Which place has the stumpiest pigeons? Where are they most scarily aggressive? And why are some cities almost entirely pigeon-free? Asia Martusia King investigates the state of our urban pigeon populations.
A disclaimer before we start: I am fiercely pro-pigeon. Pigeons were our friends and cohabitants for thousands of years – they were domesticated even before dogs – before being cruelly cast aside in the modern era. They are intelligent and loving birds, and it’s our fault that we make them gross.
So can the state of our pigeon populations reflect who we are as a people? I believe the answer is yes, and after years of fervid research, it’s time to share my findings: cities in New Zealand, ranked by pigeon grossness.
1. Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland
Auckland pigeons are gentle and benign, but have the melancholy of an orphaned Victorian chimney sweep. They look at you with sad, beseeching eyes, eat a cigarette, and then hobble away on stumps.
Why do so many urban pigeons lack feet? A 2018 ecological conservation study of 1,250 Parisian pigeons found that 20% of them were missing at least one toe. They became increasingly mutilated in areas with high noise pollution, air pollution and human density.
Originally, it was posited that the pigeons’ feet were being eroded by their own poo. Pigeon droppings are highly acidic and are known to erode old buildings over time. Nelson’s Column in London was repaired at a cost of NZ$290,000 due to poo-related damage. When scientists remembered that pigeons aren’t columns, they pointed out that standing in your own poo all day is quite unhealthy anyway. A shit-infected leg may develop gangrene and fall off, or develop tumours from bumblefoot. Anti-bird spikes only compound this possibility.
Yet it’s more likely that we, humans, are the cause of stumpy pigeons. The French scientists blame hairdressers. Where there are dense populations of hairdressers, there are lots of loose hairs getting tangled in pigeons. When pigeons try to remove the hair (or other stringy litter), it tightens around their toes, restricting blood flow and causing bits to fall off. In New Zealand terms, it’s just like banding a sheep.
Regardless of legs, Auckland pigeons remain heavily soiled. They are coated in full-body grease. You could put these babies straight into a KFC deep fryer and have a scrumptious snack.
2. Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington
These pigeons aren’t as greasy as Auckland’s, but still on par with the bottom of a hearty kebab. They remind me of scary teenagers at the bus stop. “Oi, mister, can you get us some seed? Give us some seed, yeah? Just a couple of crumbs?” they pester, and then call you a paedo when you don’t.
I once had a pigeon try to land on my head in the Tory Street car park for no reason except menace. They’re crusty and oily, but less so than Auckland’s, more like a girl trying to give up sulphate shampoo. They have many more legs.
Wellington pigeons win for most interesting colour variants. There are grey pigeons, blush pigeons, teal pigeons, and white pigeons, some all mish-mashed together.
3. Ōtepoti Dunedin
The pigeons here are decadent and gorgeous, but with a dark underbelly.
There are two genres of pigeon in Ōtepoti. The first lead a scavenger lifestyle, subsisting off vape cartridges and student vomit. But there is also what I believe to be a pigeon mafia, the privileged pigeon oligarchy of Dunedin Botanical Gardens.
At the gardens, packets of birdseed are available from the information centre, ostensibly for old people to feed to ducks at the pond. In reality, your waterfowl-directed goodwill is intercepted by a flock of pigeons creeping forward and clicking their fingers ominously in unison.
These pigeons do not fear God. About 15 of them will land on your head at the same time, fighting and scrabbling for seeds. They buffet you with their wings and scratch you with strong, keratin-rich talons. I have left the Dunedin Botanical Gardens with blood streaming down my arms. Mothers were crying. A single child-sized shoe was left in the dust.
I will still feed the Botans pigeons, no matter what the sign tells me. Maybe I kind of like it, like a form of devotional self-flagellation.
Grossness: 1/5 (The vomit-eating is a bit narsty but that’s breathas for you.)
Disqualified: Invercargill and Rotorua
Where are they? Where are the pigeons? Nought a coo to be heard.
I consulted a zoologist from Auckland Zoo for intel.
“There’s seagulls everywhere, which may have pushed the pigeons out of their niche,” Ella said, thoughtfully pulling decomposed mice out of a morepork’s food drain. From what I learnt in Year 9 biology, an ecological niche describes how species slot into a particular environment. If an animal doesn’t find favour with an environment’s food and competitors, it will leave, and another species will take its place.
“It’s like pigeon towns versus seagull towns. Rotorua has the biggest colony of black-billed gulls in the North Island. We love an endangered species.”
This isn’t about the seagulls, Ella. There’s a wretched pigeon-shaped hole in the heart of these cities. It must be fixed.
4: Ōtautahi Christchurch
Christchurch pigeons are pleasantly average but few in number. Again, seagulls are to blame. Every person I interviewed from Christchurch derailed my story, airing grievances about the seagulls instead.
“Honestly I think the seagulls in Christchurch are worse than the pigeons,” said one resident. “There [are] a whole bunch of them that live in this swampy construction site in the middle of the city and it’s GROSS.”
“Look, I love a seagull. But it’s never ‘a seagull’ is it – it’s a whole gang of them,” said another. “I reckon those black-billed gulls know they’re endangered and can get away with anything. I’d recommend a Christchurch bylaw to cover their unique signifiers with concealer makeup so they can behave like the rest of seagull society.”
When they finally shut up about seagulls, Christchurch residents described pigeons as “friendly” and “pretty chill”, though they lament the “rock dove void”.
Grossness: 0/5 – there aren’t many, but those I saw were in tip-top shape.
Auckland’s pigeons are grossest, as is expected from a large city, with Wellington a runner-up. While coming in at the bottom of the rankings, the judges have decided Christchurch’s pigeon population is too limited to draw conclusive results from, so the least gross pigeon award must go to Dunedin. Congratulations Ōtepoti.
Vote pigeon for Bird of the Century.