Pigeons: the Flying Rats of Venice

    St Mark's Square after the cull - MR

St Mark’s Square after the cull – MR

There are 120,000 pigeons in Venice, and that is too many. The authorities are aiming at 40,000 to satisfy both health requirements and sentimental tourists

It was Venice that offered the first image of the tourist city playing host to innumerable pigeons, and just as in Trafalgar Square, London, Venetians are a bit sentimental about these birds in St Mark’s. You’ll never see pigeon on a Venetian menu even though 25 miles away they’re a local specialty. Some cafes throw crumbs to the lame or one-legged ones, but this sentimentality is only superficial.

To Cull or Not to Cull

Early in the morning near the entrance to the Museo Correr the silent trapping ritual takes place. Several men hold a large net and walk across St Mark’s Square shepherding the birds under the arches at the far end. Here they fly straight into another net which is quickly covered with an enormous black cloth, so that in the dark they become silent. The cloth and its contents are gathered up and put on a large trolley to be pulled away to where the birds are presumably dispatched. Nobody talks about the pigeon cull, but if you ask the officials, they will tell you that they check for diseased birds and release the healthy ones. However, that’s a line for tourists. They are all killed.

Most people don’t realize it, but pigeons actually smell terrible. That’s because they build their nests with their own excrement. Of course the narrow sunless alleyways of Venice are not ideal places for stinking nests to be built. And because they are so well fed, the pigeons reproduce at the rate of seven or eight times a year, two eggs at a time. (In London, pigeons reproduce only once a year.) Naturally, something has to be done.

How to Reduce the Pigeon Population

Over the years the Venetians have tried all sorts of methods to reduce the pigeon population. They tried mixing their food with birth control chemicals, but the population inexplicably increased. They tried importing birds of prey, but each falcon only killed one pigeon a day, and their droppings were even worse than the pigeons’. Animal rights sympathizers have suggested that the pigeons should be castrated, but the cost would be prohibitive.

You might think that banning the sale of pigeon food in Venice might be a long-term solution, but the authorities are reluctant to take such a measure because, they say, it might discourage the tourists who enjoy feeding the pigeons. And there are the vendors to consider. How would they otherwise make a living, or pay for their hugely expensive licenses which benefit the city’s coffers?

Watch Out for Fines!

Not many tourists realize that pigeons can only be fed in St. Mark’s Square, and nowhere else in Venice. To be caught even a few steps outside the piazza will incur a hefty fine.

Further reading: John Berendt: The City of Falling Angels

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