Why Are Pigeons’ Feet So Fucked Up?
Seriously. It’s bothering me. Can someone explain it?
illustration by Elizabeth Baddeley
My story begins with a pigeon trying to get laid. This happened not too long ago at the bus stop across the street from the Mecca Cafe on Lower Queen Anne. The traffic on the street was heavy and loud. The sun was beating in the middle of a clear blue sky. And on an area of sunbaked sidewalk beside the bus shelter, this male pigeon had forgotten that the world all around it existed and was completely focused on the ancient trick of puffing itself up to appear bigger than it actually was. The female had her back/tail to him, but he kept trying to get her attention by walking in circles and bobbing his head up and down, as he emitted strange sounds from deep within his exaggerated throat. All the female wanted to do was peck at the little bits of tips and dust on the sidewalk in peace. But the more the female ignored the male's performance, the bigger became his body, the faster his circles, and the louder his throaty sounds. He was so convinced that he could impress her successfully with the very same dance, the same noises, the same head business that all other males of his kind employ to seduce females.
This small moment in the time of my life would have entered oblivion (my bus arrives, I board the bus, the bus departs, and I never think about those birds ever again) if it had not been for one thing: All four toes on the male pigeon's right foot were missing. Its left foot was fine (toes, nails, everything), but its right one was no better than the nub of a crutch. And so, not only was he bobbing his head like a human whose brain has been turned to mush by mad cow disease and making sounds that, if amplified, could be used by the pro-torture members of our intelligence community to break the will of the most fanatical terrorists—not only that, but he was also hobbling on a stump like some sea-addled pirate from the old days of planks, buckles, bandannas, and skull flags. Indeed, the bird's gait was so wobbly that each step it took seemed barely able to prevent the horny thing from collapsing into a sad heap of feathers and shame.
True, the female pigeon's disinterest in the male had nothing to do with this ugly stump (which seemed to be bandaged with a tiny once-white rag—I may have imagined this), but I'm a member of an animal species that just loves to anthropomorphize the activities, expressions, and gestures of other animals. We love to see ourselves in a dog's smile, or a cat's curiosity, or a rat's nervousness, or a crow's cold calculation, or the way raccoons hold objects with their sensitive fingers. In my human eyes, the female pigeon at the bus stop on that sunny afternoon was simply horrified by this mangled and bandaged creature. What in the world made him think that she (a healthy female with handsome black and purple features and big red eyes) would even give him the time of day? Could you imagine being fucked by a bird with a rotting stump? What would she say to her friends? How could she ever live that down? Pigeons mate for life.
But no such thing was on her mind. She was treating him in exactly the same way that she treated almost all the other male birds in this city that tried to get into her feathers. Finally, the male with the stump leg gave up the song and dance and began doing something that was a little more productive: pecking at the sidewalk.
There is that great moment in The Usual Suspects when, in a flash of illumination, the detective sees a pattern on the messy bulletin board and realizes that the evil underworld king Keyser Söze, the criminal he desperately wants to put behind bars, is actually the cripple who has just left the police station. Something like this happened to me when, not long after seeing that horny male pigeon with the stump leg, I recognized a pattern forming in my own messy mind: Many pigeons had one or two or three or all four toes missing. I then began to give some attention to the feet of pigeons, trying to see if this was indeed the case, if mangled feet were a common thing with this most synanthropic species. And if so, why was such the case?
From my observations of about 40 pigeons in the downtown area, Pioneer Square, and Little Saigon (particularly near the telephone wires on 12th Avenue), I came to conclude that at least one in every seven pigeons had bad feet. Though the result was by no means drawn from anything like a scientifically controlled sample (I could easily have seen the same crippled bird several times), it still indicated that there might be something there, something worth looking into. If pigeon feet are susceptible to permanent damage, why? I looked at the crows in my neighborhood, Columbia City, to see if this is a problem affecting birds generally, and could not find even one with fucked up feet—but then again, crows' feet are not as visible as those of pigeons, which are distinctly scaly and colored like Pepto-Bismol.
Common city pigeons descend from the rock doves of the North African and Asian sea-cliffs (the crashing waves, the stormy sky, and the safety of ledges and caves on cliffs' faces became the loud traffic on streets, the droning planes in the sky, and the safety of the ledges and cracks on the faces of skyscrapers), and were brought to this region as pets and food by settlers. (The Northwest also has a native species of pigeon called the band-tailed pigeon; it has yellow feet and can be found in the wilder parts of the city, like Carkeek Park. Band-tailed pigeons do not mate with city pigeons.) The common city pigeon has three toes in the front and one in the back. The middle toe in the front is the longest and also usually has the longest nail. If you stare at a pigeon's feet long enough, two thoughts eventually enter your mind: One, you think they need to cut their nails, which seem to grow with no limit. Two, you begin to wonder if they are at all the best feet to have for urban life, which is always a hard life, a concrete life.
"There are three main reasons for limb loss in pigeons," explains Chris Anderson, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "One is an urban predator, like the peregrine falcon. So you can imagine that the peregrine went one way and the pigeon just got lucky and went another way, but it didn't escape without an injury. And there are also feral cats. Pigeons are often on the ground. We are often feeding them on the ground, and that concentrates them there. Then a cat attacks and almost gets one. So there is that. Then it could also get caught on something. These birds are in an urban environment, and our built structures aren't made for animals to nest on—you know, the Macy's building or something. These places are not built for the animals, so they get caught on things, get an injury, and maybe one of their toes gets infected and falls off. And that's the third and last way: an infection, a disease.
"Birds are quite good at this, and people who own chickens have seen this as well, but as long as it doesn't make the rest of the bird sick and it's a pretty localized injury, they tend to do well. So there are also stories of chickens running around with a stubby foot. It's a strategy for getting around and making do with what you've got. For example, pigeons do not live long, though they live longer in captivity [up to 13 years]. Out in the city, they don't live that long [about 3 years], and if they can still make it by with a peg leg and they are still able go out and eat the crackers and Cheetos and go forth and produce more pigeons, it would make sense for them to deal with those infections as quickly and efficiently as possible."
Since Anderson seems to like describing how predators keep pigeons in check, I ask him: Do you like pigeons? "We are never going to get rid of them," he says. "They have been with us for thousands of years. They are here to stay. The good thing is the falcons can put a hurt on them; otherwise, they would just be everywhere and pooping everywhere. But they are fun to watch when they are courting. They have quite a strut."
Cynthia Roberts, the woman behind the UK website Pigeon and Dove Rescue, doesn't think it's a predator issue. "Although I have rescued a lot of predated pigeons, I have never yet seen a pigeon that has had its feet damaged by a predator. They go for the fleshy bits," Roberts tells me over e-mail. "The closest I came to 'predated feet' was a dead pigeon that had had its toes eaten by mice."
Though she is not a veterinarian, Roberts's website is a great online resource for those who find themselves in the unfamiliar situation of having to help a trapped or injured or orphaned pigeon. "In providing this information, I am not intending to replace professional veterinary treatment (please read legal disclaimer at foot of page), but to enable rescuers to help a pigeon when veterinary expertise is not available..." she states on the website. Later on the same page: "I have included information on how to fight culls and help trapped pigeons, two of the uglier aspects of our society and its unwillingness to live in harmony with the wildlife that share this planet with us." Roberts identifies herself as a pigeon lover and those who use her site as pigeon lovers.
"There are a few diseases that damage urban pigeons' feet... Pox is one, but pox certainly never destroys the whole foot," Roberts says. "I would say that 99.9 percent of the pigeons with damaged feet I have seen owe the damage to the carelessness of human beings in disposing of their rubbish. It isn't just guesswork—the cotton, hair, fishing line is still evident after toes and even feet have been lost, embedded deeply into the skin."
Human hair, I ask? "Human hair is awful. If it tightens around a bird's foot, it digs in deeply and it doesn't snap. It is extremely difficult for even a rescuer to get an implement like a seam cutter under embedded hair to remove it, and soaking it doesn't soften it."
But how in the world does human hair end up on a pigeon's foot, I ask? "People are actually advised to leave their hair clippings out for birds to use in nest building. Women with long hair will remove the hair from their hairbrushes and drop it out of the window for the birds (I have seen them do this), thinking it will help the birds. But the damage it does, particularly to pigeons who will turn in circles and therefore get the long hair tangled round both feet, then tightened, is just terrible."
When I tell her I have never heard of humans leaving their hair out for birds, Roberts then sends me links to several websites that do indeed advise people to give birds their hair.
For example, Bill Thompson writes on BirdWatchersDigest.com: "Offer pet or human hair in onion bags or put in obvious places. If you looked at a hundred bird nests, chances are that most of them would have some animal hair in them. It's soft, insulating, and easy to gather. When you groom your pet (or when you yourself are groomed), save the hair to spread around your backyard for the birds to use."
According to the Daily Mail: "When Brian Williams has his hair cut by his wife every month, he's not the only one who feels the benefit. His wife Joan collects the clippings on a sheet and shakes them out into the garden—where the birds then pick them up to make nests. Mr. Williams, 68, a retired teacher, was astonished to find that a goldfinch, a greenfinch, and a robin have all collected his grey locks and used them to build homes in his garden."
Josh Peterson on Planet Green: "A cooky [sic] way to keep your hair clippings out of the dumpster is by leaving it out for the birds. This sounds crazy, but birds will build nests with your hair. They will also build nests out of your pet's hair." This recommendation was reposted by the Huffington Post, under the headline "Old Hair Is for the Birds: They'll Use It for a Nest."
Roberts says in another e-mail: "I would never take a thread into my aviary and certainly never discard any there, yet I found one of my pigeons had managed to get his foot quite tightly tangled in a length of thread while he was in the aviary. I have no idea where the thread came from, but the pigeon's foot certainly found it quickly, and I wonder whether there is something about the way they walk that ensures that if there is any thread, hair, or fishing line around, their toes will pick it up and facilitate the entanglement that leads to such damage."
There are some who blame the feet deformities of pigeons not on predators or humans but on pigeons themselves. When an unknown person asked this question on the Guardian's website, "Why do so many London pigeons have missing toes or feet? Is it the result of being run over by taxis or do they suffer from a disease?" the most popular and striking answer was this, by Heather Bingham: "People do use pesticides to deter pigeons from roosting and this could be harmful to their feet. However, if pigeon shit is harmful to masonry, it is surely capable of rotting flesh and blood. It is standing in their own shit that causes pigeons to lose their feet and not necessarily the chemicals used by man. The question needs to be why they insist on standing in their own detritus—to this I have no answer." Nor do I.
To get an expert opinion of Bingham's shit theory, I call Anderson back, but he is on vacation. I then e-mail the theory to Danny Lubniewski, who is known to the world as the Birdman of Long Beach, though he currently lives in Dallas (he moved there to be close to his kids). Lubniewski, who claims to have rescued and doctored an astounding 3,000 pigeons, and who also provided me with lots of pics of mutilated pigeon feet, responds: "I never read such a bunch of crap in my life. Pigeons are extremely clean... The reason so many pigeons are missing toes is for one reason, basically. Their toes were tied like in the photos I sent you. The string, hair, and fishing line tightens up, gradually cutting off circulation, and after much torture, the toes will finally fall off." He calls Bingham's theory "garbage" and "the stupidest thing I read in years."
To conclude: I can see how strings, wire, and shit could be a problem for the pigeons of Seattle, but not human hair—the strange practice of donating the stuff to the feathered kind does not appear to be popular here. (Chris Anderson did indeed confirm that Seattleites are not big hair donors.) But now that we have heard from a commenter and three experts (one by education, Anderson, and two by passion, Roberts and Lubniewski), I think we can say exactly why so many pigeons have messed up feet. The answer, of course, will appear in the strong theoretical light of Darwinian evolution. (Indeed, the success of that hypothesis and its rise to the status of a theory owes a great deal to pigeons—read the first chapter of The Origin of Species.) Without the theory of evolution, we are in the dark.
Now Roberts and the Guardian commenter Bingham provide us with what in biology is called a proximate cause (human stuff or pigeon shit are big problems for pigeon feet), but Anderson, the biologist, offers us the deeper, ultimate, and therefore evolutionary cause: "They can still make it by with a peg leg." Meaning, many pigeons have bad feet because in the end, bad feet, missing toes, do not kill them or cramp their style. If, say, female pigeons (which, by the way, are also susceptible to limb loss) refused to mate with crippled males, then we would see pigeons evolve the kind of feet that are tough enough to deal with hair, string, shit, and predators. But that has not and may not ever happen. So even if a pigeon is missing all of its toes, it can still eat, still get around the city, and still do the dance that gets it laid and paired for life.