Looking down from the top of the Basilica in Piazza San Marco in Venice, you see that the ground is transformed into a black sea of swarming pigeons. When you get closer, it looks like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. With the birds flying at eye level, tourists look like pigeons themselves, ducking and bobbing their heads to avoid feathery collisions. You quickly come to the conclusion that these winged city dwellers are everywhere. In a city of about 270,000 people, it is estimated that the pigeon population has reached approximately 40,000. Pigeons are so prevalent in Venice they could indeed be considered the city’s mascot. But why do they all seem to be living in Piazza San Marco?
Legend has it that long ago the square’s original pigeons were released from the Basilica’s gallery on Palm Sunday with little tags of paper tied to their legs. The vast majority of these pigeons suffered an ill fate, becoming dinner—an offering of the Doge’s Easter largesse to the people. According to popular tradition, those that survived earned St. Mark’s protection and their ancestors remain in the square today. ‘The pigeons have always been here, since I was a boy—since my grandfather was a child. They are here to stay’, says Giuseppe Pizano, a native Venetian corn vendor.
Although the flocks of birds are a trademark of the sinking city, the municipal government has made numerous attempts in the last de–cades to control the pigeon population. Most recently, in 2004, the mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, attempted to put a ban on feeding the plump birds. According to an Associated Press article in September 2006, this policy would greatly affect 19 families who work in the piazza as corn sellers. The vendors have since lobbied against the ban and have contracted an alternative agreement with lawmakers. Visitors are allowed to purchase only 100 grams of corn (for 1 euro) to feed the pigeons. It is illegal to feed the birds in any other part of the city, according to a decree enacted in 1997 by the City of Venice.
Perhaps Venice took a cue from London’s previous attempts to minimize its own uncontrollable pigeon population. In 2003, the mayor of London, Ken Livingston, banned pigeon feeding in Trafalgar Square. After much criticism from the public and animal rights groups, it was decided that they be fed only once a day, at 7:30 am. Venice has used other methods to decrease the winged population, such as catching and poisoning the sick ones. This approach has limited results: pigeons reproduce up to six times a year.
Although they are common to most Italian piazzas, pigeons are often considered diseased vermin, a far cry from the noble status enjoyed by other members of the dove family. Every year the pope releases white doves in St. Peter’s Square as a Catholic symbol of hope and peace. And they are sometimes honorary wedding guests at Christian weddings. The homing pigeon has also brought a level of respectability to the species, as it has been used for delivering urgent messages in times of war. A selected few birds have even received medals of honor for their service.
However, feral pigeons have not been as lucky as their domesticated cousins and are often looked upon as disease-spreading garbage eaters. It’s true that pigeons can carry many avian diseases, including bacterial, viral and parasitic infections. Although there is cause for concern, several studies show that most of these diseases are not easily passed on to human beings. According to the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida, those who are most at risk for developing pigeon-related ailments are breeders, who are in close and constant contact with the birds. Salmonella is the most common infection passed to humans, usually passed through fecal matter and food. It becomes a problem only when pigeons are in close proximity to where food is prepared or eaten. Walking around Piazza San Marco, a person is not likely to catch most of the avian diseases.
The question then remains whether or not to feed the birds. Get rid of the food and the birds will likely migrate to places where they can find more abundant sources of nutrients. Will visitors be the only ones flocking to San Marco then? What will happen to the corn sellers? As of now there are no answers. The pigeons remain. Children chase them, adults duck and a plastic cup of corn feed drifts by in the sea of swarming birds.