Right Now, We Need to Feed the Pigeons
With fewer people on the streets, our urban birds are going without
Feeding our urban wildlife is almost always discouraged — by wildlife biologists and business owners alike. Urban wildlife often includes many invasive species that we don’t want continuing to breed and expand into other habitats, and many fear that city birds like pigeons carry diseases transmittable to humans (possible, but very rare). Business owners dislike them because they wander outside buildings and leave excrement wherever they go, leading to an unkempt look that may scare off potential customers. But lately, there’s been a change of heart by some towards pigeons, sparrows, and other scavenging city birds. Due to quarantines enforced during the spread of COVID-19, fewer people have been out and about at cafes and restaurants — meaning there have been fewer people dropping food items.
The German Animal Welfare Association (GAWA) was one of the first to point out the growing problem of starving urban birds. According to the group, thousands of pigeons that would typically be well-fed by human leftovers are now struggling to find anything to eat at all. The pigeons don’t have much as far as alternative food sources; given that they live in urban landscapes, there are no native trees or bushes to pick fruits from, and few bugs besides speedy cockroaches to pick off. Leonie Weltgen is GAWA’s species protection specialist, and she has voiced the group’s concerns, speaking to how efforts to feed the street birds could save their lives:
Pigeons are very loyal to their local habitat. They will not leave the city centers and will starve to death if they are not provided with food soon. Since it is the breeding season, many young animals will die in their nests if parents can no longer feed them.
She proposed that a potential solution could come in the form of animal rights activists and volunteers distributing corn and seeds at strategically placed feeding stations.
But why should we care about birds such as European starlings and house sparrows, known for stealing homes and food sources from native birds and invading any nook and cranny they can? First off — it’s our fault they’re here. Pigeons were once beloved pets, messengers, even food sources — who grew to have large feral populations due to escaped and released birds. European starlings were first released in New York City’s Times Square by an eccentric Shakespeare enthusiast — the same man who introduced America to the equally problematic house sparrow. It’s not future generations’ responsibility to deal with millions of invasive birds — except, well, it is. And while they may not be the birds we’d most like to find living next door, starvation is a slow and cruel way to go. Even when we must intentionally cull invasive species for the greater good — it’s much more humanely than this. Regardless of whether or not we want the birds around, in the long run, it doesn’t seem fair to let them go out in such a way.
What can we really do to help? Refilling birdfeeders, even though birds may no longer be facing the bitter cold of winter, can provide some assistance. Some feel the need to go to areas where birds commonly congregate and toss food to ensure they will find it — although, for many, this is not a safe option at the moment. Often, when putting out bird feed, it’s done conservatively — just enough so that seed does not go to waste. Now is not a good time for this. Don’t feel bad for feeding in excess. You may want to ensure you have different feeding stations for different species — some birds feel more comfortable on a hanging birdfeeder, some prefer to pick discarded seeds off of the ground. Fresh, clean water is also always appreciated. If you don’t have birdseed on hand, try feeding frozen corn or peas, oats, unsalted peanuts, or unsalted sunflower seeds. Now is a great time to donate to wildlife rescue organizations, particularly those who are willing to help invasive species as well as native wildlife. Hungry birds will result in fledglings not getting enough food, birds venturing into places they shouldn’t be, and accidental poisonings from birds trying to eat what they can — all things that must be left to the professionals.
Of course, this won’t last forever — and given the millions of invasive birds we face, we’re not going to entirely wipe out our invasive species, even if they don’t receive any supplemental feeding. But our attitudes towards urban wildlife shouldn’t change regardless of what’s happening in the world. While they may not be “desirable,” they don’t deserve inhumane treatment, either. Once this has all passed and families have returned to enjoying going out to eat and shopping — don’t let your kids kick at underfoot pigeons. They’ve been through some things too.