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The battle for the rooftops

Feral pigeon. Photo Amy LewisFeral pigeon. Photo Amy Lewis

By Dyane Silvester

I work on the second floor in the centre of town about a mile from the sea, and some days, this time of year, I struggle to concentrate for watching the battles outside my windows.

There are three contenders for king of the rooftops: top of the pecking order are definitely the herring gulls - they're the biggest and noisiest and afraid of no-one; not even hesitating to dive bomb innocent commuters as we wait on the railway platform!

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the pigeons. These are scrawny feral pigeons; not the well-fed fearless type who clatter around rural gardens. They are scruffy, often maimed, but eking a living amongst the leavings of the others. Did you know though, that research has shown that pigeons are actually very intelligent? There is even evidence that these “rats on wings” may be able to outwit some primates: think of the navigation skills of the homing pigeons from which most urban pigeons are descended.

Somewhere in the middle are the carrion crows; they're not big and brave enough to take on the gulls, but they're definitely clever too: the corvids are rare amongst birds in that they can learn to use simple tools. These on the rooftops are bullies too: I watched one fly up from the street, walk along the gutter to oust a pair of pigeons from their nest in a hole in a parapet wall, steal a beakful of nesting material, and carry on up to a chimney pot into which to he disappeared, presumably to build his own nest. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps he stole an egg too - because they do; mostly they eat carrion and insects, but will take eggs and baby birds too if the opportunity presents itself.

Sadly the gulls will also take the pigeons' eggs when they're ready, and we humans (often in vain) put nets on our rooftops and plastic spikes on our windowsills in an attempt to stop them from nesting on the ledges and roofs. It's a wonder that they survive at all: we might think them vermin but actually they do a great job of clearing up a great deal of the mess that we drop. Like rats they have learned to adapt to pretty much any environment where humans live. That in itself takes intelligence.

Even those at the top of the pecking order don't start life that way; last year I watched a young herring gull learn to fly: He was walking along the ridge of one of the steepest roofs when he slipped and slid, flapping to little effect, all the way down. Bouncing over the gutter he tumbled for several heart-stopping moments towards the street. A little below first floor level his flapping finally paid off and he stopped the descent. Another over-confident bully in the making! 

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