On a balmy evening in Chennai, Shruti was in for a rude shock as she entered her room in her fifth-floor apartment in Nesappakkam. A pigeon had made its way into the room through an open window. Over the next few hours, Shruti managed to get the bird to exit her room with much difficulty.
This incident resulted in her opting to protect her balcony and windows with a net to prevent pigeons from entering her home again.
Feral pigeons have made their homes in Chennai, in the crevices, ledges, parapets and every other space they can find in buildings.
“They have intruded into our homes, nested behind air-conditioning vents in our terraces and ledges. Their excreta is everywhere, even all over my windows,” says Shruti.
Pigeon population all over India has increased by 150% in the past two decades, posing a threat to both urban biodiversity and public health. The situation in Chennai has followed a similar pattern.
Rise in pigeon population in Chennai
Originally, humans domesticated pigeons as they served as a source of protein and their excreta could be used as manure for growing crops.
Today, in Chennai, many residents complain about the very same birds invading their spaces.
“The population of pigeons has multiplied excessively in the last four to five years in Chennai,” says TD Babu, a Chennai-based environmentalist. “For instance, five years back, you would hardly come across pigeons in Besant Nagar. Now, the bird has become a common sight.”
“Pigeons have been multiplying in the city due to urbanisation,” notes Prasanth Prakhalathan, a researcher with the Tamil Nadu Wetland Mission and biodiversity expert.
There are multiple reasons why the pigeon population has been increasing in Chennai.
Rise in taller buildings: Rock doves have evolved into feral pigeons, which live in cities with people. Rock doves live in the crevices of mountains or hills.
“With an increase in the high-rise buildings in Chennai, the crevices in the buildings mimic the original habitat of the birds. Therefore, they tend to colonise the inaccessible spaces in taller buildings,” points out AM Aravind, a birdwatcher studying bird behaviour, urban wildlife and urban ecology.
“Also, one or two-storeyed houses are being replaced with taller apartments with more floors, due to urbanisation,” Aravind adds.
We spoke to both high-rise apartment dwellers and people who live in relatively smaller independent houses.
The former had more pigeon-menace complaints while the latter says that the birds do not affect them much.
Absence of natural predators: “Raptors like Shikra, which are natural predators of pigeons, do not usually live in urbanised areas,” says Prasanth. “So, pigeons feel safe here in cities among human habitation, devoid of their predators.”
Shikras are present in areas with more trees, says Aravind. “As green spaces are getting eaten up in Chennai, the raptors are pushed out of the urbanised areas, leading to an unchecked surge among the birds,” he adds.
In other words, axing trees could lead to more pigeons.
Feeding by humans: “People assume that pigeons cannot live without humans feeding them. So, they think it is a humanitarian act to feed birds like pigeons,” says Prasanth. “When food availability is more, they breed more.”
Generally, birds plan their breeding based on the availability of food and resources. “When food resources are constant, pigeons can breed at any time,” says Prasanth.
Feral pigeons are wild organisms that can hunt and find food for themselves.
“By feeding birds like pigeons, we are robbing their natural ability to find food for themselves,” says Babu.”Today we are seeing shops selling bags of grains in Besant Nagar for people to feed birds, including pigeons.”
“Three generations of my family have been feeding birds. It has become a family tradition of humanitarian service. Around 30-50 pigeons along with other birds come and I feed them wheat grains every day. If we do not feed them, then they will not be able to find food in this concrete jungle,” says a resident of Madipakkam.
He feeds birds at 6.30 am every morning on the terrace of his independent house.
“The people in an independent house opposite my apartment feed pigeons every day. They eat on their terrace and excrete on my window sill and even lay eggs near the AC vent. I do not know how to tell them not to feed pigeons,” says Shruti.
Sometimes, she is forced to throw the eggs away to discourage pigeons from nesting outside her house.
Pigeon menace faced by residents in Chennai
“There used to be a lot of unsold units in our apartment, within which pigeons used to seek refuge. Even after we occupied the apartment, the birds have not left because they have been used to the uninhabited space before we came,” says T Ranganathan from East Tambaram.
Ritika, a resident of an apartment in Adyar, says that pigeons have formed nests outside her bathroom window. “They are refusing to budge.”
The sound of their wings fluttering and their low grunting voice against the windows have become a source of daily annoyance.
“Moreover, they tend to even destroy plants,” adds Ritika.” They peck the plant, till the stem, leading to the plant’s death.”
Shruti seconds this, claiming that the plants on her balcony were nibbled off by pigeons.
“We had a tulasi plant in our balcony and removed it due to fear of pigeons attacking it,” says Ranganathan, who has been discouraged to keep plants on any window sill in his apartment.
“We all have pigeon nets but the pigeons bite their way through it,” says Ritika.
Even meshes secured to the frames of doors and windows do not always help in discouraging pigeons.
Impact of pigeons on biodiversity in Chennai
“Due to an increase in the population of pigeons, the numbers of other birds like sparrows and mynahs have dwindled significantly,” says Prasanth.
The other birds have to compete with pigeons for resources and nesting areas, and pigeons are highly adaptable and stronger. To put it simply, pigeons are becoming a dominant urban bird species in Chennai.
Additionally, the decrease in the numbers of sparrows and mynahs could also lead to a rise in the insect population.
“Sparrows and mynahs eat grains and insects, while pigeons do not eat a lot of insects. With sparrows and mynahs disappearing from urbanised areas, the insect numbers can potentially increase,” says Prasanth.
Aravind also describes an instance of pigeons competing with other species. “Once, I saw a Scops owl sitting on a tree. Later, when I went to the same spot the next week, I saw a flock of pigeons sitting on the tree, and the owl was missing.”
Can pigeons affect human health?
Pigeon habitations are very close to humans in cities, rising concerns about their effect on health.
“It could be a cause for the spread of zoonotic diseases,” says Prasanth.
“The droppings carry pathogens which could spread respiratory diseases. When the droppings dry, the particles get suspended in the air where people are breathing it,” says Babu.
Moreover, doctors are seeing an increasing trend of hypersensitive pneumonia among people who have been overly exposed to pigeons. People with respiratory issues are 65% more vulnerable to catching the disease due to pigeon droppings.
“Psittacosis is a bird-transmitted lung infection that could be caused by constant exposure to pigeon droppings in a closed atmosphere. It primarily comes from bacteria and viruses from bird droppings. They do not harm the birds but could harm humans if they breathe it in, leading to a lung infection,” says Dr Mani Sivasubramanian, a cardiothoracic surgeon from Anna Nagar.
Shruti’s mother and Ranganathan are suffering from respiratory illnesses.
“I do not let my mother clean the bird droppings on the frames of the doors and windows because she already has lung issues,” says Shruti. “I also wear two masks and clean the droppings.”
Stemming rising number of pigeons
Aravind, TD Babu and Prasanth give some steps to address the burgeoning numbers of pigeons:
- Greater Chennai Corporation could impose a ban on feeding pigeons. If the food availability decreases, it will enable pigeons to breed less.
Recently, the Pune local body has banned the public feeding of pigeons. Last month, a resident was fined Rs. 500 for feeding pigeons in the city. Local bodies in Hyderabad and Thane have also banned feeding pigeons.
- The local government must focus on planting more trees and not cutting trees, to attract the natural predators of pigeons.
- Creating awareness sessions in schools about invasive birds like pigeons and why feeding them is unhealthy.
Generally, if a species proliferates at an unnaturally high rate, nature has a way to balance the increase in population, says Prasanth. “A disease could affect the pigeon population to stem its dominance in the ecosystem.”
However, that will happen if the population cannot be arrested due to other means.
With Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority planning to come up with transit-oriented development strategies, the housing will be concentrated along the transit corridors, which can lead to more high-rise buildings in the near future.
Planners and civic authorities must consider addressing the pigeon population explosion before the impact of their presence causes graver consequences for human health and urban biodiversity.