White pigeon with damaged footPigeon Question 1: A friend told me she heard that pigeons never poop while flying. Is this true? Kate, Massachusetts, USA

Pigeon Question 2: I often see pigeons in the city that have deformed feet.  Are these pigeons just injured or something? Are the pigeons affected negatively by having feet like this? Rick, New York City, USA

Answer 1: This is one of those items of common knowledge that may have taken a small tidbit of info and exaggerated it. Some people will insist pigeons never poop while flying because feral pigeons (Columba livia) hold their feet against their body while flying. To poop while flying, they would have to poop on their feet, so they don’t. Others insist that pigeons have to back up to poop and they can’t do that while flying. Even people who keep racing pigeons, and therefore have quite a bit of experience with them, will insist that the birds don’t poop while flying.

On the other hand, it’s not hard to find eye-witness reports of pigeons defacing cars as they fly overhead.

Dr. Daniel Haag-Wackernagel at the University of Basel in Switzerland, one of the world’s most knowledgeable experts on feral pigeons, told me that “Normally pigeons discard feces not during flight, mostly when roosting or overnight.” However, Dr. Haag-Wackernagel, who studies how cities can control pigeon populations, also said that “Pigeons can excrete an evil-smelling scare-feces (undigested feces) when attacked by a bird of prey.”

Also, because pigeons can fly for hours at a time without stopping, I suspect they must poop at least sometimes on long flights. The fact that they normally hold their feet in the way doesn’t mean they can’t move them long enough to poop while flying. So, it may very well be that pigeons prefer to poop on the ground, but they do sometimes poop in flight. And if a flock of 50 pigeons flies over your car it only takes a fraction of them to make a mess of your windshield.

Answer 2: Rick’s observation is one that many city-dwellers can confirm. Look closely at the feet of a flock of feral pigeons and sometimes it seems that every other bird is missing toes or sometimes even missing a foot. Others have feet that are swollen and infected. What causes this? When I put this question to Dr. Haag-Wackernagel and to Dr. Lisa Jaquin, of McGill University in Montreal, who also studies feral pigeons (among other things), I got the same answer: fibers. Dr. Haag-Wackernagel explained what happens, “Filaments twist around the feet and toes leading to insufficient blood supply, necrosis and loss of the toe.  Sometimes the necrosis shows infections.  In cities, a large proportion of the feral pigeons show such mutilation.”

Dr. Jaquin said, “We do pigeon captures regularly in Paris and we often see pigeons with tangled strings or hair in their swollen feet.  The fibers can constrain blood circulation and result in necrosis and amputation.  Bacterial infections can also cause leg deformity and abscess, but most of the amputations we see in cities have a physical cause (strings or hair caught in the toes).”

I can attest to the ability of fibers to do damage to the feet of birds. I once kept pet zebra finches and when they wanted nesting material, I made the mistake of giving them strips of nylon yarn. A few weeks later, I noticed several had swollen feet and toes. When I got them in hand and looked closely, I realized, to my horror, that tiny fibers of nylon were completely tangled in the scales of their feet and as the poor birds tugged to try and remove the fibers, they just tightened the little tourniquets. It took me quite a long time with tweezers, tiny scissors and a magnifying glass to get all the fibers out, but once I did, the bird’s feet healed up back to normal in a couple of days. Needless to say, I never gave the birds that kind of yarn again.

I’m not sure there’s any practical way of reducing the toll that fibers in the environment take on the feet of feral pigeons – aside from the efforts of people like Dr. Haag-Wackernagel to reduce the number of feral pigeons. But if you see a pigeon with damaged feet and can catch it, this website explains how to help remove the fibers. http://www.pigeonrescue.co.uk/feet.htm

As to the question of whether they are negatively affected by missing toes and feet …

Missing a toe or two doesn’t seem to stop them from foraging, flying or mating normally.  Missing an entire foot seems more likely to affect a bird’s ability to walk efficiently and certainly to perch well.  The fact that there are so many city pigeons missing feet, however, suggests that it isn’t a fatal problem.  City life — with very few bird predators — is not as much of a desperate struggle for survival.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if missing a foot affects the ability of males to compete for mates and to perform the physical act of standing on a female’s back to copulate.

More Information: All domestic, racing and feral pigeons are descendants of the rock dove, a bird native to a band across North Africa, Southern Europe, the Middle East and India. In its natural habitat, they nest on cliff faces, where presumably they rarely encounter man-made fibers and therefore have all their toes.

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