Wednesday, 25 April 2007

(DON'T) FEED THE BIRDS!

Pigeons. They were once an unmistakable part of London life: with wheeling, whirling clouds of them circling Nelson’s Column, the attendant lions and the fountains of Trafalgar Square. Then London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, stopped the trade in birdseed and now the sight of a pigeon flying across the great space between the National Gallery and Northumberland Avenue is rare indeed.

The fate that befell London’s pigeons is now about to befall the birds in another famous public feeding ground - St Mark’s Square, Venice.


Until now, the only creatures to outnumber the baggage-toting, camera-snapping tourists in Piazza San Marco, have been the pigeons - some 10,000 of them - strutting and fluttering around what Napoleon called “the finest drawing room in Europe”.

Years ago, a famous photograph was taken in the square using the pigeons to advertise Coca Cola…


…And for generations the grey angels of St Mark have pestered customers eating their expensive toasted ciabatte outside the grand caffés and - when indolently shooed away by the white jacketed waiters - have had to settle, instead, for vast quantities of bird seed sold (nowadays for 1 Euro a bag) to the hordes for whom a snap in front of the Basilica or the Ducal Palace with an entourage of birds is, de rigeur, a part of the Venice experience.


But the pigeons have been increasingly blamed for various ills… Obviously, their verminous presence is potentially injurious to health and having a dozen or more birds flapping their germ-infested wings in your face is not the healthiest of entertainments whether you are a small child…


…or an even smaller bunny!


Not only that, but research carried out by the Department of Environmental Sciences at Ca Foscari University in Venice has proved that the main cause of deterioration to the historic buildings in St Mark’s Square is the hundreds of pounds of excrement that the pigeons produce every day.

Various measures - including the use of wheat as a ‘contraceptive pill’ - have been tried in the hope of controlling or reducing the pigeon population, but always in vain.

The decision was finally taken to forbid street vendors in the square from selling the grain. In anywhere other than Italy this might seem obvious but the laws in Venezia are complex and convoluted and whilst an ordinance of the city of Venice forbids the feeding of pigeons, another ordinance grants concessions to vendors to sell bags of corn to tourists - presumably for their personal use!

Nineteen families have, for several generations, made their living from selling corn and have been thought to be "untouchable" - until now!

A change is about to happen as a result of which - for good or ill - St Marks will never be quite the same again.

As a Venetian website explained…
To accommodate the nineteen vendors who sold corn as bird feed, the municipality will now allow them to sell souvenirs, instead, but not in St. Mark's Square. Next Thursday, all the involved parties (vendors, Comune, Art Superintendance) will hold what should be the final meeting to finalize the details. It will create a completely new look for St. Mark's, free of birds which damage the monuments, bring disease, and are loved only by tourists and corn sellers.


We should, of course, applaud this move for its understanding of the issues of monument conservation and human health and hygiene, but the absence of that soft murmuration of cooing that has always underscored life in the square and the sudden rush and flap of wings as a great swirling mass of birds flew up whenever the bells of the campanile rang out will make this most enchanting of places seem curiously less magical.

After all, a custom (however disreputable) that has survived for a thousand years - and which was so intrincically a part of the Venetian scene - will have suddenly, and rather tragically, died...


[Photos: © Brian Sibley & David Weeks]

9 comments:

nessie said...

I just cant stand them and never understand how in Europe there is often ppl in the parks feeding them. I noticed them especially when I went to France.

Boll Weavil said...

I'm slightly worried by the last picture because, given that you didn't know you'd be writing this feature when you were last in Venice, why would you want to photograph a dead bird ! In Cornwall, the harbour walls are festooned with warnings not to encourage seagulls by feeding. Last year, having just purchased a double cone of Strawberry and Vanilla, I was mugged by a seagull diving down and snatching the whole lot. I was left with about an inch of the cone.Where's Ken Livingstone when you need him?

Brian Sibley said...

NESSIE - I think people have always fed birds - and stray cats... It's probably something generic!

BOLL WEAVIL - The dead pigeon (photographed several years ago) drowned in the aqua alta (high tide) that sometimes turns St Mark's Square into a lake. As for why I photographed it, frankly I can't think why I wouldn't...

Seagulls, of course, are far worse than the pigeons (they just look cleaner because they're white!) and I spared you a gory photograph of an enormous gull merrily eating a dead pigeon.

Mind you, thinking of your experience, if you'd just eaten a raw pigeon you'd want to nick a nice double-scoop of strawberry and vanilla --- just to take the taste away, now wouldn't you?? ;-)

Jen said...

Brian, you are a wag! it wouldn't be the seaside without the cries of seagulls here in Brighton BUT my neighbour's excuse for feeding them fresh sardines on the roof is so that the birds don't get salmonella from rooting in refuse bags! (Our dog likes the fallout
especially if pitta bread is also on the menu.....talk about food chain.)

Brian Sibley said...

JEN - I agree about the cries of seagulls - that slightly mournful chant IS the seaside --- along with a salt tang on the air and the scent of candyfloss!

In venice (which is, of course, a seaport) the gulls are HUGE and really rather terrifying - especially when attacking, killing and eating pigeons!

Even Buttons (who's being so snarky on his blogspot about the pigeons of San Marco) wouldn't have dared pose with any segulls: he knew he'd have been carried off - just like Boll Weavil's ice-cream... :-)

Good Dog said...

Have to say, I can't remember too many pigeons there. Then again, we went at the end of January.

The penultimate photo, looking toward San Giorgio Maggiore is fantastic.

Brian Sibley said...

GOOD DOG - There are some 40,000 pigeons in the whole of Venice (roughly one for each inhabitant!) and at least 10,000 of them reside in St Mark's Square. Maybe they'd all popped off somewhere warmer when you were there! Although all our pictures were taken in either December or Januray.

web@slowfood.ch said...

do you happen to know who took the picture for the Coca Cola advertising? I just saw it in Venice and was wondering when the picture was made. thanks! M.

Brian Sibley said...

I don't know who took it, it was obviously done as an advertisement and I suspect in the '40s. Here are some other examples, although I suspect the Absolut ad was digitally created.