Pigeon problems: Sharing space in the multispecies city
PhD Researcher in Human Geography
University of Edinburgh
Once, sheltering from a sudden rainstorm, I dashed under a bridge near Edinburgh’s Waverley Station and was surprised to find the empty underpass so noisy. Looking up, I saw a colony of pigeons sheltering above me among the girders. The ironwork and stone abutments supporting the bridge were spangled with bird spikes and netting, presumably installed to keep this very flock away. Nevertheless, the obstructions had since become a makeshift architecture for the birds’ home, propping up loose warrens of detritus. The pigeons had been a problem for someone—although at the moment we were sharing the shelter just fine—and I was left wondering whether the flock’s appropriation of the bird spikes was a sign of compromise or more conflict to come.
Such deterrents are common features of the urban landscape, studding ornate facades, storefronts, balconies and even in some cases tree branches . They are designed to be unobtrusive for humans, obscuring the view of the architectural features they’re intended to protect as little as possible. For pigeons, however, the intent is the opposite: spikes, nets, but also smelly jellies, fake owl statuettes, and real peregrine falcons are installed to be noticed and taken into account. Such technologies of pigeon control repel pigeons, but only insofar as the birds themselves find them troubling and elect to search for an alternative site to land, forage or roost . These deterrents can influence how pigeons value and use spaces in the city, but—as the colony I found nesting among pigeon spikes showed—this is not a straightforward or deterministic process. Instead, they are lively sites of interspecies negotiation, where humans and pigeons interactively shape each other’s experiences of the city, working in their own ways to make room for their practices and values in their shared space.
This negotiation is often overlooked, but it’s made explicit in the work of the pigeon-proofing teams called in to resolve a ‘pigeon problem’. These teams must negotiate a field of differing expectations and values—both human and pigeon—regarding their shared urban spaces. Pigeon-proofing teams must, in effect, be able to ‘think like a pigeon’ about these spaces in order to make them undesirable to the birds—as well to explain and justify their actions to other people. ‘Thinking like a pigeon’, however, is a social and interactive phenomenon, not a psychological state of mind (as exciting as that state of mind would surely be!): resolving a ‘pigeon problem’ as a practical accomplishment involves interpreting and accounting for pigeons’ actions, but also their non-human experiences of the city . The Pigeon Busters, a pigeon-proofing team from Toronto, offer one such account in a description of their work installing netting on the outside of an apartment building. “As we make our progress with the bird netting, you’ll notice right away that the pigeons aren’t able to come back […],” one of the workers explains, “the birds are realising more-and-more that they can’t go back to the balconies and they’re moving on somewhere else.”
Video 1. Interpreting a pigeon’s experience
In the Pigeon Buster’s interpretation, it is not simply that the nets obstruct the pigeons, but that the pigeons come to recognise the space as inaccessible and undesirable, hence they move on to another space rather than try to re-enter the balconies. Over the course of their work, the Pigeon Busters demonstrate—and are expected to demonstrate by clients—not just the technical expertise to install netting safely and securely, but also the social expertise to understand and communicate pigeons’ activities and experiences. To proclaim a ‘pigeon problem’ resolved, professionals like the Pigeon Busters must address a fraught-but-mundane multispecies moral geography where both people and pigeons (and so many others) make values and ‘orders of worth’ publicly accountable through their techniques of inhabitation and space-making in the city .
By attending to ‘pigeon problems’, groups likes the Pigeon Busters make explicit ways in which pigeons and their practices shape everyday urban space alongside and in relation to humans. It also calls into question any assumption that the relationship between pigeons and humans can be characterised as a two-sided conflict between species, each in possession of distinct and irreconcilable values. Rather, multispecies moral geographies are animated through situated negotiations of shared space and enacted values—between pigeons and pigeon-proofers, but also pigeon-feeders, -watchers, -chasers and -dodgers. In fact, given the proximity of so many pigeons and humans in cities the world over , the relative rarity of ‘pigeon problems’ among the concerns of everyday life is a testament to the considerable work done by non-specialist humans and pigeons to make space for one another—be it grudgingly or gleefully.
Walking with winged pedestrians
The pavement offers perhaps the best example. Many ‘pigeon problems’ arise as a result of pigeons’ wings and their ability to fly and perch on surfaces out-of-reach (and thus frequently out-of-mind) to humans. Yet pigeons are also frequent pedestrians, strolling in parks and weaving among human feet on busy high streets. Pigeons and humans both employ a variety of wide turns, side-steps and quick-hops to manage their proximity to one another as they go about their business. This means that pigeons make their own space within the moral orders of the pavement , even if their actions and aspirations are routinely taken as less significant than their human counterparts’. This inequality does not arise from a wholesale disregard for pigeons’ presence on the pavement, but rather develops interactively as human and pigeon pedestrians work out what is possible and what is necessary to share public space together.
There is a tendency to expect pigeons to move out of the way. Indeed, “just kick ‘em” was the advice given to me by a passer-by who witnessed me stop to let a pigeon pass on a busy Edinburgh street. Nonetheless, the considerable variation in proximities and interactions between pigeons and humans over time and space make clear that this is not the a priori privileging of human pedestrians at the expense of pigeon pedestrians, but rather a contingent and embodied negotiation of the terms of shared space. As the comment on my own pigeonly interaction makes clear, the terms of these interactions are differently negotiated by different individuals—and these strategies are available for ordinary critique, judgment and reaction from others !
A pigeon’s ability to move out of the way is all the more interesting because they are winged pedestrians. The ability to take flight is an important resource within a pigeon’s pedestrianism, bringing another dimension of mobility into play should a quick escape or a rush for food be needed. Pigeons’ flight can thus be a source of ‘pigeon problems’, but it is also a resource for managing the challenges of multispecies pedestrianism, allowing pigeons to make space and move out of the way among their human counterparts (see Video 2).
Video 2. Walking around Trafalgar Square (silent)
Although walking may seem antithetical to a study of winged geographies, urban pigeon pedestrianism is enabled and accomplished in many ways thanks to their ability to fly. Pigeons make space for themselves on the pavement and in parks, but also in fast-food restaurants and public transportation, by winging and walking. While many fantastical situations that pigeons have been placed in by humans—wars, scientific experiments, high-stakes races—have been discussed in depth , it is vital that we examine the mundane situations that pigeons put themselves into as they make their lives and spaces in the city. Drawing on rich empirical materials like video-data and ethnographic observation , we can observe everyday multispecies geographies of the city that involve tensions, yes, but also remarkable techniques of cohabitation and tacit cooperation . Proximity between pigeons and humans does not lead automatically to a pigeon (or human) problem. The sophisticated techniques of pigeons (and humans) undertaken to accomplish this fact require a winged geography that studies life underfoot as well as overhead, one that does not overlook the practical accomplishments of winged pedestrians right under our noses.
 This contrasts with, but also benefits from, Fahim Amir’s excellent analysis of pigeons’ practices of resistance when governments have tried to exterminate them wholesale: Amir, Fahim. “Rats with Wings.” Eurozine, 2013: https://www.eurozine.com/rats-with-wings/
 Referring to a ‘pigeon problem’ in scare quotes is not intended to ironise the idea, but rather, following Harold Garfinkel (1967: 1) in treating the phenomenon as constituted of and by mundane techniques of observing, reporting and organising everyday affairs. See: Garfinkel, Harold. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967.
 Barnett, Clive. "Geography and Ethics III." Progress in Human Geography 38(1), 2014: 151-60.
 Jerolmack, Colin. The global pigeon. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
 See, for example: Goffman, Erving. Relations in public. New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2009.
 Barnett, Clive. The Priority of Injustice: Locating democracy in critical theory. Athens GA: University of Georgia press, 2017.
 Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016: 15-29.
 For discussion of the use of video-data in geography, see: Laurier, Eric. "You Tube: fragments of a video‐tropic atlas." Area 48(4), 2016: 488-495.
 Srinivasan, Krithika. "Remaking more‐than‐human society: Thought experiments on street dogs as “nature”." Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 44(2), 2019: 376-391.