Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough

Ken Livingstone, London's first directly-elected mayor, has declared war on pigeons
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The Independent Online

Major-General Sir Henry Havelock strikes a martial pose. Calm, determined, he gazes into the middle distance, his left hand resting on the hilt of his sword, his right hand gathering the folds of his cloak which casually drapes from one shoulder. The forward set of his right leg denominates him at once as a man of action: he is resolute; he is ready for anything. Only the two long white streaks of pigeon poo, dribbling from his hair down the left side of his face and into the top of his fine set of whiskers, take anything away from the impressive nobility of his figure.

Major-General Sir Henry Havelock strikes a martial pose. Calm, determined, he gazes into the middle distance, his left hand resting on the hilt of his sword, his right hand gathering the folds of his cloak which casually drapes from one shoulder. The forward set of his right leg denominates him at once as a man of action: he is resolute; he is ready for anything. Only the two long white streaks of pigeon poo, dribbling from his hair down the left side of his face and into the top of his fine set of whiskers, take anything away from the impressive nobility of his figure.

We are in London's Trafalgar Square where Sir Henry, erected by public subscription in 1861, watches in bronze steadfastness over the wandering crowds of tourists and the dense swarms of pigeons who pursue them, seeking a meal. The pigeons are everywhere, like leaves in the height of an autumn gale, scuttling along the ground, whirling through the air. Like leaves they blow onto you: a touch on your arm and two of them have landed on your sleeve. Then look! There's one on your head! Bold, or what? Sometimes a thousand - really, a thousand - are flying at you at once, a veritable blizzard of birds, and you duck instinctively. How can they miss? Though they do. They are street-smart birds of the city.

But this city's powerful new boss, Ken Livingstone, has decided that in Trafalgar Square there are now just too many of them. Not for him the view that the teeming tourist-photographed flocks are as much a colourful and traditional part of the square as the lions, the fountains or Nelson's Column. Ken has decided that Their Time Is Up.

For London's first directly-elected Mayor, who defied Tony Blair and swept into office in a populist triumph five months ago, has brought the square, the heart of the capital's tourist trail, under the direct control of his new Greater London Authority - and he has plans for it. He wants it transformed. He wants it pedestrianised, with the road in front of the National Gallery turned into a tree-lined piazza designed by Norman Foster. He wants it to be a showpiece for Ken Livingstone's London. And pigeons simply aren't part of the package.

Ken had decided that back in the summer. He told a Mayor's Question Time in July: "Pigeons... cause real inconvenience and spread disease. We are not talking about allowing things to overrun the place. As you know... we have one remaining concession for selling pigeon feed. My decision is quite clear: either we cancel that concession or the feed contains a contraceptive in order to reduce the number of pigeons."

Two weeks ago he acted: he refused to renew the licence of the pigeon-feed stall which has stood in the square for more than 50 years, so cutting off at a stroke the supply of grain on which the 2,000-or-so birds which throng the square have come to depend. The birds are now frantic for food, as is obvious to anyone observing them, and have started to die. They are. Your correspondent has witnessed it. And people across the capital are shaking their heads in wonderment and asking: Can This Be?

For this is Ken the newt-keeper, the councillor whose love of amphibians helped push him to national fame. This is Ken the defender of the fox. This is Ken who promised specifically before his election to make London an animal-cruelty-free zone. This is Ken the savvy politician who has paid more attention to animal welfare than any other, the politician who, the cynic might say, has vacuumed up every animal-welfare vote that was going, and here he is this week being excoriated in the shadow of Nelson's Column by chanting animal-rights activists and a large banner proclaiming Blood Red Ken The Pigeon Killer.

What's happening? One might speculate on some kind of Livingstone blind spot for pigeons, like that possessed by the man in the Monty Python sketch who asked in the bookshop for the "expurgated" version of a book of British birds. ("The expurgated version?" asked an incredulous John Cleese. "The one without the gannet," replied the man. "The one without the gannet? But it's a standard British bird!" "Yes, well, I don't like them. They wet their nests.")

But though Ken declined a personal interview, his office insists his actions are rational. They spoke of tension between people and excess numbers of the birds, the dangers of disease, and the "aesthetic issue of pigeon guano". They did not feel that the pigeons would starve with the food withdrawn - they would merely range farther afield to feed.

Certainly, if you look around Trafalgar Square, it has to be said that the noble aspect of many of the public monuments is definitely not improved by what the pigeons leave behind.

Sir Henry Havelock's is not the only martial visage encumbered with avian excreta. On the next pedestal stands the statue of General Charles James Napier (born MDCCLXXXII, the plinth helpfully informs us, died MDCCCLIII), loaded with honours, but with his head decorated in a way he would never have imagined in life. Nor does the navy escape. Three busts of famous 20th-century admirals sit in alcoves on the square's north side: today Beatty and Cunningham are spick and span, but alas poor Jellicoe! As if losing the Battle of Jutland were not enough...

Droppings galore. There is no denying that for many people, pigeons are urban vermin. If a squirrel is a rat with good public relations, a pigeon is an airborne rat with no PR whatsoever. They are scruffy, people feel, they are messy, they are numerous and they are everywhere.

Who has not laughed at Tom Lehrer's depiction of the casually murderous thoughts such irritating birds might provoke? ("All the world seems in tune on a spring afternoon when we're poisoning pigeons in the park...")

Yet there are those who see good, and even fascination, in the feral pigeon, to give the bird its proper name. It is the escaped domesticated form of the rock dove Columba livia, which nests on sea cliffs around Europe but in Britain is found in the wild only on the north-west coast of Scotland. It has been domesticated for thousands of years, being kept in dovecotes as a source of meat. It has been more: we often forget it has been a symbol of love, because of its courting behaviour, "billing and cooing", when the birds bond by nibbling each other's necks and lightly tugging feathers, producing their sweet cooing sounds.

Eric Simms, one of Britain's most prolific writers on birds, actually made a full-length study, a charming monograph published in 1979 which was entitled The Public Life of the Street Pigeon. His verdict? "When they are in excess, they can prove a problem in terms of health, but generally speaking, and on balance, they bring an awful lot of pleasure to people who are tied to city dwelling - people who are old or not well, who can sit in the local park and watch them. They are fascinating to watch. They're very adaptable."

John Tully, another ornithologist, teased out two key pieces of pigeon info from studying the birds in Bristol: that their numbers are directly related to the amount of food available from the public, and that it takes about 50 to 60 people to support one bird. He says: "Many of us have got photos of when we were little feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. Many of us have fed these wild birds in the hand - they are 'wild' - and there's very few wild animals that you can actually do that with. They're very fundamental to us."

But such appreciations pale into insignificance compared to the white-hot pro-pigeon fury that has been aroused among London animal lovers by Ken's Trafalgar Square coup. It's the weekend, so let's mix metaphors: in grasping the nettle of the pigeon, Ken has stirred up a hornet's nest. This week they descended on the square for a "guerrilla feeding operation": Animal Aid, London Animal Action, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, all the animal activists who have seen Ken Livingstone as their hero, and their anti-Ken banners were held high, and the word on their lips was Judas.

They scattered their grain and watched the pigeons pile onto it in a frenzied scrum four-deep; they picked up starving birds whose breastbones were showing; they opened rubbish bags and took out the dead pigeons which had been brushed away by the street cleaners. "Pigeon killer!" they shouted. "Red Ken! Where are your promises of animal-friendly London! Red Ken! When power comes, ethics go out the door! Red Ken! Where are you hiding?"

They are going after you, Ken. These are your people and they feel betrayed, and every dead Trafalgar Square pigeon is another black mark against your name. Last night they were holding a candlelight vigil in the square. Next week they'll be outside your office, bringing dead pigeons with them. They mean business. They're not going to go away.

If the shade of Sir Henry Havelock thinks the days of discomfort are over, perhaps he should think again.

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