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Brussels municipalities explore new ways to control pigeon population

City pigeons flocking around food on the street (Pixabay / Free licence)
06:49 11/03/2022

For decades now, Brussels' municipalities have been fighting against the scourge of urban pigeons. The catching and killing pigeons, which had been common practice for years, was banned last month, leaving the authorities searching for more animal-friendly alternatives.

Brussels City and Ixelles have resorted to giving pigeons contraception in a bid to keep the numbers down, reports Bruzz.

But limiting the population is only part of the problem. Despite municipalities conducting awareness campaigns and placing prohibition signs, people still feed the pigeons. The ban on pigeon feeding is registered in police regulations, with hefty fines in case of a violation.

Neverthelesss, it's common to see people scattering bread for the birds or even leaving full loaves on benches for them.

“People do it with the best of intentions," says Claire Brabant of nature organisation Natagora. In 2019, she was commissioned by Brussels Environment to write a report on the possibilities of controlling the pigeon population in an animal-friendly way.

Her research showed that stopping the feeding of pigeons was the most efficient method. "The large food supply in the city has made the pigeon population swell,” she says. “We have the waste left over from markets, for example, but the biggest problem is the scattering of bread everywhere. As well as encouraging the birds, pigeons often get sick from stale bread."

While it is now punishable by law, feeding very rarely leads to any fines being handed out. “We do point out to people that it is not allowed, especially if they scatter large amounts of food," says an employee of the park service in Laeken. "But issuing a fine, I don't dare to do that in this district. They might know where to find you afterwards."

It may surprise many to discover that the urban pigeon is actually an exotic bird. "It is descended from the wild rock pigeon, which originates in the Mediterranean,” says Gerald Driessens, a bird expert at Natuurpunt, a Flemish animal welfare association. “It's a domesticated variant of this wild species, which has adapted excellently to the urban environment."

"It started with racing pigeons that were lost, crashed into a window or became exhausted and consequently stranded in the city. That's where they started reproducing."

The reproductive capacities of the urban pigeon are impressive, says Driessens. "Unlike other birds, the city pigeon breeds almost all year round." A couple can hatch six litters a year, each time producing two pigeon chicks, which in turn quickly reach sexual maturity and are able to reproduce.

Pigeon poo nuisance

The problem with the city pigeons is that they cause a lot of nuisance. They can transmit diseases to humans, earning them the nickname "flying rats". Their droppings, about 12 kilos per pigeon per year, also lead to nuisance and damage. Just as its distant ancestor liked to visit rock crevices, today the city pigeon settles in niches or crevices of facades and roofs. The result is that many buildings and monuments are covered in pigeon droppings. "There are church attics with an inch-thick layer of the stuff," Driessens says.

This not only causes aesthetic damage, but also material damage. The very acidic excrement affects materials such as marble, limestone and concrete. Cleaning and repairing stonework damaged in this way is an expensive affair. Recent research showed that removing the pigeon droppings on the street, in parks and on buildings, costs €16 to €23 per pigeon per year.

Many people try to keep the pigeons away from their buildings by closing holes, applying netting or placing pins on the roofs.

However, closing and shielding everything is not possible and the municipalities regularly receive complaints about pigeon nuisance. It is therefore understandable that they want to limit the pigeon population – which is not an easy task, as it turns out.

Peregrine falcons to the rescue?

Some communes have turned to an ally in the sky: the peregrine falcon, a bird of prey that feeds on pigeons. For several years now, peregrine falcons have been breeding on various high towers in the city, including the St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral, the Church of Our Lady of Laeken and the Saint Guido Collegiate in Anderlecht. "Those birds of prey have returned to the cities because they have such easy prey in the unwieldy city pigeons, which they can effortlessly grab in their lightning-fast flight," says Gerald Driessens.

But peregrine falcons cannot solve the problem alone. After all, these birds of prey only kill a small fraction of the large number of pigeons. "The peregrine falcons have a very large territory in which they do not tolerate other birds of prey,” says Driessens. “They already have enough for themselves and their young, needing just a few birds a day. These are mainly pigeons, but they also catch starlings, blackbirds and all kinds of other bird species."

In Flanders and Wallonia, municipalities, businesses or farmers who suffer from pigeon problems sometimes hire a falconer who then comes to hunt pigeons with a falcon bred in captivity. That is not allowed in Brussels, where both the keeping of falcons and hunting are prohibited.

So how do the Brussels municipalities and institutions combat pigeon nuisance? At the Brussels transport company Stib, which also suffers from pigeon droppings in some stations, they have suspended the fight for a year. "We only clean up,” says a spokesperson. “It is a complex problem, for which we have not yet found the solution. For 30 years we have tried all kinds of methods, including catching and killing pigeons."

Pigeon culling counterproductive

The capture and then euthanasia of pigeons is a method that was widely used in Brussels in the past and is still used today in some Flemish cities. According to Claire Brabant of Natagora, however, it's not effective. "If you suddenly thin out the pigeon population in this way, the fertility of the remaining birds improves, the natural mortality decreases and there is more immigration of pigeons from other areas,” she says. “Moreover, it's an expensive method and gassing pigeons with CO2 is not very ethical."

The latter is also the reason why the Brussels parliament last month unanimously approved the proposal of Victoria Austraet, former member of the animal welfare DierAnimal party, to ban the capture and killing of pigeons in Brussels.

The municipality of Jette has also given up the fight against the pigeons and is currently letting nature take its course, says alderman of Animal Welfare Claire Vandevivere, who will soon become the commune’s mayor. "We tried to eliminate the pigeons for a while, but that didn't work."

The municipality then installed a contraceptive dovecote, a method widely used in Paris. The dovecote is placed in a place where the pigeons don't cause too much nuisance. The pigeons are lured there in the hope that they will settle there. Once they have laid eggs, they are replaced by fake eggs. "For us, this method turned out to be ineffective," says Vandevivere.

In the City of Brussels, pigeons were surgically sterilised and then released again. But after animal rights organisation Gaia distributed a video in 2011 of the way in which the animals were stripped of their genitals, the city stopped this practice and adopted a policy of euthanasia.

Contraceptive corn kernels

After Zoubida Jellab became alderman of Animal Welfare in 2018, a softer approach was chosen. Now the pigeons of the City of Brussels receive contraception via corn kernels, just like in Barcelona. The municipality is working together with Vets for City Pigeons, a Limburg veterinary company that has already sold its solution to the pigeon problem to thirty Belgian municipalities. "We work with corn kernels treated with R12 or nicarbazine," explains veterinarian Pieter Colla. "Nicarbazine is actually a product created to fight intestinal parasites. But it has the side effect that pigeons become infertile."

The special corn is only administered to the dominant pigeons, about 15% of the local colony, Colla explains. "After all, those are the ones who are engaged in reproduction."

The distribution of the contraceptive granules is done via automatic dispensers, such as those already in place near the Square Clémentine and in front of the Church of Our Lady in Laeken. At first glance, it looks like a green city waste bin. But every day, one hour after sunrise, the dispenser turns on and the device releases a dose of corn. The dominant pigeons in the area have now been conditioned. Already 15 minutes before the device spits out the grains, they are on alert. In less than a minute, all the grains are eaten.

Natagora was concerned that chemicals from the corn would penetrate the soil, but this is not the case. "This is also not a hormonal product," emphasises Pieter Colla. "There are no harmful effects on the environment."

A second fear that the grains would also be eaten by other birds is also unfounded, according to Colla. "If a passer-by accidentally picks up a grain, it is not immediately infertile. That only happens after five consecutive days."

By checking and replenishing the dispensers, the city's public gardens services have been given an additional task. And it has to be done meticulously, because if the pigeons stop using contraception, they will soon be fertile again.

The system, which is monitored by Vets for City Pigeons, has so far proved successful, says Roxanne Abels, animal welfare advisor at the City of Brussels. "It is of course an investment for the city,” she says. “But the results are promising. After the first year, there was a 30% decrease in the number of pigeons in the zone around the dispenser. "

Because of this success, three more dispensers will be added in a few weeks, with seven more to be installed later in the year. "We're not going to be able to put one on every street corner, they're going to be placed at the points with the most complaints," says Roxanne Abels.

Apart from the City of Brussels, only the municipality of Ixelles is currently working with the contraceptive corn. In its 2019 report, Natagora called for a more coordinated approach to the pigeon problem in the Brussels region. "Each municipality does it at its own discretion," says Claire Brabant. In the meantime, minister for animal welfare Bernard Clerfayt has realised that the coordination of the pigeon approach is essential. He recently promised to come up with a regional action plan. "The pigeon knows no municipal boundaries," he said.


Written by Nick Amies