Who hates modern architecture? Pigeons, scientists say

Statisticians and biologists find abundance of feral pigeons has been affected by architectural styles

The lowest number of feral pigeons is found in modern suburbs, a factor enhanced by the modern architecture that abounds in these areas, according to a first-of-its-kind statistical survey based on pigeon counts.

The Maltese study published in science journal Xjenza shows that “the abundance of feral pigeons is mostly affected by architecture: abundance was low where there was a preponderance of modern buildings.”

Statistician Fiona Sammut and biologists Cassandra Borg Muscat and Patrick J. Schembri identified factors that influenced the abundance and distribution of feral pigeons, the Columba livia, in urban environments in Malta. The pigeons were censused using transect surveys in different types of urban environments, such as agricultural enclaves in urban areas, main roads, parks, side streets and suburbs.

The highest number of pigeon clusters were found in areas categorised as ‘park’, followed by the ‘main road’, ‘agricultural area’, ‘side street’ and ‘suburb’, in this order. The highest abundance of individual pigeons was found in ‘main road’ followed by ‘park’, ‘side street’, ‘agricultural area’ and ‘suburb’ in this order. And the highest density of feral pigeons was found in ‘park’ followed by ‘main road’, ‘agricultural area’, ‘side street’ and ‘suburb’.

So the abundance of feral pigeons, the study concluded, is mostly affected by the presence of modern buildings with low abundance of pigeons found in areas where there is a preponderance of modern buildings.

The higher density of feral pigeons in ‘parks’ rather than in the ‘main road’ is because public open spaces accounted for just 0.3 square kilometres whilst the main road spread for 1.24sq.km, and this on a total studied area of 4.5sq.km. So the preference for public open spaces within towns, rather than local centres, was “very likely a result of the calmer ambiance present in a park” where the pigeons have more “feeding opportunities and less stress.”

The study confirms the results of international studies which indicate that the densest populations of feral pigeons occur in historic town centres, as the old buildings provide ample nesting sites, while the high human population density of both locals and tourists in historic towns provides constant food sources.

The most recent pigeon survey in Malta, carried out between 1998 and 2000, estimated about 1,500 to 2,500 pairs in the Maltese islands, the majority concentrated in the Valletta harbour’s urban areas.

But there is also evidence that the feral pigeon population is expanding to surrounding localities Marsa, Ħamrun, Blata il-Bajda, Gżira and Sliema. Now they have also colonised the St Vincent De Paul (Luqa) and St Luke’s (Gwardamangia) hospital complexes. And substantial separate populations were noted at Balzan and on the island of Comino.

However, in the rest of the Maltese islands, including Gozo, the bird is only sparsely distributed.

The study was carried out in three towns in each of the five Maltese districts between May 2020 and August 2020 during weekdays, from 8am until 12pm. A transect of 300m was walked, first in one direction on one side of the road, and then in the opposite one: if pigeons were noted at any point, the transect was walked again using the same procedure, to count pigeons on either side.

The highest abundance of feral pigeons was found in the northern harbour districts which includes major old urban centres including Valletta, St Julian’s and Msida, followed by the southern harbour – Cottonera – and then the south-east, the west and the north, in that order.

This study may contribute to a tailor-made and economical scientific management plan for controlling feral pigeons in urban settings, say the authors: “This study lays the ground for further research on feral pigeon populations and their ecology in urban environments as well as contributing information for management programmes that are tailor-made to the local situation and circumstances.”