The seabird colonies of the Hebrides and the Shetlands are noisy, malodorous places. Thousands of kittiwakes, gannets and puffins come to breed, fight, defecate and die on a few overcrowded outcrops every spring. It is a spectacular scene: mounds of steaming guano, grotesque opened mouthed chicks, the collective scream of countless angry birds, and if you’re lucky, a flustered second-rate television presenter complaining about the smell. As the camera records terns plunging into white horses, the huge wingspans of black backed gulls and the squawks of freshly fledged skuas you might notice in the background an altogether more familiar sight. That of a fat grey bird, waddling about on a rocky perch. If you were able to hear it above the uproar of the sea and the colony you would instantly recognised its low, intestinal cooing. It’s not pretty and it is rarely deemed exciting enough to warrant the attention of documentary makers, it’s a rock dove. These birds have lived unassuming lives on British coasts for thousands of years. From their cliff holes they watch the comings and goings of itinerant seabirds and are ignored by each season’s cameras. Recently the rock doves have shrunk in numbers and they are now extinct in much of southern England. The species is set to quietly disappear, but it seems that few people care. Indeed some would probably like to see their extinction accelerated. And this is because the rock dove is the ancestor of the much maligned and ubiquitous urban bird: the feral pigeon.
Sensitive ornithologist types go to great lengths to differentiate the rock dove from its infamous cousins. They say that the rock dove is a purer, more organic form replete with rich charcoal feathers, a more stocky build and an iridescent purplish-green neck. Some go as far to say that the things should be preserved through culls of incursive feral pigeons. But they’re only fooling themselves, ancestor and descendent are identical. And both have their redeeming qualities. Despite the rock dove’s failure to outshine its oil-slicked maritime neighbours in appearance or audibility, they perform well once they are off the ground. Rock doves can outpace and outmanoeuvre any gull. They torpedo down precipices, reaching speeds exceeding ninety miles an hour before they swerve to avoid the sea surface. Their acrobatic feats enable them to escape the talons of the world’s fastest bird, the peregrine falcon. Feral pigeons have brought this aerial prowess to our towns and cities. As they hobble along pavement on toeless feet they may look dirty and dim witted, but their contour hugging flights and twisting flocks enliven the skies above our roofs. Of course, not everyone would agree with me here. You only have to look up to see that almost all roofs in city centres bristle with anti pigeon spikes, designed to stop them from careering though city skies. Heavy fines are exacted from those caught feeding pigeons and large sums spent on new and ingenious methods to eradicate the birds.
Fortunately for pigeon fanciers such as myself, these measures have been ineffective and the feral pigeon population continue to swell. Their numbers are so healthy that a few apex predators have followed their flocks from the cliffs to the metropolis. Peregrines now visit the House of Commons whilst huge Harris hawks can be seen plucking unfortunate pigeons in Trafalgar Square, tossing clouds of feathers and gore at horrified tourists. Pigeons have found their niche within the urban ecosystem, amongst the foxes, rats, hedgehogs and garden birds, and they have brought with them these majestic predatory birds, making our cities wilder, more exciting places.
Today we have an uneasy relationship with the wildlife with which we share our living space. New arrivals to our cities are almost always met with consternation and sometimes with hysteria. Take for example the furore surrounding the spread of the false widow spider into parts of the South East last year. Schools closed and people bitten by the spiders were reported to be fighting for their lives. A bizarre reaction considering the fact that the false widow’s bite is no more deadly than a wasp sting. Or take the British Government’s labelling of London’s ring necked parakeets as a pest species, perfectly harmless birds which are not reported to have caused significant damage. Fortunately most media scaremongering and their associated calls for mass culls are soon forgotten and these strange and exotic beasts are able to slink off into the backstreets and take up residence. If you visit any park in London today you are likely to find not only feral pigeons but red eared terrapin and parakeets. If you are lucky you could even catch a glimpse of a wallaby, several of which have been spotted hopping about Highgate Cemetery. On first seeing shops, traffic and pedestrians these animals would have been just as confused as the first rock doves, which having left their cliff top nests, homed in on the spires of London. Given time and a little space urban wallabies could become as familiar a sight as the London pigeon.
We should anticipate future waves of beastly immigrants with excitement rather than dread. I look forward to the day when the grey skies of London are filled with Harris hawks, red kites and perhaps the odd monkey-eating eagle with a wallaby clasped in its talons. Some caution must exercised of course, we must be careful that our already beleaguered native wildlife isn’t further threatened by exotic competitors. But if we can jump that hurdle then we could perhaps find a space in our parks and gardens for rare and threatened species whilst we fill urban menageries with bright feathers, red claws and gambolling marsupials.