Street Science: The Pigeon – Winged Rat or Family Bird?

Lonestar Swan and a juvenile pigeon at 16th Street BART Station.

Lonestar Swan and a juvenile pigeon at 16th Street BART Station.

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Pigeons putter and flutter and flop and peck on practically every street here in the Mission. They thrive along busy corridors, naturally designed to prefer BART to back yards.

Many considering pigeons to be filthy, the rats of the bird world.

And yet, pigeons have plenty of disarming urban traits, and some Mission locals love these quirky urban doves.

One longtime Mission resident, Lonestar Swan – also known as John Ratcliff – has been looking after feral pigeons here for years, caring for the injured birds and even writing up their stories and distributing them at Adobe Books,

Technically vegetarians, pigeons are built to eat seeds and grains but will gladly branch out to rice, baked goods, and anything in the garbage that catches the eye. Research shows that while pigeons are open-minded eaters as a breed, individual birds have their own favorites.

“They don’t like lettuce and tomatoes, they will eat ham, they will eat burritos,” Swan said about the flock that lives at 16th Street BART.

In fact, pigeons are better adapted to urban streets and windowsills than gardens.

Rock pigeons, as they are officially called, prefer standing on buildings to roosting in trees. Their feet and mode of walking aren’t suited to branches. Wild rock pigeons – yes, they originate from wild Eurasian stock – used to live in crevices and caves along rock cliffs. Buildings provide the perfect substitute.

These stout birds are indeed a kind of dove. The name rock pigeon only formally replaced the name “rock dove” in 2003.

Besides their tree aversion, pigeons fit into the urban world in other ways. For example, pigeons can slurp like the best 7-11 customer, using their beaks like straws to suck water straight up. Most birds can’t do that. They have to use their beaks to scoop water and then throw their heads back to swallow.

Pigeons also walk, albeit with heads bobbing, instead of hopping like tree-loving birds tend to.

A family bird

Pigeons – and their relations, which include the now extinct dodo bird – are the only birds that can produce a kind of milk for their young.

The substance, called crop milk, is exuded from glands in the male and female parents’ crop, a storage place in birds’ throats. This highly nutritious protein-rich substance is mixed with seeds or other food in the crop and regurgitated for young pigeons.

Pigeons are also less likely to cheat on their partners than some birds.

“Birds are thought of being a family model for people,” said Steve Beissinger, an ornithologist and professor at UC Berkeley. However, DNA evidence has shown that’s not always the case.

“They may stay together, but not all the offspring are from one father,” Beissinger said.

Though other kinds of birds can have much higher rates of fooling around, only about one percent of pigeons have chicks out of the pair via “extra-pair fertilization,” at least those studied in Kansas, according to Cornell University’s comprehensive bird resource, Birds of North America.

Spikes installed along 18th Street to prevent pigeons from landing.

Even though its forbidden to feed them and every surface imaginable here is covered with gruesome spikes to keep them away, pigeons manage to build nests here year after year.These birds will keep constructing on top their old nests, incorporating into the regular nesting materials egg shells, and feces, or even mummified chicks that failed to thrive.

The male and female pigeon share in the raising of their young, and they can produce several “clutches” in a single year, even laying new eggs before the previous batch has left the nest.

Pigeon-related violence

In the city, dogs, rats, raccoons, cats, and even the occasional red-tailed hawk or peregrine falcon can prey on pigeons. Falcons do so particularly dramatically, tearing into the neck vertebrae of prey mid-flight, then fully decapitating the bird and eating the head first.

Swan says that when hawks approach here, the crows warn all birds by cawing. “Crows will chase hawks,” he said.

Some pigeon fanciers hate hawks so much, they’ve been known to shoot them. In 2008, nine people in the Birmingham Roller Club – including breeders in California and Oregon – plead guilty to killing and torturing birds of prey after an undercover investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

The group kept special pigeons that rolled, or performed backward somersaults in flight, a genetic trait. Because the rolling action makes the pigeons look sick, birds of prey single them out.

The men were caught bragging about killing the birds, telling each other to “shoot, shovel, and shut up,” according to Fish and Wildlife investigators.

He doesn’t go after the predators, but Swan does protect Mission pigeons by keeping little bird feet free of string and wire, which he says is responsible for the mangled appearance of so many pigeons’ feet.

Care for the wounded

Swan keeps a kit of iodine, scissors, and tweezers on him at all times to tend to the needs of injured birds, particularly pigeons. He’s seen broken legs, mangled feet, and the worst, birds that get oil on their wings.

“You can’t wash them and let them go,” Swan said, because they won’t be able to fly with newly-washed wings.

It’s not clear that injuries are the sole cause for the state of many pigeons’ feet, which are often clubbed, missing toes, or even entirely absent.

Many pigeon fanciers contend that cuts from accidents allow fungus, bacteria, and viruses to set in. A staphylococcus infection called bumblefoot can bring about disabling injuries, as can Avian pox, a viral disease that causes wartlike growths on the feet.

And with pigeons living off the ground and garbage, they’re exposed to a wide variety of bacteria and gunk.

Last week someone brought Swan two distressed juvenile pigeons in a box; one is pictured above. He released the few-month-old birds at 16th Street BART, hoping the existing flock would show the youngsters how to eat and keep them safe.

They can’t fly well yet and Swan worries that a loose dog might get them.

The two juveniles, siblings, were still fluttering around their second day at BART, if a little sadly, later huddling together.

Some might hope these two won’t go the way of the now famous passenger pigeon. Once, this species was considered so common that they needed no protection. Close relatives of the mourning dove, their flocks used to blacken American skies in the millions.

Widespread hunting for food, combined with deforestation and possibly even European disease, lead to an abrupt twenty-year decline in the species, the last of which died in the early 1900s.

6 Comments

  1. sfmissionman

    A very informative article. Thanks. Please do not feed pigeons! You are also feeding rats. Pigeons and rats compete directly for food, so pigeons are OK, unless there are too many, and unless they are roosting in places where they will damage structures. The number of pigeons is a function of the number of people who throw fast food onto streets and sidewalks, which is a lot in the burrito-laden Mission. But better pigeons than rats. To bad neither eats gum nor butts.

  2. SF Police Code, Article 7, Section 486: Feeding pigeons in San Francisco is illegal. Someone please arrest or fine this man. He hangs out around 16th and Albion most of the time.

  3. 18thStreetResident

    Lonestar Swan is a nuisance and he creates a nuisance with his feeding of pigeons. I’ve observed him throwing down seed in the parking lot next to the Wells Fargo branch, next to the 16th street BART station, drawing hordes of pigeons to the area. The birds create a health hazard and trash the area.

    I wish Lonestar Swan could be stopped. It would be one step towards making the neighborhood better.

  4. melissa

    I’ve always wondered about this man who I’ve often seen at the 16th Street BART station and admired how kind he is to the pigeons. Thanks for giving us some information about him, as well as educating us about these birds we all live with! I’ve always enjoyed watching them and their interactions with each other and can’t really understand people’s aversion to them.

  5. tecpatl

    The overabundance of pigeons is a man-made problem. They were originally brought here to be eaten. The most humane solution to this problem was developed in Amsterdam. They built coops on top of buildings where the eggs are collected, which keeps the population in control. That is something that we should consider here in SF. We created this problem and we should solve it.

  6. Dan

    Cats and dogs carry just as many sicknesses and they run wild, even the ones that have owners. I would much rather have pigeons in my yard than any cat or dog that may attack and definitely will leave sickness or destruction to property. As the politicians in DC continue to destroy the economy and jobs Americans may have to start eating the dogs and cats as well as the pigeons.

    It seems to me a pigeon roost in the country with domesticated pigeons would attract wild pigeons also. As the wild ones are trapped in the roost they can be culled.

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