Rats with wings. Scourge of buildings. Especially old buildings. Oundle has dozens of these, and there’s not much more certain about the hard facts of Oundle – or rather, the soft facts of Oundle – than that the various businesses and institutions in and around the Market Place are in peril from being dirtied, and possibly in danger of having their fruit-trees defructated into the bargain.
Maintenance teams throughout the town have to pay feral pigeons tribute for being absolutely insufferable pests. Certainly one of those who is doing this worthy and highly laudable work is Tara Ray, a member of the maintenance team at Oundle School. “They’re a thorn in my side,” she says. One of her daily chores involves spending time expunging their waste.
This can pose a considerable degree of work for various organisations. For example, when the Oundle Museum assumed its present location in the Old Courthouse, a considerable degree of renovation was needed. The building was derelict, and rather a non-intentional dovecote. There was thus an abominable mess, which all had to be cleaned, and the pigeons expelled.
If we permit these flocks of columbines to sprawl unchecked, how much longer can we go on without life imitating art (viz. George Smale, Daphne du Maurier, and Alfred Hitchcock)?
Keen birdwatcher Andrew Martens has noticed a general increase over these past years in another species of pigeon, the wood pigeon: “In recent years they have become increasingly common in towns and cities, whereas they used to be a predominantly rural species. When I first moved into my house in Oundle some years ago, there were none in the garden. Now they are always there, and they are a real pest in the veg garden.” He says that he would indeed require the cause of a bird-proof cage if he wanted to grow “brassicas, peas; even some types of lettuce”, and that “their droppings are a mess”.
An article in the Daily Mail, described a “record” increase in wood pigeon numbers, ascribing the increase to “changes in agricultural practice”. Mr Martens also suggests that since pigeons are no longer regarded as a foodstuff, they no longer fear large concentrations of people.
I may so far have given the general impression that this is a problem confined to the Oundle community. But certainly there is plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise. For example, in Cambridge, there is the example of a woman who has taken the challenge into her own hands – quite literally.
In the words of a contributor to the September 2, 2013 edition of the Cambridge News: “We have a terrible problem with the pigeons in the street because of the fast food being thrown about in the road. But we have one elderly lady has had enough and goes around strangling the pigeons … When I saw her with a dead pigeon, she just said, ‘I strangled it.’ “
In fact, this pigeon proliferation is really a worldwide problem. An article in the German newspaper Spiegel alerted readers to a “surge” in numbers of pigeons.
In the article, Professor Daniel Haag-Wackernagel, of the University of Bâle, informs the readership that “the best way [to reduce pigeon numbers] is to stop feeding them.” He adds that “killing them makes no sense at all” (Cantabridgian pigeon-stranglers take note!) since they have an “enormous reproduction capacity” and they will recover from a cull very quickly.
A study in the Wildlife Society Bulletin describes how a large number of adult pigeons in any given flock yields a very high juvenile mortality rate (about 90%). If the adults are removed from the flock, this mortality rate falls in direct proportion with the competition. The result is a flock which numbers at least 100% of the original, within weeks.
But what about the tale of the passenger pigeon, which many of our readers will have heard? The passenger pigeon was a highly gregarious bird; in 1620 it is believed that over 25% of all North American birds were passenger pigeons, which became a very viable hunting prospect during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
As flocks fell below a certain size, the birds ceased to breed, owing to their highly social nature. The result was that the bird was extinct in the wild by 1900, and, since zoos could not keep them in large flocks, the individual birds in captivity refused to breed. The last living specimen died on September 1, 1914.
By Richard Taylor