has fallen rapidly as fears grew over the threat they pose to public health.

Causing a flap

It seems that a lot of Koreans are more than happy with news that it will become legal to cull pigeons.

According to a survey conducted by Yahoo! Korea last month, 83 percent of the people polled said they agree with the proposal to marginalize pigeons, while only 12 percent said the new measure would be wrong. The remaining 5 percent said they weren’t interested in the news.

People in agreement with the government are zealous in their hatred of pigeons. “I can’t stand them, maybe because they’re everywhere,” said Seong In-ho, 27, of Anyang, Gyeonggi. “I’ve witnessed so many gross scenes involving these birds. It’s not uncommon to see them pecking at half-dried puddles of vomit on the sidewalks or eating other kinds of waste. When they flutter their wings, I feel like hundreds and thousands of germs are coming from them.” Seong admits he has a pigeon phobia, and he is not alone.

“Pigeons remind me of Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘The Birds.’ The sky looks black because of the pigeons. And everyone hates them here because they eat up grain,” said a woman who works at the Korea Port Logistics Association office in Gunsan, southwest Korea.

Yang Jae-wang, the officer in charge of Gunsan Port at the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs, says about 50,000 tons of grain is loaded and unloaded every month, and pigeons like to feast at delivery time.

Fat ’n’ fertile

The nicknames given to pigeons reveal the levels of antipathy, especially to weighty ones that swagger from bench to bench looking for scraps of food.

One is dakdulgi, a compound of dak, or chicken, and dulgi, a shortened word for bidulgi, or pigeon in Korean. Another is dwaedulgi, a compound of dwaeji, or pig, and bidulgi.

Pigeons’ good appetite is also closely linked with their fertility rate.

“Pigeons lay two eggs per year, but city pigeons lay up to 16 eggs a year, which shows that food is abundant for them. In addition, both male and female pigeons feed their squabs [babies] with nutritious pigeon milk,” said Kim Jong-kyu, the owner of Mits, a company that controls harmful birds.

“We handle all kinds of problems with birds, but nearly 90 percent of them are pigeon-related,” Kim added.

Feces ’n’ feathers ’n’ fungus

One of the major moans from the anti-pigeon brigade is what they leave behind once they’ve taken flight.

Excrement is particularly worrying, they say. “Pigeon droppings can cause cracks in wood, stone and even concrete in the presence of acid rain,” said Kim of Mits.

“Neal Langerman [an American chemist] said pigeon droppings were part of the reason the Minneapolis bridge collapsed in the U.S. in August 2007,” he said.

Langerman is a health and safety expert with the American Chemical Society.

Pigeon droppings are also the bane of major public buildings.

“Nets and other kinds of protection have been installed at palaces in Seoul to prevent pigeons from getting underneath roofs. This decision was taken in October 2007 after we discovered the damage caused by pigeon droppings,” said Jeong Koo-yeon, a researcher from the Daejeon-based Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea.

“No one wants to see droppings-covered national treasures and palaces,” Jeong added.

Bird bans

Europeans are taking similar steps to protect their antique buildings. In March 2007, Liverpool employed a robot to shoo pigeons and Venice banned pigeon feeding last year. In Paris, pigeons are tricked into laying eggs in fake nests installed around the city in January 2008, and the eggs are then destroyed by government workers. Basel has been replacing pigeon eggs with fake ones to keep fertility rates down.

Meanwhile, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says pigeons might spread a certain disease.

“A fungus called cryptococcus found on pigeon’s feet might cause meningitis,” said Lee Han-song who works for the KCDC.

Reality check

Not everyone’s convinced, though, that pigeons are a pest. Quite the opposite, say their supporters, quick to remind people that pigeons have been trained to carry messages during times of war. And recently, pigeons were trained to carry mobile phones to prisoners in Colombia.

Ornithologist Yoon Moo-boo, an honorary biology professor at Kyung Hee University, is not at all happy with the government’s pigeon plans.

“Government organizations have not monitored any of the imported pigeons and there is no data to support why these birds should be designated as harmful,” said Yoon, who has been studying birds for the past 50 years.

When asked for the exact number of pigeons in Korea and pigeon-related complaints in Korea, Cho of the environment ministry, admitted: “We have no data because there is no organization to control pigeons.”

Not only that, the KCDC says, to their knowledge, no one has ever been infected with a disease by a pigeon in Korea.

In fact, animal lovers claim pigeons suffer from health problems resulting from the manner in which humans imported them to the cities.

“Pigeons suffer high blood pressure and diabetes because they live off food thrown out by people. This kind of waste is high in sodium and calories,” said Jeon Kyung-ok, head of the strategic planning team at the Korean Animal Welfare Association.

Jeon says pigeons shouldn’t be blamed since this is a man-made problem. “Pigeons should be allowed to win back their lost instincts and once again become beautiful and healthy birds,” Jeon said.

Yoon the ornithologist says the plan to designate pigeons a harmful animal will backfire.

“Pigeons have their own territory with a deep attachment to their nests, unlike other birds, so if you kill pigeons in one area, other pigeons might fill the void,” Yoon said.

The debate will continue, but meanwhile, the clock is ticking for our feathered friends, or foes, depending on your feelings for pigeons.

By Sung So-young []

Below left: Children, circa 1970s, feed pigeons with seeds bought from stores in the capital.

Below right: Pigeons peck at plastic bags containing food waste in Jongno, central Seoul.[JoongAng Ilbo]
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