Brian O'Neill: Hungry pigeons, don't bother to visit revamped Mellon Square

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To feed or not to feed pigeons, that is the question.

It may not be a million-dollar question, but a $5 million overhaul of venerable Mellon Square has brought forth a sign saying visitors "may not'' feed the birds. Councilwoman Darlene Harris, an animal lover since she raised a litter of orphaned groundhogs as a little girl in Spring Hill, created a bit of a flap about that at a council meeting last week.

The sign notes an ordinance against littering. That's a bit of an irony for a city notably lax in its enforcement there. Are we saying that water bottles and flattened beer cans can keep falling in the gutters, but we're drawing the line at bird seed in the park?

"You can't pick and choose where you enforce our laws, because that would be against the law,'' Ms. Harris said. "We don't have enough people now to enforce the laws on the books, let alone making up laws.''

She said she'd gotten at least 60 calls supporting her after the council meeting aired on TV. I believe her, because a couple of pigeon lovers contacted me, too, one of them imploring me to please stay away from the phrase "rats with wings.''

Oops. There it is.

I may be among the few who counts himself as neither a pigeon-lover nor -hater. I don't feed them, but they don't bother me. I see them as fellow city dwellers trying to make a living.

It's odd how this has turned into such a dustup. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, a group generally about as controversial as the daffodils it sells for Mother's Day, put up the signs ahead of its grand reopening of Downtown's "Emerald Oasis'' on May 24. So I called its office.

"One of the reasons we did this restoration was to bring [Mellon Square] back to its original glory,'' conservancy spokesman Chris Fletcher said.

Litter and pigeon droppings don't much enhance tranquility, Mr. Fletcher said, and "anything the pigeons don't finish eating can attract rats."

"The signs are going to stay,'' Guy Costa, the city's chief of operations, said. "A lot of park users don't want to be pestered by pigeons."

Indeed, Joe Wilson, whose office overlooks the park, told me that pigeons so overran the park five years ago that nobody would sit in it at lunch hour. People were forced to sit on the walls facing traffic. He mailed photos of a man spreading full bags of seed to hundreds of pigeons in the park and said he once saw a guy dump two big black trash bags of bread before the birds.

"If the pigeons don't eat it, the rats will, and they will destroy the park once again,'' he said.

Beth McMaster, owner and operator of Wildbird Recovery in Middlesex, Butler County, doesn't agree. Pigeons have come to rely on feedings, and people enjoy the exchange. When pigeons have to go to the street for food, more are hit by cars and brought to her for recovery, she said.

The city should find a "happy medium,'' a place where pigeons can be fed safely and others won't be bothered, she said. Other cities have reduced their numbers by setting up feeders that contain "birth control'' that keeps pigeon eggs from hatching.

At least one pigeon lover thinks people who feed the pigeons aren't doing them any favors. Steve Hindi, president of Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, has worked to end pigeon shoots in eastern and central Pennsylvania, but he doesn't think people should feed feral or wild animals.

Pigeons have a role in the urban ecosystem, which is cleaning up after the human slobs dropping popcorn and potato chips and crumbs. Feeding scavengers interrupts that, and the population soars. Pigeons become hated instead of appreciated, Mr. Hindi said, and are more susceptible to harm.

Leave the pigeons alone and they'll find food, he said. They just won't have as many babies.

And the city won't have to attempt to enforce what looks like an unenforceable law.

In short, with the city's slob quotient reliably high, there's no real need to feed. Pittsburgh likely has the fittest, most self-reliant pigeons in the country. Peregrine falcons have been flying at them at 180 mph for almost a quarter-century. The survivors are as tough as their town.

Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947

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