Of the many traffic hazards that make Delhi’s roads a driving nightmare, the practice of pigeon feeding is the most unusual.
Many traffic islands have turned into open dovecotes and cars halt abruptly as people step out to feed pigeons. Some bring their own grain. Others buy it from the pavement. Astrologers prescribe feeding millet and green lentils to pigeons as a way to attain happiness. Not surprising hence that so many Delhiites are trying their luck.
Feeding birds and animals is a noble deed. But it is better done at home. Feed your pet dog instead of the street mutt. Better still, take a street dog home, feed and look after it. Monkeys, of course, are wild animals and it is illegal to feed or pet the wild.
Birds are natural foragers — picking food from trees, shrubs, grass, and catching worms and insects. With the loss of green and manure patches, the birds are deprived of natural food. So it is good to leave some, discretely, for your neighbourhood birds in the balcony.
But, when we run round-the-clock free roadside buffets, it fuels unfair competition. The ever-abundant pigeons monopolise the spots. This over-supply of food and lack of natural predators have led to a population explosion in this fast-breeding species.
The result is ominous. While the common pigeons, famously derided by director Woody Allen as ‘rat with wings’, are everywhere, other urban birds such as the hardy house sparrow have almost disappeared from Delhi.
The capital has a similar problem with monkeys, another prolific breeder. Under normal circumstances, when they have to earn their meals, only the fittest survive, keeping the population in check. But, thanks to the ritual of feeding by the devout on Tuesdays and Saturdays, they always have enough to eat. Also, on these two holy days we send signals that the monkeys have a right to food. Then we don’t feed them on the rest of the days and the animals get aggressive.
As a result, tribes of rhesus macaque routinely raid homes and offices, attack people and even cause occasional fatalities. Just like New York City’s Bryant Park and London’s Trafalgar Square got hawks to chase away pigeons, Delhi authorities engage langur-keepers to scare the macaques away. Monkey catchers are hired to capture and dump the troublemakers to nearby forest areas where they are fed by the forest staff. Some of this food is collected from religious donations at Hanuman temples in Connaught Place and Yamuna Bazaar.
It is not uncommon or even unnatural for wildlife to thrive in urban settings.
Living off discarded food and less afraid of humans, red foxes are found in the most unexpected places in London. One was spotted riding an escalator out of London’s Underground and another on the top of the Shard, London’s tallest skyscraper, when it was under construction.
But population explosions or drastic behavioural changes are not natural and need intervention. Fed round-the-year on city garbage, bears in Lake Tahoe have stopped hibernating in winter. The Reno-Tahoe-Carson City area in the state of Nevada is pushing for bear-proof garbage cans. To counter its pigeon boom, Los Angeles got oral contraceptives, and Liverpool, England, a robotic hawk.
Pigeons are prolific poopers. Studies in the United States show pigeon droppings turn into concentrated salt unless properly cleaned. When dried droppings get wet, the compound can rust steel, thus slowly corroding structures. A pigeon dispenses about 25 pounds of excrement a year and bird droppings are estimated to cause approximately $1.1 billion in damage in the US.
While human safety is paramount, it is also in the interest of the wild that we mind our ways. Some animals and birds are more adaptive and can fast out-compete the rest. Nature may take care of the wilderness but an urban landscape needs to ensure that species get a level playing field.
If we are really a city of do-gooders, we can do a lot better than feeding pigeons, monkeys or stray dogs in public places.
Let’s turn Delhi into a bird-friendly city by reducing outdoor lighting during the night, promoting green roofs, planting native plants, and not converting every natural space into manicured gardens. Put a sprinkling of grains by a water trough in your balcony and count the cheerful sparrows. You won’t worry about happiness.