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Pigeon problems: German town votes to have birds killed, outraging animal rights’ activists

Fed up with its pigeon population, the German town of  Limburg an der Lahn is resorting to lethal measures.
Fed up with its pigeon population, the German town of Limburg an der Lahn is resorting to lethal measures. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Euronews Green
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Campaigners say the plan to enlist a neck-snapping falconer is unacceptable.

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Pigeons have to be one of the most unloved animals that humans ever drew to our side. The birds that flock European squares descended from domesticated rock doves some 10,000 years ago, and so are unusually relaxed around humans.

The feeling isn’t mutual, however. These gregarious birds tend to bring out irritation and disgust in people - as well as more nurturing instincts in those willing to share their crumbs.

But the pigeon-human relationship has taken a more drastic turn in one German town. 

Limburg an der Lahn, in the western German state of Hesse, has just voted to exterminate its 700-strong pigeon population.

A referendum was held on 9 June - the same day as the country’s EU election - after the city council’s decision to kill the birds in November 2023 proved controversial.

Just over 53 per cent of the residents who voted on Sunday approved the killing of the pigeons, Der Spiegel reports, with a total of 7,530 ‘yes’ votes cast.

How will Limburg’s pigeons be killed?

“Today's result was unpredictable for us. The citizens have made use of their right and decided that the animals should be reduced by a falconer," mayor Marius Hahn (SPD) told the German news site.

This was the method initially proposed by the council last year, and the question put to voters was simply whether the decision should stand or not.

More precisely, the falconer will lure the birds into a trap, hit them over the head with a wooden stick to stun them, and then break their necks.  

Animal rights’ campaigners were horrified when the plan was announced. “We live in 2023, it can’t be that we kill animals just because they annoy us, or they’re a nuisance. That’s not acceptable,” Limburg city pigeon project manager Tanya Muller told the UK’s Sky News last year.

The cull is set to be carried out over the next two years.

Is killing pigeons an effective way to reduce populations?

Critics say that as well as being cruel, pigeon culls aren’t really effective since any remaining birds will reproduce and replenish the population.  

Remarkably, some studies show that pigeon numbers can even increase following a cull. 

This was the case in Basel, Switzerland, which had a pigeon population of around 20,000. From 1961 to 1985, the city killed around 100,000 pigeons each year, but the population remained stable, the Local news site reports.

A group called Pigeon Action found an alternative solution, now known as the ‘Basel model’, whereby citizens were warned against feeding the animals. Pigeon lofts were also installed so that eggs could easily be removed from them. 

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As a result, Basel’s pigeon population plummeted by 50 per cent within four years.

How else are European cities tackling their pigeon problems?

The Bavarian city of Augsburg found a similar solution. A local animal welfare organisation supervises several pigeon lofts, swapping new eggs for dummies to keep numbers in check. 

Many other German cities are plagued (or blessed, depending on your point of view) with the cooing grey birds. 

Kaiserslautern is also trying out the ‘Augsburg model’, with new pigeon towers where the birds are relocated. Pigeon lofts or controlled nesting sites have also been installed in Ludwigshafen, Mainz, Pirmasens, and Zweibrücken. 

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In the UK, as elsewhere, birds of prey have been enlisted to pick off pigeons. But it can mean that unsightly droppings are swapped for the more gruesome sight of carcasses. 

Are pigeon feeding bans legal?

Other cities have tried to implement feeding bans, but it’s proved controversial. In 2021, Berlin’s state animal welfare officer sought a legal opinion on pigeon feeding from a lawyer and veterinarian. 

They concluded that cities cannot ban pigeon feeding - and are even obliged to take care of the animals since they are the offspring of a neglected domestic species, not wild animals

“Even when there is a shortage of food, city pigeons lay eggs in large numbers,” the legal opinion stated. “Feeding bans therefore do not lead to shrinking populations, but only to impoverishment. 

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“The misery in numbers: The animal welfare advisory board of the state of Lower Saxony estimates the life expectancy of malnourished city pigeons at two to three years; under healthy conditions, it would be twelve to 15 years. Because fries and breadcrumbs do not meet the requirements of pigeons, the animals die a slow death of starvation."

Video editor • Ines Trindade Pereira

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