Most people who regularly use London Underground will have seen, at some stage, a pigeon hitching a free ride. They mindfully hop over the gap between the train and the platform, stand clear of the doors, and wait calmly for the next stop. Then, as the doors open, they wander off, presumably to meet up and hang with some fellow "homeys".
Pigeons are synonymous with the city of London, particularly Trafalgar Square where they are a recognised tourist attraction. Their soft coos and amusing idiosyncrasies add to the charm of the capital. But some, such as Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, argue they are "flying rats", their soft droppings racking up about pound;140,000 of annual cleaning bills and turning world-famous monuments into embarrassing eyesores. They are also, apparently, a risk to humans: they transmit disease (such as "pigeon fancier's lung"), their excrement creates "slip hazards", they intimidate visitors and they can even cause traffic accidents.
To the horror of pigeon fanciers, licensed pigeon-feed sellers (who have been officially selling feed since the 1950s) and even those whose religion or culture involves feeding wild birds, the mayor has phased in several initiatives in an effort to get the pigeons out.
One of the more creative has been the use of a Harris hawk to scare off pigeons around famous London landmarks. The hawk that was introduced nine months ago to patrol Trafalgar Square costs a reported pound;55,000 a year. Scaring pigeons away is seen as a more humane way of getting rid of them, rather than shooting or poisoning them, and while activists argue hawks actually kill the pigeons, falconers say the nature of a predatory bird means it is unlikely to kill more than one bird a day.
The other more effective method of reducing pigeon numbers in Trafalgar Square has been the "phased withdrawal of feed", where progressively less feed is offered. Now, as part of a deal with animal rights groups, they only get fed at 7am and then must go elsewhere to fend for themselves. The result? Only a few hundred, instead of up to 4,000 pigeons are seen during the day in the square.
The reduction of these feathered fiends has resulted in singer David Gray giving a free summer concert and the opening of an alfresco cafe. The pound;25 million part-pedestrianisation of the square presents fewer slip hazards these days.
Scientists say the pigeons' health has not suffered from the reduced diet and the thousands of birds that turn up for breakfast at 7am and then disperse are as healthy as the St James's Park and Regent's Park regulars.
There is talk of reducing their feed even further. However, given pigeons'
knack for finding their way home - and some people's delight in feeding them, despite a planned bylaw to ban this - it seems doubtful they will be forced to flock off for good.