Meet the people rescuing pigeons, the world's most vilified bird
From nursing wounds to coos, cuddles and handmade pigeon diapers, this network of guardians are looking out for the world’s most vilified bird
Pigeons might be among the UK’s more popular garden visitors, according to last year’s RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch, but there are few who romanticise the sight of the common pigeon.
However, after decades of vilification for their messy flocking behaviour in cityscapes, the reputation of humans’ feathered foe could slowly be on the rise thanks to a global network of guardians looking out for pigeons in need—from losing toes due to so-called "stringfoot", to trapped and starved in nets.
"Chelsea Anderson witnessed a testament to pigeons’ lesser-known status as a symbol of fidelity and devotion"
California-based non-profit Palomacy Pigeon and Dove Adoptions (a portmanteau of Pigeon Diplomacy) has led to the creation of an online global community, where pigeon custodians swap advice on topics including catching injured birds, medication and accessories, with some even inspired to launch online shops selling items from aviary décor to nesting cushions and diapers.
Among rescuers is US-born Chelsea Anderson, who lives in Germany. Her pigeon rescue journey began in 2020 after she nursed a juvenile abandoned on a pavement back to health. But it was last summer when she and her husband witnessed a testament to pigeons’ lesser-known status as a symbol of fidelity and devotion—owing to their monogamous nature.
The couple came across a pair trapped in netting between two buildings, designed to keep them out. One, Chelsea explained, could access water from the gutter, while the other, trapped beneath the net, couldn’t. “We realised the only reason the second bird was alive was because the first bird was feeding them. This only happens between parent and child, or bonded pairs,” she explains.
The couple freed the birds and took them home where, uninjured but decidedly underweight, they fed and cared for them until they were healthy enough for release.
From heroes to hated
It was for the loyalty to their roost that pigeons were trained to aid those in battle during the World Wars. Noted for their ability to consistently return to their nest, pigeons were trained to fly between two locations, for back-up aboard ships and aircraft from where, in the event of an emergency, they would fly back to base with a message attached to their leg.
Some were even awarded medals. According to the Illustrated London News, one such recipient, Winkie, was honoured following a plane crash after which she had freed herself from the "oil-covered sea" and flown 120 miles back to base, resulting in the crew’s rescue.
"Some pigeons were even awarded medals"
Eventually humans outgrew their use for pigeons, and their reputation plummeted from hero to health menace, thought to be the result of a meningitis outbreak in 1960s New York. While pigeon faeces can contain a fungus which, if inhaled, could lead to the illness for a person with a weakened immune system, disease expert Professor Mario Girolami argued the same germs were common in the air, soil and among other animals. "Why pick on the pigeons?" he asked a New York Times reporter.
Pigeon rehabber Inese Strupule, who began rescuing pigeons during lockdown, says: "The cases of zoonotic transmission from birds to humans are so negligible, that it’s kind of anecdotal. I’m part of a large volunteer network, mainly in the UK but also internationally, and I don’t know of a single pigeon rehabber that contracted a disease from handling a pigeon. But I think people are starting to realise that."
When it comes to pigeon poop woes, Inese, who has two permanent rescue companions—Figura and Frenchie—has a creative solution. The Latvian-born translator has launched an Etsy shop Fanzy Pants, alongside her mum, selling pigeon diapers or "flypers"—designed with a pouch to collect droppings.
"Pigeons won’t succumb to potty training, but it is great to give them some out-of-cage time, so they can interact and stretch their wings. We also wanted to add a little bit of pizzazz and colour to the often bittersweet experience of helping animals in need," Inese explains.
The unlikely business has attracted over 600 sales since its inception in 2022, even extending into custom makes from "Spiderwoman" to football logos and a whale costume. But money is a mere bonus of Inese’s unique side hustle. "The best part about running Fanzy Pants is that I get so many messages from pigeon lovers from all over the world sharing their stories, as well as knowledge and tips on things like first aid, medication and supplements. My favourite part is getting photos from customers of their birdies in our pants—this genuinely brings me and my mum so much joy.
"Pigeons are loyal, smart, show complex emotions and bond with humans rather easily"
"I firmly believe that pigeons are simply the best animal companions. They are loyal, smart, show complex emotions and bond with humans rather easily. If that happens, they coo and 'dance' for you, demand cuddles and fall asleep on your lap."
While the ones landing in your garden may not be keen to cuddle, spare a thought (and perhaps a fat ball) for these city-slicking souls, whose loyalty and companionable nature has served humankind for aeons.
The RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch will take place from January 26–28
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