A Roost of One’s Own

Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and the le­gal rights of pi­geons

The Walrus - - MISCELLANY - Calum Marsh

Pi­geons ar e a fix­ture of city life. Wan­der into any ur­ban park across Canada on a sum­mer af­ter­noon, and you will find the aged and lonely af­fec­tion­ately feed­ing the birds — though in many parts of the coun­try, feed­ing wildlife is pro­hib­ited. Pi­geon drop­pings, mean­while, are not only un­sightly but also acidic, and they can cor­rode metal and stone. Pi­geons roost­ing in a badly cho­sen niche have been known to col­lapse a roof or set a build­ing on fire. They carry lice and dis­ease. They defe­cate in your hair.

Pi­geons are at­tracted to the city for pre­cisely the rea­sons we are: the pro­fu­sion of food and en­ter­tain­ment, the trendy bus­tle, the am­ple hous­ing promised by a sky­line rich in high-rises. Canada’s steady ur­ban­iza­tion im­proves the pi­geon’s stan­dard of liv­ing. As gleam­ing con­do­mini­ums have ma­te­ri­al­ized in ur­ban cen­tres, so too have a lot of spa­cious pi­geon homes — right there in the glass cran­nies of the bal­conies. The rise of the condo in cities such as Toronto and Van­cou­ver has been a boon for pi­geons. They also ben­e­fit from re­cent green ini­tia­tives such as spe­cial re­flec­tive glass de­signed to re­duce fa­tal bird col­li­sions.

“Peo­ple think of them as pests,” says Chris­tian Sz­abo, founder and pres­i­dent of Pi­geon Busters in Toronto. The pi­geon-weary en­list spe­cial­ists such as Sz­abo to ease the bur­den of the birds. His strat­egy em­pha­sizes de­ter­rence: in prospec­tive ur­ban nest­ing ar­eas, he in­stalls wire bar­ri­ers and knot­ted poly­eth­yl­ene net­ting, or glues down thick belts of nail-like stain­lesssteel spikes so the pi­geons have nowhere to land. Thus dis­cour­aged, they will give up and seek refuge else­where. “We just try to re­di­rect them,” Sz­abo says. “On a grand scale, this might not be con­sid­ered a so­lu­tion, be­cause we are just mov­ing the bird from one place to some­where else. But lo­cally, this is ab­so­lutely a so­lu­tion.” The pi­geons will still be both­er­ing some­one — just not you.

Sz­abo is not an ex­ter­mi­na­tor. Pi­geon Busters doesn’t re­ally “bust” any­thing. The work is chiefly pre­ven­ta­tive and in­volves hardly any con­tact with the birds at all. But the non-vi­o­lent ethos isn’t, as one might sus­pect, a le­gal obli­ga­tion. Pi­geons are widely un­pro­tected by law. Or so it seems: to re­search the Cana­dian pi­geon’s le­gal sta­tus is to be baf­fled by am­bi­gu­ity and ap­par­ent con­tra­dic­tion. No­body seems quite sure whose re­spon­si­bil­ity the birds are.

Pi­geons are not cov­ered by On­tario’s Fish and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Act: a small-game licence, easy to pro­cure, en­ti­tles you to hunt pi­geons in the prov­ince as you please. A sim­i­lar rule ap­plies in Que­bec. In both prov­inces, as well as in Nova Sco­tia and New Brunswick, a pi­geon may be killed if it is poised to dam­age your prop­erty. In Saskatchewan and Al­berta, pi­geons may be killed with­out a licence, un­less they hap­pen to be in, say, a pro­vin­cial park. In Prince Ed­ward Is­land and Bri­tish Columbia, a pi­geon may be killed any­where, on a whim. One might think that they would be pro­tected fed­er­ally un­der the Mi­gra­tory Birds Con­ven­tion Act. But no: the act ap­plies only to species na­tive to Canada, and the ur­ban pi­geon, much to its detri­ment, ar­rived from Europe and can­not be nat­u­ral­ized.

The pi­geon’s rights are granted by a tech­ni­cal­ity: no liv­ing thing may be treated cru­elly or caused to suf­fer un­duly — mean­ing that while in most cases you’re wel­come to kill a pi­geon, you have to do it quickly. The same mu­nic­i­pal by­laws that pro­hibit the feed­ing of wildlife in parks also pro­hibit their killing on park grounds. It is il­le­gal to scat­ter poi­sons in ar­eas where pets are li­able to eat them, which is pretty much ev­ery­where. Firearms, for ob­vi­ous rea­sons, are not a rea­son­able re­course for the pi­geon-ha­rangued. “You can shoot a pi­geon on your own prop­erty,” as Sz­abo unim­prov­ably puts it, “but I wouldn’t be walk­ing around with a pel­let gun in down­town Toronto shoot­ing all over the place, be­cause you will get shot im­me­di­ately by the po­lice.”

At the scale Sz­abo is ac­cus­tomed to, the prob­lem is mainly lo­gis­ti­cal. How can so vast an ex­e­cu­tion be ar­ranged? “It’s like, you trap a hun­dred birds,” Sz­abo muses. “What are you go­ing to do, shoot them one by one? Put them in a gas cham­ber or some­thing? It’s just in­con­ceiv­able to me. It’s com­pletely crazy.” You can see the dif­fi­culty. And any­way, think of the mess.

In any case, mass slaugh­ter has a prac­ti­cal dis­ad­van­tage. The pi­geon pop­u­la­tion is main­tained nat­u­rally, in ac­cord with the food and shel­ter avail­able. Killing pi­geons opens a tem­po­rary vac­uum — a vac­uum the pi­geons, ever tena­cious if not for­ward­think­ing, swiftly breed to fill. The birds, Sz­abo ex­plains, “go into over­drive to re­pop­u­late,” and the end re­sult is a lu­di­crous surge: “You’re ac­tu­ally caus­ing an in­crease in the pi­geon pop­u­la­tion by culling.” Kill them, and they mul­ti­ply.

The pi­geon can­not be eas­ily sup­pressed or ex­punged. All you can do, if be­sieged by the birds, is hire a man like Sz­abo to

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