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Columba Palumbus, Living Amongst Us

You should have read that in a headline in a Dr Dre voice. Anyway, here’s a brilliant piece about pigeon rehab.

In her home in Newham, Beth Crivelli and her roommate play host to around 60 pigeons. The birds are everywhere: they are housed in the aviary, a large, purpose-­built structure located in the garden; in the pre-aviary, where they flutter about awaiting to be moved; in the shed for sick birds, where they convalesce in cages; and inside, quarantined in a small spare room, too contagious to be among the others. Besides the pigeons, Crivelli has two dogs and multiple cats. On the front door is a sign warning of the detriments of eating meat: animals are her life.

Crivelli is part of a network of rehabbers, mostly self-taught individuals who have learned to care for birds and other small animals. These people do what they do out of love for animals, but also because in this country, there is no government funding for wildlife protection and rehabilitation. There are no ambulances to transport injured animals and the few hospitals that do exist rely on donations from the public. While the Wildlife Protection Act of 1981 covers animals across the United Kingdom, it is rarely enforced when it comes to less desirable creatures, which leaves people to call pest control or other like-minded companies whose policies are often, unfortunately, pro-extermination.

For animal rights activists like Crivelli, any unnecessary animal slaughter, including for food, is unconscionable. The animal rehabber community is small and Crivelli is sometimes sent pigeons from people who look after foxes or waterbirds, but most of the cases she receives come from London Wildlife Protection, a volunteer animal welfare organisation that helps injured, sick and trapped birds. Across the country, networks of pigeon rescuers do what the government does not: they rehabilitate pigeons and release them back into the wild.

When I visited, Crivelli was rehabilitating a mix of woodpigeons (Columba palumbus), which are large with white patches on their necks and wings, and ferals (Columba livia), the birds we lay-­people think of when we think of city pigeons. These have iridescent necks and blue-grey heads and are what congregate in Trafalgar Square, Times Square and atop telephone wires. In the aviary, the woodpigeons and ferals mingle freely but do not partner up. Although both are part of the family Columbidae, these are different birds with different habits.

Inside the sick bird shed, shelves overflow with plastic feeders, bags of seed and tubs of probiotics. Small birdcages house the pigeons too weak to enter the aviary. I met Dalí, named after the painter, who eats for seven and flapped happily in Crivelli’s hands; Orange, who is blind in one eye; and Vince, who is bad at flying. A few were recovering from stringfoot with legs damaged by our discarded waste. Crivelli tries to release all pigeons back into the wild, but there are some, like Vince, who would not survive without human intervention. These birds are sent to long term aviaries for disabled birds like The Orangery Retirement Home for Pigeons, in Scotland. Transporting pigeons is expensive and Crivelli has paid for pigeons to be ubered across London; Vince’s trip to Scotland will most likely be funded through donations.

All birds are quarantined for six weeks when they arrive at Crivelli’s home. Avian pox is no joke – and not something you want ripping through an otherwise healthy community. Contrary to popular opinion, the risk of pigeon-to-human disease transmission is extremely rare. While it is possible to be infected with cryptococcosis, histoplasmosis or psittacosis if you were to inhale pigeon droppings, said droppings would have to be extremely dry to flake into a vapour, and most of us don’t tend to find ourselves nose-deep in pigeon faeces in the first place.

For her part, Crivelli is religious about hygiene and begins each day by cleaning out the pigeons’ environments. She sterilises their cages and feeders and scrapes down all surfaces, a process which takes at least an hour. (Cleaning daily also means the droppings don’t have time to dry out.) While the birds in the aviary can feed themselves and are almost fully recovered, some of the sicker birds need medications, splints and help eating. To get through it all before work, Crivelli wakes up around 5AM, rarely takes a day off and never goes out to dinner.

I first became aware of London Wildlife Protection after a cat attacked a pigeon in the garden of my boyfriend’s house. Afraid that the cat might return, and that we would be left with a bloody carcass, we messaged the RSPCA and LWP, with the latter responding first. We were told via text to pick up the bird, place it in a shoebox and keep it safe indoors. It was, we were informed, a miracle that the pigeon had survived. My boyfriend’s roommate cushioned the shoebox with a dish towel so that the pigeon would be comfortable while we waited the two or so hours. It was evening when a woman in her late twenties arrived, dragging an aggrieved date in tow. Although they offered to return it, we let them keep the dish towel.

London Wildlife Protection (LWP) was founded ten years ago by Maciej Sek. He still runs the phone line, but today, LWP has more than a hundred members who rescue and transfer pigeons to the homes of rehabbers or, in some cases, wildlife hospitals. Most volunteers live in and around London, but LWP has contacts across the United Kingdom and as far away as the United States. It is a loose organisation with no formal structure, though volunteers are asked to take on a minimum of two rescues each month. Cases come into LWP either by phone or text and these are funnelled to a WhatsApp group. Whoever reacts first gets the bird.

Jake Ashton first began volunteering with LWP in 2020. Unlike Crivelli, he doesn’t rehabilitate birds but instead works as a transporter and a public liaison. He got into animal rescue at the onset of the pandemic and has since quit his job in the City and made pigeons his full-time occupation. Injustice moved Ashton to help – while human problems attract a lot of attention, animals have relatively few advocates. But he also sees a gap in the market and has fashioned himself as a bird control consultant, with much of his expertise gained from on-the-ground training.

Ashton lives in south-east London but cases take him to all boroughs; we talked while he was making a long drive to deliver two pigeons to a rehabber’s home. He gets called to Essex and Kent and has travelled as far as Liverpool. Every now and again, he advises on international rescues. In his car, Ashton keeps PPE along with a butterfly net, hard hat and a hi-vis badge. Each rescue is different and calls for a different set of tactics. Cat attacks are by far the most common reason LWP is called, but some birds have respiratory infections, broken wings, or stringfoot. Many are fledglings whose immune systems have not yet fully developed.

Although he will respond to any case, more and more Ashton is drawn to the ones that are complex and politically thorny. He has worked with hospitals, train stations and construction sites, and told me about a bird that was trapped in a Sainsbury’s. The store manager contacted LWP after pest control wanted to bring a gun into the supermarket.

LWP is waging war on two fronts: battling for the pigeons and also against bad optics. Pigeons have bad PR. At best, they are seen as a public annoyance; at worst, as flying disease vectors. This wasn’t always the case. Around 6,000 years ago, pigeons became the first bird to be domesticated. Millions were raised in medieval Europe and were so prized that only noblemen could build dovecotes on their lands (a fact that pissed off the peasants in pre Revolutionary France). Pigeons have served as messengers and pets for hundreds of years and proved crucial to demonstrating Darwin’s theory of evolution. They held regal and religious importance. A dove is little more than a pigeon in finer clothing, biologically speaking.

It wasn’t until the twentieth century that their reputation began to decline. The phrase ‘rats with wings’ coined by Thomas P. Hoving, New York City’s Parks Commissioner in 1966, has been hard to shake. That they defecate on landmarks and benches and rove around en masse hasn’t done much in their favour. Even Tiggywinkles, the Wildlife Hospital Trust in Buckinghamshire and one of the United Kingdom’s leading animal hospitals, does not advertise its pigeon rehabilitation programme, preferring instead to splash photographs of deer, foxes and birds of prey across its website. While Carrie Bradshaw’s £650 JW Anderson pigeon clutch – as seen on the set of And Just Like That… – may have gone viral, it’s hard to say what, if anything, can truly help the pigeon’s cause. Numbering in the hundreds of millions, they remain our uneasy cohabitants, like it or not.

Because of the volume of cases, and because of the time it takes to rehabilitate a bird, rescuing pigeons can be a full-time job, albeit a very poorly compensated one. It is also psychologically consuming. Ashton recently went on holiday for the first time in years and all he could think about were the deaths that he could have prevented had he not left. He told me that Sek, LWP’s founder, hasn’t travelled in a decade.

Crivelli and Ashton may give their lives to pigeons, but they want time off too. In an ideal world, there would be funding for animal services and related equipment, though given the protracted period of Tory rule, and the lack of a powerful pigeon lobby, this seems increasingly unlikely. Barring government assistance, both would like to recruit more volunteers. Although rehabbing itself is costly, there are no fees associated with becoming a rehabber: Crivelli trained Ashton, and she learned through internet research and talking to other rehabbers; she plans to open an animal sanctuary in Portugal where she hopes to hire a full-time staff and offer classes. In the meantime, the rehabber WhatsApp group is full of questions about homeopathic canker treatments and how to splint a wing.

Alongside recruitment, both Crivelli and Ashton would like the general public to know the basics in emergency pigeon care. More often than not, people do want to help, but they have no idea what to do when faced with a felled pigeon. The most important thing is to get the pigeon to a safe place, which often takes the form of a shoebox. But bystanders are obsessed with feeding, which is surprising because, as Crivelli said, ‘If a human was having a heart attack, would you give them food?’

If wishes came true, Crivelli and Ashton would also eradicate pest control operations, which they view as ineffective, inhumane and stupid. Pest control is often called in to cull large flocks of pigeons, but slaughtering does little to solve the problem in the long-term. Removing the pigeons doesn’t remove the food source (that most of the time comes from us humans) and any unclaimed food will inevitably attract a new flock. Killing the birds simply invites new pigeons to move in – and provides pest control with a reliable income. 

If more people could correctly care for a pigeon or two, then the work would be manageable. At the moment, the task seems too Sisyphean for anyone to bear. During the two hours we talked, Crivelli’s phone lit up almost continuously. There were more pigeons – always more pigeons – and only a handful of volunteers to save them.

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