Thursday, August 13, 2015
A plague of pigeons
It is difficult to imagine our iconic symbol of peace, the dove, metamorphose into an emissary of death. That’s just what’s happening in our burgeoning and congested urban areas. This is not some Hitchcockian vendetta. Indeed, the birds are innocent and ignorant, but they have help—from us.
I am talking of the apparently innocent, slyly endearing feral Rock Pigeon Columba livia, aka ‘kabootar’, or ‘pavuram’ (in Telugu). Before elaborating upon my seriously accusatory beginning, let me fleetingly touch upon antecedents of pigeon-human interactions. These birds originally inhabited rocks, and cliffs, where they nested, and eked out their lives. But their association with mankind has evolved over aeons. They’ve been a part of the weave of worldwide civilizations and cultures. With the formation of towns and cities, they became our commensals, adapting to the facilities our clustered environments provided them. It was a more involved relationship in the past when we used them for sport and pastime, for service (pigeon post), and as food. With the advance of our civilization, and the diminution of leisure, kabootarbazi has all but disappeared; technological advance in communications has retrenched the messenger pigeons; and the poultry industry has removed the roast squab from our menus.
Our spiritual inclinations too have fanned expansive pigeon colonization. The Prophet Mohammed (AD 570–632) is thought to have received divine messages from a dove sitting on his shoulder; the pigeon / dove is mentioned in the Rig Veda (1500–2000 BC); for the Sikhs it is a bird of peace, always depicted with Guru Gobind Singh, symbolizing amity and peace in fractious times; and had the dove not returned at eventide with a fresh sprig in its beak, poor Noah would have had a hard time of it [Source: www.pigeoncontrolresourcecentre.org/html/about-pigeons.html]. Rationality has seldom been religion’s strength. The nuance and symbolism of religion and history have become gospel, and human acts related to them, even if irrational, assume the invisible sanction of communities at large, and the faithful in particular. In a world torn apart by fractious sectarian strife, we ‘worship’ this symbol of peace, pandering a mere icon, and ignoring the message in real life situations. Such misguided whims radiate through communities and congeal into deceptive folly. Blind faith can be a Trojan horse. The explosion of rock pigeon populations in our cities is a direct result of this conundrum.
The compassionate act of feeding pigeons has become an overzealous absurdity that supposedly imparts spiritually elevated feelings of benevolence. In our religious fervor we feed feral pigeons vast quantities of grain. We strew it charitably in public places and enjoy emotions of well being from this act of ‘piety’, but spilt grain brings not peace, only huge quantities of poop from booming pigeon populations! No scripture desires the faithful to feed pigeons enmasse, though they warn of the folly of excess, which we conveniently forget.
Meanwhile, the birds have become emboldened beyond redemption. Their Pavlovian instincts are easy to train. With an unending, year-round supply of grain, and water, they need only breed and perpetuate their kind. Our beehive-dense urban agglomerations provide a plethora of ideal nesting places where pigeons breed unhindered. Their traditional predators, Peregrine Falcons, are migrants to India, preferring to patrol coastal areas. Few come inland. Their resident cousin, the Shaheen, is a forest dweller. Feral cats are simply too few, and have easier food available to them, from our garbage, to bother expending energy hunting pigeons. Feral pigeons prosper in this heavenly urbania.
The problem with feral pigeons is that they produce major antigens from their droppings, feathers, and blood that cause diseases in humans. This is a known historical fact amongst pigeon fanciers—those who indulge in ‘kabootarbazee’. People who have dovecotes, who race pigeons, or once used them to carry messages, are prone to the malady called ‘pigeon-fancier’s lung’; a pulmonary condition. Pigeons, along with other birds like parakeets, and ducks also cause a number of other zoonotic diseases: Histoplasmosis (caused by the airborne fungus Histoplasma capsulatum, which grows in the bird’s droppings.), Cryptococcosis (another fungus, Cryptococcus neoformans); Psittacosis, Toxoplasmosis, etc. When pigeons are concentrated in large numbers, and live in close proximity to us, the chances of infection increases alarmingly.
The grave concern about the relationship between feral pigeons and human health is the bird’s unrestricted population explosion in congested urban built up areas. We live in dangerously close contact with them, given the number of diseases they cause. We pamper them with food and water, we accept them as neighbours, we tolerate their droppings, their feathers, the mess of their nests, and their vocalisations. We accept all this because living in unsanitary surrounds does not seem to bother us. We are a tolerant lot. As long as the garbage is outside our homes, our compounds, it’s not our problem. We don’t also complain to civic authorities for the result of that is, invariably, a series of unwanted headaches; not the desired remedy. We also tend to ignore the fact that epidemics explode in congested areas in which the causative antigen-producing agent is also included.
In recent years it has been established that pigeons are one of the causes of a somewhat mysterious lung disease, Hypersensitive Pneumonitis (‘HP’), which is one of the several forms of Pulmonary Fibrosis. HP suggests itself on a chest X-ray and produces a distinctive pattern on a CT scan. The threat is so serious, that Pulmonologists frequently advise their patients to rid their environs of pigeons, or even change their neighborhoods!
To be fair to the bird, there are nearly 150 other identified causes for Pulmonary Fibrosis, related in one way or another largely to moldy substances, or the presence of dust in the various forms of work that men and women do. Contaminated water, extremely humid work conditions, and various chemicals are also suspect. Given this variety of causes, implicating the pigeon may prove difficult—and indeed, seem a tad extreme to some people. Yet, it cannot be denied that the pigeon is one of the commonest offenders in the propagation of HP, and doctors find it difficult to ignore such a patently obvious aetiological agent—especially one that can be
‘eliminated’ easily (see below).
We don’t know yet why Pulmonary Fibrosis strikes, and we don’t know yet how to cure it. Till a cure is found, we need to tackle what’s known: Whether this involves giving up some habits, curbing irrational pseudo-religious activities, or reducing unnaturally burgeoning wild animal / bird populations. Our addictions, even to vague religious sentiments, make us overwhelmingly selfish. We crave satiety at any cost—until the addiction catches up with the addict, or a loved one. (Tobacco ravages mankind like a scourge; yet it is sustained by the economies it spawns.) But the feral pigeon is no longer a commercial option. It merrily thrives on our gullibility.
Meanwhile, Pulmonary Fibrosis is making rapid and catastrophic progress in our urban areas. People working in certain professions, or atmospheric conditions, are more prone to it historically. But the urban pigeon problem has now created a ‘new’ source of the disease, which now strikes unchallenged across the spectrum of our social orders. A majority of its tragic victims remain unknown, but there are some it has struck, or felled that we have held in high esteem: Marlon Brando, Nawab Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Laurance Rockefeller, James Doohan (Star Trek), Peter Benchley (author of Jaws), and many others. Once afflicted, a patient is prescribed cortico-steroidal drugs, which have the potential to suppress the natural immune defenses of the body. The soft tissue of the lungs gradually stiffens like cardboard, effectively dying, shrinking the tissue that helps absorb the life-giving oxygen into the blood. Breathing becomes an ordeal for the patient. Simple actions like talking, sitting down, standing up, sleeping and turning in bed, eating, drinking, all result in erratic levels of breathlessness, becoming moments of discomfort and adversity, and indeed, even fear and apprehension. Gradually even the personal dignity of privacy in toilets is compromised. No one should suffer this if we can help it, or even mitigate it.
All is not lost. There is at least a partial solution to the problem. We have encouraged and allowed the feral pigeon to expand its populations without bounds. It is in our hands to reduce its numbers. The remedy is simple; it involves no action, and saves money all around, a win-win situation really. Let us resolve to stop feeding pigeons. Stop scattering grain in public places, in open spaces, on rooftops, on pavements, in compounds, and around places of worship (disease knows no religion). Pigeon populations will automatically collapse. Let us make the feeding of pigeons in public places a punishable offence (by imposing fines), as has been done with resounding success around Trafalgar Square in London, and in several other cities, including San Francisco, Venice, Albuquerque, New Jersey, Ontario, etc. The Municipal Commissioner of Greater Hyderabad should take action under Section 565 of the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation Act, 1955.
Without food pigeon populations will crash. The birds will not breed. They will gradually thin out, and disperse into an increasingly wider geographical area. The processes of nature will take over, forcing them to forage for themselves—as it should be.
Human suffering will reduce, lives, and money will be saved—no more expense on grain, on sanitation, and no more filthy buildings. Those with charitable inclinations might even reorient their largess towards destitute and poor people. Let us restore this fallen dove of death to its rightful place as an icon of amity and goodwill.
 Cocker, M., & Tipling, D., 2013. Birds and people. 1st ed. London: Jonathan Cape. Pp. 1–592.
 Statically data is lacking, but anecdotal impressions of pulmonologists indicate scores of new cases of ILD every week just in Hyderabad. Projections for the country boggle the mind. There cannot be a more compelling reason to tackle the pigeon problem swiftly and resolutely.
 ILD affects the interstitium, a lace-like network of tissue, which is a part of the lungs’ anatomical structure. This gets scarred, causing, what is called, Idiopathic [=the cause of which is unknown] Pulmonary Fibrosis [=scarring].