Chennai’s pigeon problem driven by unchecked urbanisation

Pigeon population has grown due to rise in number of high-rise buildings and feeding by humans, impacting health and biodiversity.

On a balmy evening in Chennai, Shruti was in for a rude shock as she entered her room in her fifth-floor apartment in Nesappakkam. A pigeon had made its way into the room through an open window. Over the next few hours, Shruti managed to get the bird to exit her room with much difficulty. 

This incident resulted in her opting to protect her balcony and windows with a net to prevent pigeons from entering her home again.

Feral pigeons have made their homes in Chennai, in the crevices, ledges, parapets and every other space they can find in buildings.

“They have intruded into our homes, nested behind air-conditioning vents in our terraces and ledges. Their excreta is everywhere, even all over my windows,” says Shruti.

Pigeon population all over India has increased by 150% in the past two decades, posing a threat to both urban biodiversity and public health. The situation in Chennai has followed a similar pattern.

Rise in pigeon population in Chennai

Originally, humans domesticated pigeons as they served as a source of protein and their excreta could be used as manure for growing crops.

Today, in Chennai, many residents complain about the very same birds invading their spaces.

“The population of pigeons has multiplied excessively in the last four to five years in Chennai,” says TD Babu, a Chennai-based environmentalist. “For instance, five years back, you would hardly come across pigeons in Besant Nagar. Now, the bird has become a common sight.”

“Pigeons have been multiplying in the city due to urbanisation,” notes Prasanth Prakhalathan, a researcher with the Tamil Nadu Wetland Mission and biodiversity expert.

There are multiple reasons why the pigeon population has been increasing in Chennai.

Rise in taller buildings: Rock doves have evolved into feral pigeons, which live in cities with people. Rock doves live in the crevices of mountains or hills. 

“With an increase in the high-rise buildings in Chennai, the crevices in the buildings mimic the original habitat of the birds. Therefore, they tend to colonise the inaccessible spaces in taller buildings,” points out AM Aravind, a birdwatcher studying bird behaviour, urban wildlife and urban ecology.

“Also, one or two-storeyed houses are being replaced with taller apartments with more floors, due to urbanisation,” Aravind adds.

We spoke to both high-rise apartment dwellers and people who live in relatively smaller independent houses. 

The former had more pigeon-menace complaints while the latter says that the birds do not affect them much.

Absence of natural predators: “Raptors like Shikra, which are natural predators of pigeons, do not usually live in urbanised areas,” says Prasanth. “So, pigeons feel safe here in cities among human habitation, devoid of their predators.”

Shikras are present in areas with more trees, says Aravind. “As green spaces are getting eaten up in Chennai, the raptors are pushed out of the urbanised areas, leading to an unchecked surge among the birds,” he adds.

In other words, axing trees could lead to more pigeons.

Shikra kills pigeon
Natural predators of pigeons like Shikras are moving away from Chennai due to rapid urbanisation. Pic: AM Aravind

Read more: Terrace gardens are a community activity in Chitlapakkam

Feeding by humans: “People assume that pigeons cannot live without humans feeding them. So, they think it is a humanitarian act to feed birds like pigeons,” says Prasanth. “When food availability is more, they breed more.”

Generally, birds plan their breeding based on the availability of food and resources. “When food resources are constant, pigeons can breed at any time,” says Prasanth.

Feral pigeons are wild organisms that can hunt and find food for themselves. 

“By feeding birds like pigeons, we are robbing their natural ability to find food for themselves,” says Babu.”Today we are seeing shops selling bags of grains in Besant Nagar for people to feed birds, including pigeons.”

“Three generations of my family have been feeding birds. It has become a family tradition of humanitarian service. Around 30-50 pigeons along with other birds come and I feed them wheat grains every day. If we do not feed them, then they will not be able to find food in this concrete jungle,” says a resident of Madipakkam. 

He feeds birds at 6.30 am every morning on the terrace of his independent house.

“The people in an independent house opposite my apartment feed pigeons every day. They eat on their terrace and excrete on my window sill and even lay eggs near the AC vent. I do not know how to tell them not to feed pigeons,” says Shruti.

Sometimes, she is forced to throw the eggs away to discourage pigeons from nesting outside her house.

Pigeon menace faced by residents in Chennai

“There used to be a lot of unsold units in our apartment, within which pigeons used to seek refuge. Even after we occupied the apartment, the birds have not left because they have been used to the uninhabited space before we came,” says T Ranganathan from East Tambaram.

Ritika, a resident of an apartment in Adyar, says that pigeons have formed nests outside her bathroom window. “They are refusing to budge.” 

The sound of their wings fluttering and their low grunting voice against the windows have become a source of daily annoyance.

flock of pigeons sitting on sun shade of window
A flock of pigeons sitting on the sunshade of a window. Pic: Padmaja Jayaraman

“Moreover, they tend to even destroy plants,” adds Ritika.” They peck the plant, till the stem, leading to the plant’s death.”

Shruti seconds this, claiming that the plants on her balcony were nibbled off by pigeons.

“We had a tulasi plant in our balcony and removed it due to fear of pigeons attacking it,” says Ranganathan, who has been discouraged to keep plants on any window sill in his apartment.

“We all have pigeon nets but the pigeons bite their way through it,” says Ritika. 

Even meshes secured to the frames of doors and windows do not always help in discouraging pigeons.

Read more: Tree felling in K K Nagar for SWD work leads to protests

Impact of pigeons on biodiversity in Chennai

“Due to an increase in the population of pigeons, the numbers of other birds like sparrows and mynahs have dwindled significantly,” says Prasanth.

The other birds have to compete with pigeons for resources and nesting areas, and pigeons are highly adaptable and stronger. To put it simply, pigeons are becoming a dominant urban bird species in Chennai.

Additionally, the decrease in the numbers of sparrows and mynahs could also lead to a rise in the insect population.

“Sparrows and mynahs eat grains and insects, while pigeons do not eat a lot of insects. With sparrows and mynahs disappearing from urbanised areas, the insect numbers can potentially increase,” says Prasanth.

Aravind also describes an instance of pigeons competing with other species. “Once, I saw a Scops owl sitting on a tree. Later, when I went to the same spot the next week, I saw a flock of pigeons sitting on the tree, and the owl was missing.”

Can pigeons affect human health?

Pigeon habitations are very close to humans in cities, rising concerns about their effect on health.

“It could be a cause for the spread of zoonotic diseases,” says Prasanth.

“The droppings carry pathogens which could spread respiratory diseases. When the droppings dry, the particles get suspended in the air where people are breathing it,” says Babu.

Moreover, doctors are seeing an increasing trend of hypersensitive pneumonia among people who have been overly exposed to pigeons. People with respiratory issues are 65% more vulnerable to catching the disease due to pigeon droppings.

“Psittacosis is a bird-transmitted lung infection that could be caused by constant exposure to pigeon droppings in a closed atmosphere. It primarily comes from bacteria and viruses from bird droppings. They do not harm the birds but could harm humans if they breathe it in, leading to a lung infection,” says Dr Mani Sivasubramanian, a cardiothoracic surgeon from Anna Nagar.

Shruti’s mother and Ranganathan are suffering from respiratory illnesses. 

“I do not let my mother clean the bird droppings on the frames of the doors and windows because she already has lung issues,” says Shruti. “I also wear two masks and clean the droppings.”

Stemming rising number of pigeons

Aravind, TD Babu and Prasanth give some steps to address the burgeoning numbers of pigeons:

  • Greater Chennai Corporation could impose a ban on feeding pigeons. If the food availability decreases, it will enable pigeons to breed less.
    Recently, the Pune local body has banned the public feeding of pigeons. Last month, a resident was fined Rs. 500 for feeding pigeons in the city. Local bodies in Hyderabad and Thane have also banned feeding pigeons.
  • The local government must focus on planting more trees and not cutting trees, to attract the natural predators of pigeons.
  • Creating awareness sessions in schools about invasive birds like pigeons and why feeding them is unhealthy.

Generally, if a species proliferates at an unnaturally high rate, nature has a way to balance the increase in population, says Prasanth. “A disease could affect the pigeon population to stem its dominance in the ecosystem.”

However, that will happen if the population cannot be arrested due to other means.

With Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority planning to come up with transit-oriented development strategies, the housing will be concentrated along the transit corridors, which can lead to more high-rise buildings in the near future.

Planners and civic authorities must consider addressing the pigeon population explosion before the impact of their presence causes graver consequences for human health and urban biodiversity.

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  1. J. Alli. says:

    We talk about vendors. What about individual houses paving the platform with a slide to help them park their vehicles in side their car park? Recently a new house had been built claiming two feet into the road and paving too that greatly reduced the road width which already has parked cars and bikes on either side of the road.There is no other go but to walk on the road. Recently a child going to school had been hit by a speeding biker who detoured to avoid traffic jam on the 100 ft road near Annanagar. Most of the roads inside west Annanagar( Ch 40)face this problem.

    • R.Balachandran says:

      During my last visit to Melbourne, Australia I could see enormous Sparrows and pigeons.Australia has max individual Houses and these Birds live in Trees and Shrubs.
      We in India has various problems and unnecessarily worry about Pigeon populations.

  2. Ashok says:

    Author seems to be more against Pijeon its a beautiful bird and one should not see it as creating nuisance to human.It never leaves a drop of food grain and eats it so beautifully that the space looks as clean as it was before food grains was given to pigeons.

  3. Ashwin says:

    Pigeons are increasing and crows are decrease…. am hardly n I t seeing any crows kakaka

  4. Mahesh Manian says:

    Instead of blaming birds we have to find balanced solution.
    What happened to sparrows. Where are they gone. What is the reason behind.

  5. Hafiz Khan says:

    Neat write up.
    Hafiz Khan, Forest Creator

  6. V balasubramanian says:

    Well covered article, though we are not against any creatures/ birds from the point of human health, it becomes imperative not to allow pigeon population more so we should discourage feeding them as it has become more now by many people

  7. Lakshman says:

    Completely agree; anything too much needs to be controlled. Pigeons have become a real menace. It spoils plants, creates health hazard and visibly other bird species like wood peckers, minas, tailor bird, குயில் are hard to find. Hope GCC takes some initiative soon.

  8. Satish chandran s says:

    Dried Pigeon droppings are a type of protein,looks like glass powder,if inhaled,It might lead to respiratory problems. Think of the maids who sweep at apartments. I have warned them to wear masks but No One heeds.

  9. Lata says:

    What about human population? How to control? Today India is number one in human population explosion. Due to this there is no place in local trains. People commuting to work literally hang from trains in Mumbai. There is no place to walk on the roads. Housing prices have sky rocketed. Literally price of everything has increased. So ban maternity leave and child care leave and all other facilities given to parents, stop free ration given to people to discourage reproduction to solve human population menace.

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