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A big flap over Venice's pigeons

The Italian city wants to starve the birds, accused of ruining art and architecture. Animal lovers swoop in to save them.

June 02, 2008|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

VENICE, ITALY — The pigeons are hungry.

They march, single-mindedly, beaks thrust forward, beady eyes darting, crisscrossing the stones of St. Mark's Square, moving in undulating formation across the open spaces, whirring like helicopters in the distance, dive-bombing at the first hint of a piece of bread or a chip. Soot-gray, with spindly coral-colored legs and claws, many just pace, pecking at stone in the hopes it will yield a crumb.

This fabled city's plan to starve away the pigeons seems to be working.

Or maybe not.

Venetian pirates to the rescue!

A band of animal lovers armed with skull-and-crossbones flags zips over the choppy Venice lagoon in speedboats. They dock at the palace-lined piazza, lug out 20-pound sacks of birdseed and scatter the food for all to eat. Or peck.

The pirate pigeon-saviors have made three lightning raids into St. Mark's, the first two at the crack of dawn and now, at midday, to deliberately confront the police and their ban on feeding the birds.

So goes Venice's battle over its ever-multiplying pigeons. "Flying rats," in the view of the mayor -- airborne menaces that poop all over precious, centuries-old marble statues. "Cool," in the view of many tourists -- can you imagine a picture of St. Mark's without them?

Part One of the city's anti-pigeon plan, launched May 1, was to force the 19 licensed bird feed vendors to close their kiosks. Eventually, people trying to feed the birds will be fined, city officials say. "The problem is the number," says Pierantonio Belcaro, Venice's chief environmental officer. By City Hall's calculation, Venice should accommodate, ideally, about 2,400 pigeons. Instead, he says, there are 60,000.

"Overfeeding is a problem because those that are ill and not strong live longer than they should," Belcaro says from his office overlooking the Grand Canal. "It is no longer a natural thing."

Plus, the ornate nooks and crannies of Venice's Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance towers and palazzos provide abundant places for pigeons to roost and reproduce.

The overpopulation of pigeons, the city says, damages art and architecture, costs millions in cleanup and repair, spreads disease and draws endless complaints from hoteliers, restaurateurs and other merchants who say their customers are being attacked.

Once the mighty center of a seafaring empire, Venice has fought off predators for centuries, from invading armies coveting its strategic location and ample wealth, to the rising ocean tides that are slowly engulfing its islands.

Modern times brought a new set of threats, including smog, water pollution, hordes of tourists and the pigeons.

Officials argue that the pigeons' highly acidic guano seeps into fissures in thousands of marble monuments and building facades, weakening the structures. In addition, they scratch and peck at the marble, seeking its calcium content as a nutrient, doing further costly damage.

Renata Codello, an official with the Italian Cultural Works Ministry, says the pigeons are destroying Venice's architectural heritage. The poop, she says, is a biohazard, igniting a chain reaction producing algae, spores and fungus, while the birds are potential carriers of diseases and nasty bugs.

In a report last year, Codello recommended an "urgent" reduction of feeding.

Pigeon supporters dispute the official contentions, saying the steady erosion of monuments, mosaics and architecture is a long-term problem that is caused at least as much by pollution and the onslaught of reckless visitors. And though some activists agree there are too many pigeons, they say the city must be more humane in thinning out the flocks.

"They treat the pigeons like they were demons," says Paolo Mocavero, head of the 100% Animalisti organization that conducts the pirate feeding operations.

The city's decade-old practice of using wide nets to capture pigeons is especially objectionable, activists say.

"The pigeons suffer a lot," says Gianpaolo Pamio of the Bird Protection League. "I want to know what the city is doing with the pigeons. Are they going to end up on our plates?"

Actually, the city makes no bones about what happens to the estimated 12,000 birds that are captured each year. They are killed.

"It's sad, but what can we do?" Belcaro says. He dismisses alternatives that activists propose, such as trying to ply the birds with contraceptives. Birth control, which has to be consumed regularly, is difficult to administer efficiently in such a huge, nomadic population, he says.

Even in the first weeks of the birdseed ban policy (pirate feedings aside), Belcaro says, he already sees success in a notable decline in the number of birds congregating in St. Mark's Square.

True, there may be slightly fewer of them, but they seem to be getting a bit more aggressive. After all, food shortages often lead to riots.

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