Birds and the Homeless Problem

In 2011, animal control authorities confiscated 18 pigeons, a crow, and a gull from a homeless man in Los Angeles who kept them in cages. The pigeons, diseased and dirty, were euthanized and the gull and crow sent to bird rehabilitators. In 2018 the homeless guy sued the city, claiming some of the birds were healthy and his constitutional rights violated. The city won.

Last year I received an email from a woman in LA who complained about another homeless person who kept homing pigeons in cages he wheeled around. Apparently he would let them out and they’d return to the roost, as unkempt as it was. The woman wanted me to help her make a case that the birds were mistreated, but animal control people already said they could not do anything – apparently the birds were ok.

There’s a “bird man” cruising the streets in his wheelchair in San Francisco who entertains the public with his semi-trained street pigeons. Well, if you are going to be homeless in a big city, I guess keeping or feeding pigeons is a cheap form of entertainment or even companionship and maybe garnering some spare change.

Walking in my community’s large (4000 acres) park twice a week or so for the past 30 years, I’ve seen some changes, bird-wise. Once replete with feral cats and the cat lovers who fed them, the towhees, robins, and quail that had mostly disappeared recovered after that problem was solved. The invasive plants, especially Ailanthus, have been brought under control, and the city’s penchant for removing fallen trees has gone by the wayside. All good. But now another problem.

In the past few years, homeless have moved into the park, especially the areas near stores and fast food places. They set up tents, destroy vegetation, leave garbage-often a pickup truck full-, shopping carts, syringes, and drugs, defecate and urinate and leave waste by the creek, create additional trails through the brush, and intimidate everyday users of the park.

Birdwatching was a common pastime in the park although it has become less so because of the population growth of the area and concomitant use of the park. More dogs, more bikes, more skateboards, generally more activity. That’s understandable and most people are considerate of others. But the homeless have added a whole new problem.

What’s it doing to the birds? The park is supposed to be closed from late evening to early morning and when that was actually the case, birds had some respite from human activity. Now there is activity all night, including campfires. I suspect lots of city parks have similar problems like Blucher park in Corpus Christi. And American Canyon reports a problem I hadn’t thought about: rats. With food garbage and other materials abandoned by the homeless, rats discover a cornucopia of goodies and their populations explode and that’s bad news for nesting birds.

Making a cursory search of the WWW, it appears that the homeless are having an impact on birdwatching activities across the nation. In addition to the impacts of habitat destruction, nighttime activity, and rats, the general public is avoiding parks that have become homeless encampments. That means fewer people watching out for the birds or encouraging others to partake in the activity. Who is going to protect, and demand protection for, the birds if birdwatchers are driven away?

I have opinions about but certainly have no solution to the homeless problem. I certainly hope someone does.

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