LETTER: Pigeon perceptions misinformed, bylaw unfair

Writers says birds are cleaner, less disease-prone than most people realize

Dear editor,

I am submitting this piece in response to the front page story, Pigeon prohibition bothers ‘Birdman,’ two weeks ago last Friday and am hoping city councilors will see it in time for the hearing scheduled for this coming Monday afternoon, Oct. 17th.

I would like to offer some information about a bird that has been part of human society in people’s lives as a source of pleasure and food since antiquity. Some of you will be familiar with the squab production operations scattered throughout the Fraser Valley.

Now while these farms breed a type of pigeons that are substantially larger, for obvious reasons, than the average generally kept by hobbyists. They are the same species (Columba livia) as every other variety of fancy or flying pigeons kept around the world. This also includes the feral pigeons around farms and cities everywhere.

Furthermore, the breeding populations of squab farmers usually number in the thousands, even tens of thousands in some cases. Not many pigeon fanciers keep flocks larger than a few hundred birds. But the basic needs and challenges in keeping any variety of pigeons are the same. The difference is that the commercial operations are almost never in the media or in general public awareness. This is probably due to the fact that their birds are housed inside buildings and out of the public eye and mind.

Consequently, their birds have never been vilified. Different sentiments are held towards feral ones; and those kept by hobbyists tend to be lumped together with them into one and the same group.

But one rare exception brought the squab producing world to public attention in the media. It occurred during the avian flu epidemic a number of years ago as most of us will remember. During that crisis the prejudice and misinformation that pervades our culture regarding pigeons became unwittingly epitomized by the veterinarian of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency when he ordered the extermination of the entire populations of a couple of breeders, one of them a squab breeding stock of several thousand birds here in the Matsqui Flats. Eventually, due to mounting pressure from fellow veterinarians, he had to concede that pigeons are not subject to this influenza virus, and his post to that effect can now be found online.

Needless to say, the Federal Agency still had to compensate the breeder.

This now brings me to my main objective. In the European and Asian domains the keeping of pigeons is a more common pastime and people tend to be generally informed and even kindly disposed towards the hobby, this in spite of the fact they’ve always had feral pigeons in every city on buildings and in public places, and in any case for a much longer time than we have. But in North America the perception of pigeons that most people have is basically negative and certainly uninformed.

It is all based on hearsay, and few folk, if any, go to the trouble of searching for reliable information, though there is plenty available. In fact, as we all know, the phrase that usually comes to mind whenever the subject of pigeons comes up is “filthy feathered rats”. We believe that pigeons carry various dreaded diseases and we must keep our distance and certainly go nowhere near any droppings or, worse, use the stuff as a fertilizer in our gardens.

And, as implied in a current TV commercial by an insurance provider, it is assumed that pigeons sit in waiting for unsuspecting passersby to poop on! In any case they are mostly seen as dirty birds. But the fact that feral pigeons leave their waste on buildings and public spaces, that has nothing to do with the issue at hand and is nothing different than any wild birds such as crows and starlings doing the same. But if someone in the neighborhood intends to keep pigeons the fear is that everybody’s decks and rooftops will be turned into an unsightly mess. So our minds reason. It would be fair to say, incidentally, that close to 100 per cent of bird splats on our cars and patios are dropped by gulls, robins, crows and the like.

So what I mean to say is all these ideas and attitudes our people hold have no basis in fact. I have been keeping pigeons since I was an elementary school boy and I still keep a significant number today, almost seventy years later. As a young person I had a wonderful time with these birds and my best friends shared this hobby. I have never heard of a documented case of anyone catching a disease from pigeons. While they are subject to their own peculiar pathogens none are communicable to humans that we know of; and if any were we should have seen that by now. For people with respiratory challenges it is certainly prudent to wear a face mask when spending time in the pigeon coop if there is dust from broken down droppings in the air. But that is not a problem having to do with bacterial or viral disease. Hobbyists like myself over a lifetime have inadvertently inhaled plenty of dust and gotten raw feces on our fingers innumerable times. All that was ever needed to clean up was soap and water. There is no fertilizer better than “dove’s dung”.

Interestingly, we read in the Old Testament (2.Kings 6:25) that in a time of famine in ancient Israel this product fetched a high price. Pigeons by nature are much tidier birds than any other fowl that may be kept on farms. When free flying flocks rest outside, their habit is to sit on their coop or on the nearest roof top which is usually the owner’s. This means the neighbors’ roofs are seldom affected.

In conclusion I would like to pose the question what has been the real reason for implementing bylaws prohibiting the keeping of pigeons on properties outside the Agricultural Land Reserve? If the residents of a particular neighborhood are not averse to someone having these birds, why would there still be a by-law against it, especially in cases where the birds are confined to an aviary and cannot fly around or sit on anyone’s roof?

It will be greatly appreciated if city council would consider revisiting the bylaws at issue.

In the meantime you are all welcome to check out our annual show at the Ag Rec here in Abbotsford on Friday evening and all-day Saturday, Nov. 5 and 6.

– Richard Kalmbach