Feathered fiends blitz the cities

Urban Britain is facing an ever-growing menace from birds, writes Roger Dobson
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The Independent Online
STREETWISE city birds are becoming Britain's new vandals.

They may look cute and fluffy, but urban birds have turned into ornithological hooligans, interrupting church services, invading superstores, damaging historic buildings, spreading disease, and, in scenes reminiscent of the 1963 Hitchcock classic, The Birds, occasionally even terrorising children.

Europe's public buildings, such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, are taking a hammering from millions of birds which are not only eroding the fabric, but harassing visitors and occasionally giving them a dose of food poisoning or a respiratory illness.

Delegates to the International Urban Bird Pest conference in Wales have been told how a range of anti-bird devices are now being used to tackle the problem, including loudspeakers broadcasting bird distress sounds, flashing lights, nets, predator birds, and sterilising tablets hidden in food. Steroid therapy is also under consideration to prevent breeding.

Feral pigeons, gulls, Canada Geese, tits and lapwings, have been singled out as the main villains. Gulls are abandoning their roots on the coast for richer pickings inland, and the Canada Geese population is growing at a rate of 8 per cent a year.

"There is a serious and growing problem with certain groups of birds. Buildings like our beautiful cathedrals have major problems, as do supermarkets," says Professor Peter Haskell, organiser of the conference at the University of Wales, Cardiff. "Imagine the nightmares of supermarket managers in having a bird inside and perching in the open roof structure and showering droppings on the food below."

According to Stephen Phillips, a health expert with Asda, one problem is that although some people recognise birds can be a threat to public health, others want to feed them. "People in our restaurants can be seen trying to attract the birds with food and by whistling to them," he said.

Stephen Mills, superintendent of works at York Minster, says feral pigeons and starlings are a major problem there too: "We have birds gaining access to the building, soiling altar fabrics and causing havoc during services."

Various attempts have been made to tackle the bird problems at York, but without success, and hawks with trained handlers are now being looked at to see if they can do the trick.

Gulls who are abandoning the coast for inner cities and better food are damaging buildings with their nests and in some cases harassing people.

"In some towns they are attacking people. When you get a herring gull close to you it is a very big bird. We think it is the same syndrome as New Forest ponies. Some people feed them and so, when a child is walking down the street carrying fish and chips, the gulls expect to be fed and go to get it. That can be terrifying for a young child," said Chris Feare of WildWings bird management consultancy.

Rome's historic buildings have not been spared the bird problem either, the Cardiff conference heard. The city now has two million starlings wreaking havoc and attempts are being made to cut their numbers by using loudspeakers broadcasting distress sounds and by flashing bright lights at their city centre nests during the mating season.

The scale of the problem facing pest managers is highlighted by a Swiss team from Basle who had cleaned out eight lofts inhabited by 500 pigeons in the city. Their haul was more than one ton of faeces and 2,596 eggs.

One solution, the conference heard, is to discourage people from feeding the birds. As one delegate pointed out, all the bread fed to pigeons in Trafalgar Square is returned with interest a few hours later.