Sky Rats!

pigeon in crosshairsAs has happened with other deadly diseases before, a new lethal infection is moving out of the tropical regions of the Third World and spreading across the Western world. Remember SARS? Bird flu? Swine flu?

This time it’s Chikungunya disease, a viral illness similar to dengue fever that causes high fever, rashes, strong joint pains, can last from weeks to years, and in many cases lead to death. There is no cure or vaccine, and it’s particularly deadly to the young, the elderly, or those with an otherwise weakened immune systems, such as those who already happen to have some other complicating factor.

The spread of Chikungunya is in several ways similar to that of West Nile virus, a recent viral invader that has moved all across the U.S. and other parts of the Western world, causing high fevers, brain damage from encephalitis, neural damage from meningitis, paralysis and, in many cases, death. As with the newer Chikungunya, there is no vaccine or cure; if you contract West Nile all that can be done is treat the symptoms and hope for the best.

Another common factor among a number of these deadly diseases is how they are spread. Chikungunya and West Nile virus, for instance, do not spread easily, such as by common person-to-person contact. In fact you have to be virtually injected with the virus for you to be be infected — so how does it spread?

One of the most common ways in both urban and rural areas is mosquitoes. A mosquito bites an infected animal and picks up enough of the virus that when it then bites a human it can then infect the human and the cycle continues.

West Nile Virus transmission cycle; the cycle for Chikungunya virus is similar. In urban areas the bird component is very commonly the ubiquitous urban species of pigeons. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

West Nile Virus transmission cycle; the cycle for Chikungunya virus is similar. In urban areas the bird component is very commonly the ubiquitous urban species of pigeons found on virtually every rooftop, restaurant Dumpster, and mall parking lot. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Because of the nature of the transmission cycle there’s been a lot of focus put on traditional methods of trying to control mosquito populations, such as targeted spraying and encouraging landowners from allowing unnecessary areas of standing water. But often under-emphasized or even overlooked is control of the vectors between mosquito populations, of which some of the most common are birds in general, urban pigeons in particular.

Pigeons shit on everything, spreading many diseases

Oh yes, they will. And the shit they spread everywhere is one of most noxious cesspools of infectious agents that can be imagined. Even after drying, the dust that comes off their excreta spreads through the air, inhaled by humans, and can cause many deadly diseases. Pigeons are a major urban health hazard that is much too often overlooked. I once spoke with a biologist who described them as the equivalent of a disease-ridden rat that flies: a “sky rat.” Image from

In fact, not only is the problem of urban pigeons often overlooked, these flying vermin are often explicitly protected. In the major city where I live, for instance, pigeons cannot be poisoned, shot, or otherwise killed. They can be trapped and released somewhere else, but of course — these being pigeons, after all — as soon as they’re released they just fly right back. You can put up roof spikes, but as I’ve seen first-hand many times, pigeons soon learn to avoid the spikes, move around between them, and even nest in them.

Result: Cities and countryside everywhere infested with disease-carrying vermin that spread countless diseases, including some of the most lethal diseases we know. And we are complicit in our own destruction by ignorantly passing laws that hinder our ability to control their numbers, spread, and habits. Heck, many people even feed them, reveling in spreading bread crumbs to them, apparently not connecting the feeding of the pigeons at the park with the disease-ridden crap they will soon be ingesting and inhaling from those same pigeons, not to mention potentially being bitten by the mosquitoes and fleas that will cause deadly viruses to jump from the birds to the people in the area.

I suppose one could say if we — by which I humans in general and clueless city dwellers in particular — behave so stupidly toward pigeons, we deserve what we get. But that would be neither accurate nor fair, because the human victims are usually not the ones who engaged in the stupid behavior. I personally knew a woman who, though aware of the dangers of West Nile Virus, was nevertheless infected by it — quite possibly via mosquito bite — developed severe encephalitis, and despite best medical efforts, eventually died. No one — not city officials, not the mindless pigeon-feeders in the park — came forward to claim credit for the actions that may have led to my friend Cheryl’s death.

Cheryl died of West Nile Virus. Today it could be Chikungunya, the latest similar disease sweeping the Americas, adding to the long list of diseases being spread via the pigeon and other urban feathered-vermin population for which in many cases there is no vaccine and no cure.

What should you do? Those of us who are paying attention and are concerned about the problem have done many things:

  • Talk with city and local officials: Call them on the phone so you force them to spend time on it. Hold them accountable.
  • Talk up the problem; make sure others know, understand, and share your concern.
  • Talk with pest-control people, at least to see what they can do to protect your own home. Don’t let the sky rats take up residence or hang around your own home or office — that not only puts you and yours personally at risk but it makes your location a base from which they can put others at risk.
  • What others have done: Shoot them. BB guns, pellet guns, blow-gun darts, and many other seemingly-exotic but often effective schemes have and continue to be used. I am not making any recommendations here, only passing along what I’ve read elsewhere. You’ll have to decide what you’re willing to do to protect you and yours. (Frankly the idea of learning to use a serious blowgun sounds exotic and might be kind of fun even if the dangers of sky rats had nothing to do with it.) I know nothing about and do not offer any kind of legal advice about such things (legalities probably vary from place to place), but if you do undertake any such methods do let me know how they go.

Cold Steel 5-foot big-bore aluminum alloy blowgun. Looks like a serious weapon. For scale, the orange-tipped darts are about 6 inches long.


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