Pigeons of Glasgow: Pals or Pests? A case for the better treatment of urban birds in our city

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People don’t think much of pigeons in Glasgow - should they?

Rats with wings, flying pests, scourge of the skies over Glasgow. Pigeons. They carry quite the reputation in the city and beyond - but what have they done to deserve this treatment?

They fly low, defecate everywhere, and crowd the historic facades of Glasgow’s Victorian city centre. They are ubiquitous, it’s not hard to see how someone could develop an of the birds - but just how warranted is that hate?

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Plenty of birds in Glasgow will go as far as swooping down on your dinner, and are far bigger and more disruptive than the humble pigeon - I’m looking at you seagulls - but none seem to arouse the same anger as the little grey avians.

Admittedly, I was somewhat of a pigeon-hater myself until recently. They really creeped me out. It was something about the way they walk or their beady yellow eyes, an almost prehistoric presence in the modern urban environment.

It wasn’t until I moved to the city centre in 202 - a tiny run-down tenemant bedsit at the bottom of Sauchiehall Street, that I began to develop an affinity for the birds.

The building was falling apart, the windows didn’t open further than an inch, and rats infested every void of the building - the only good thing about the place was access to a roof of an old disused pub from the stairwell.

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In the summer you could lie out there on an unclaimed patio sunbed with three legs - the only living thing up there with you being a small clan of pigeons living in an alcov of a beat-up piece of ventilation.

A young boy feeds the pigeons on Sauchiehall StreetA young boy feeds the pigeons on Sauchiehall Street
A young boy feeds the pigeons on Sauchiehall Street

At first it really put me off - but after a few days, their gentle cooing won me over. I stopped avoiding their seemingly empty gaze and started to observe them.

I would watch them groom each other with their little pink beaks, wash themselves in tiny puddles on the roof with their flappy wings, and if you’ve ever spent any amount of time with pigeons, you’ll know they have a lot of sex - like all the time - but I’d try not to look at that, too awkward.

The thing is with pigeons is; they’re everywhere. In Europe alone there’s somewhere between 17 million and 28 million - but how closely have you ever looked at them? For most people they’re something to be stepped over or shooed away - I thought the exact same way until I made some pigeon pals.

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For this article I wanted to speak to another person living in Glasgow who’s pro-pigeon, just to check I’m not alone in my love of the birds, and I managed to stumble upon an even bigger pigeon fan than myself - Holly MacDougall.

(A pigeon fan is, as you might imagine, a fan of pigeons - but doesn’t take the next step into becoming a pigeon fancier, a person that raises pigeons either as racing or messenger pigeons, or even just for pagentry at pigeon shows.)

Holly holds two pigeons on her arm - they’re incredibly trusting animals owing to thousands of years of domesticationHolly holds two pigeons on her arm - they’re incredibly trusting animals owing to thousands of years of domestication
Holly holds two pigeons on her arm - they’re incredibly trusting animals owing to thousands of years of domestication

Holly first began interacting with pigeons when she was housebound at the very beginning of the pandemic by an ankle infection. It badly affected her ability to walk, so at a time when the only thing you could really do outside was walk, it was an incredibly lonely time for her.

Luckily, she had some visitors - and not in the form of a lockdown-breaking party - but from her windows that looked over the city centre. Pigeons would swoop down and land on her juliette balcony.

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Holly explained her first interactions with pigeons in Glasgow, she recalled:”Once the pigeons landed on my balcony a few times, I started to feed them.

“Eventually these two pigeons started coming to me everyday - a husband and wife duo - so I named them Locky and Fanella, named after people who were on Australian Survivor, which I was watching at the time.

“During lockdown I was so sick and depressed - so lonely. They were my best friends, they saved my life you know - if I didn’t have those pigeons visiting me everyday I would have been by myself.

“They lived in a little hole in the House of Fraser across the way, and eventually they started bringing more of a gang with them. It didn’t take long to notice that they poo everywhere, so I started feeding them at ground level more.”

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A pigeon, one of many friends that appear on Holly’s balcony on a daily basisA pigeon, one of many friends that appear on Holly’s balcony on a daily basis
A pigeon, one of many friends that appear on Holly’s balcony on a daily basis

Pigeon’s are incredibly trusting animals - the kind you’ll find in urban areas aren’t classified as wild at all, instead they’re classed as feral - meaning they were formerly domesticated, albeit many bird generations ago. So it’s really easy to make friends and bond with a pigeon, all it takes is feeding them once or twice and you’ll have a loyal lifelong friend.

In fact, pigeons are the world’s oldest domesticated bird - they’ve been used throughout history for all sorts of uses:

  • as messenger pigeons during wartime
  • as food, pigeon is still considered a delicacy in North African and Middle Eastern countries
  • even as holy animals, you’ll still see doves released at weddings to this very day (yes, doves are a type of pigeon!)

Given all their practical uses in the past, why are pigeons so disliked? Their seemingly constant droppings would serve as a likely answer, but just how quickly has humanity forgotten how much pigeons have helped us throughout the years?

In ancient Egypt, thousands of pigeons would be sacrificed at a time to appease the gods. It sounds bizarre to us now, we might even think it’s a bit of a paltry offering for a gods, but this should serve as context for how important pigeons were to daily life and the reverence in which they were held.

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We don’t even need to go as far back as ancient Egypt - in the 18th century European immigrants brought pigeons with them to the colonies as an easy source of food and as messengers. The new Americans thought pigeons were so class that they began importing pigeons from the Middle East and South Asia, even breeding them to create new ‘Fancy Pigeons’, as they were called.

Holly has her own pet pigeon she keeps in the flat, Louie, a Tumbler Pigeon no-less - so-called as they do a little back-flip in the air to build momentum when taking off, as cool as it is incredibly cute - as well as two budgies, Juice and Banana, that she keeps in her city centre flat.

Holly holds Louie, her pet Tumbler PigeonHolly holds Louie, her pet Tumbler Pigeon
Holly holds Louie, her pet Tumbler Pigeon

Holly went on to explain her affinity with the humble pigeon, she said:”I think because they’re so ordainary, you see them all the time and they’re so overlooked - that resonated with me.

“They’re very loyal birds - they’re domesticated so they rely on humans for everything. They’re eager to be your mate, and I’m friendless so it’s a good match-up.”

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Holly went on to explain why she believes people overlook pigeons, she said:”People say pigeons carry diseases - but it’s actually really rare for that to happen.

“Generally they’re quite clean animals, Louie loves to have a bath - Friday’s his bath time so he’s looking forward to that.

“I think people need to have just a bit more compassion for pigeons, and that’s easy to do if you just educate yourself about them a little bit. I think people can look down their nose’s at someone feeding a pigeon - but you don’t know what that means for that person. For me, it means a lot.

Feeding a pigeon is as easy as stretching out your hand with some seed placed on your palmFeeding a pigeon is as easy as stretching out your hand with some seed placed on your palm
Feeding a pigeon is as easy as stretching out your hand with some seed placed on your palm

Impassioned, Holly continued:”You know, we brought them here, we domesticated them and then we abandoned them. Now we call them disgusting flying rats.

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“That's just what we do for some reason. As people, we make a massive problem. And then the solution is to start killing them. We bought them here, we did this.”

Holly went on to speak about the lack of respect pigeons face from just about everyone - comparing them to feral cats and dogs, also formerly domesticated animals that are treated in much higher regard than pigeons.

I suppose we really need to take a long look at ourselves and examine our relationship with the natural world around us.

In Glasgow it’s very easy to forget about the natural world in such a sprawling and all-encompassing urban environment. Nature isn’t simply confined to the green jewels of Glasgow like Kelvingrove or Queen’s Park, it’s ever-present, and there’s no better case for that than in the pigeons of inner-city Glasgow.

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I hope in reading this article it can make you reconsider your thoughts on pigeons, and maybe help us all in reconnecting a little bit more with the world around us.

It’s not just people that make Glasgow, pigeons do too.

Holly taking her pet pigeon, Louie, for a walk in the rain.Holly taking her pet pigeon, Louie, for a walk in the rain.
Holly taking her pet pigeon, Louie, for a walk in the rain.

Interested in making some pigeon friends across Glasgow? I asked Holly the best way to go about it, she said:”I'd recommend getting the right food to start.

“I know people like to give them bread and crisps and things like that, but obviously, that's not good for birds.

“Instead you should go down to Poundland, get yourself a big bag of seeds, and if you start by feeding them you’ll gain their trust really quickly - especially in places like George Square.

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“People feed the pigeons everyday, you can find them at George Square, St Enoch’s Square, Sauchiehall Street, and all over the place really.

“What you want to do is put some seed in the hand, and stand with your arms out like Jesus. They’ll start coming to you and landing on you - your arms, your head - they’re very friendly.”

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