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Are city pigeons safe to eat?

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"When you look at a pigeon, you might see a dirty, rat-like bird that fouls anything it touches with feathers or feces, but I see a waste-scavenging, protein-generating biomachine.... A food source that lives on our trash that is so reproductively prolific that we can’t kill it off? That’s green tech at its finest! Pigeons are direct waste-to-food converters, like edible protein weeds, that leave droppings that could be used as fertilizer as a bonus." - http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/200...

The author of the article eloquently makes a point which I have always thought about but never been able to put into words. Why don't we eat city pigeons? Most people would never consider it because we see pigeons eating out of trash cans and puddles of vomit but actually, does that not make them the perfect sustainable urban food source? A diet of garbage does not automatically mean foul meat; after all, the pig has served as a human-waste-to-protein recycler for all of history. And where would we be without tasty bottom feeders like shrimp, lobster, and catfish.

I grew up in Indiana, where country dwellers routinely shoot and eat the wild relatives of city pigeons. Roasted simply with some kind of fruit glaze, they are delicious, like a more savory version of chicken thigh. In Beijing where I am now, you can see here and there rooftop hutches where people raise pigeons for meat. I assume these birds have free reign of the city and return at feeding times. They are served fried with shatteringly crisp skin and a dipping bowl of seasoned salt., again, delicious.

Is there an actual reason not to eat city pigeons? Is the meat empirically hazardous aside from the emotional reaction of "it's dirty"? The article doesn't say and I'm curious if anyone here can supply one.

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  1. I going to guess that there are laws prohibiting killing them? Especially if you were planning to shoot them like in the country. If I was starving, I'd do it no problem. They look plenty fat for sure. I have lots of Doomsday plans like that on the back burner!

    I once had a friend visiting from Wyoming and I had to stop him from grabbing one of the geese swimming in the pond at a state park and wringing its neck, he couldn't believe how they just swam up to the boat.

    4 Replies
    1. re: coll

      Ernest Hemingway told of how, in his hungry days in Paris, he seized and strangled a park pigeon and hid the body under blankets in his baby's pram.

      1. re: coll

        No. In the United States, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is the law protecting most species of birds and despite the name, it actually has nothing to do with whether or not the birds migrate. The law does not apply to non-native species of which the Rock Dove aka pigeon (Columba livia) is one. The domesticated version is what is called squab on menus.

        Though proper cooking would probably kill most of the nasty stuff, I wouldn't want to handle them because wild birds can carry all sorts of lice, mites, Chlamydia psittaci, and more.

        1. re: Just Visiting

          I worked at a wild bird haven for a while. Wanted to add Pox, guardia, trichinosis (or was it trichondella) to the list. There's much more, but they escape me.

        2. re: coll

          "I'll tell you something else. This sounds like a joke, but it's true. If they kill a stool pigeon, they leave a canary on the body. It's symbolic."

          "Why not a pigeon instead of a canary?"

          "I don't know why not a pigeon. Wait a minute.You gotta catch a pigeon. A canary, you can walk into a pet store. As long as you pay for it, boom. Kill it right there. Put it on anyone."

          -Tom and Betsy, Taxi Driver

        3. Don't do it, unless of course if it wouldn't bother you to eat a big fat wharf rat or a seagull that's been chowing down in a north Jersey landfill, than I guess it would be OK.

          1. It's an interesting question: here we have something that is free-range but also probably alarming to those who worry a lot about the feed that goes into their meats/poultry. I raised pigeons when I was young, and one thing I can say is that I can usually tell the difference between a healthy bird and one that is struggling with disease.

            Just as a matter of theory, I'd regard eating city birds just as we think about eating fish species with some likelihood of mercury or other contaminents. A bird now and then will not hurt you, but bellying up to one twice a week for months gets iffy. But that's guesswork. Wouldn't be hard to test it empirically, but as long as killing the birds remains illegal, it's hard to se why that testing would happen.

            p.s., I also raised a pair of domestic rats more recently with my son, and I can tell you they're smart, gentle (by far the best rodent to own), and cleaner than cats or dogs, which I also have had!

            2 Replies
            1. re: Bada Bing

              Speaking as a non-scientist, the fish comparison seems reasonable. I am sure pigeons ingest a lot of toxic stuff in the city, but could that be offset by their relatively short lives? Kind of like how short-lived little fish like mackerel have a lot less mercury than long-lived big fish like tuna.

              1. re: RealMenJulienne

                Actually, its big fish with more mercury, not long-lived ones.

                All fish absorb mercury pollution from the water. Big fish eat little fish and absorb it from their food also.
                As the body cannot process mercury, it builds up with every meal.
                I do however like the original analogy.

            2. My first encounter with edible pigeons was in Luxor, Egypt. They were cage raised, grilled and superb. Its true that our city pigeons (technically Rock Doves) are almost identical but the quality of their intake would be of concern. But then, I've eaten bivalves in third world countries. Who knows what they've been recycling? My conclusion: just make sure its thoroughly cooked and don't ask.
              CP

              1 Reply
              1. re: Chefpaulo

                I had a rice-stuffed grilled pigeon in Cairo, which wasn't too shabby.

                A few years later, I was wandering around Zhenjiang, China where some peddler was skinning pigeons on the street.

                In other words, I'd eat it again.

              2. Take a look at this article: http://www.gourmet.com/food/2008/09/e...

                To quote: 'But if pigeons are so tasty, why shouldn’t we all start feasting on the ones that fill our streets (and do our part for pigeon control)? Some Europeans did just that during the lean years of World War II, but under normal circumstances few people are tempted by city birds, and with good reason. Milt Friend, a wildlife expert from the National Wildlife Health Center, says that city pigeons are notorious for having large amounts of lead in their bodies. They accumulate lead not only by breathing polluted air, but also by ingesting everything from paint chips to roadside dust, which also includes such nasty stuff as cadmium particles from vehicle tires. (For this reason, the birds have been used to study environmental contaminants in cities.) While pigeons living in rural areas are fair game, Friend says, “I’d have to be awful hungry to eat a pigeon off the street.” '

                11 Replies
                1. re: drongo

                  Yeah, I agree that a pigeon would be likely to eat chipped paint and especially pebbles from the roadside. They like little rocky/sandy stuff for their gizzard functions.

                  1. re: drongo

                    I am not sure that industrially produced chickens or turkeys are that safe to eat either. They are force fed mystery food as well as copious amounts of pharmaceuticals and hormones to keep them healthy and fatten quickly. Some of the conditions they are raised under are pretty gross.

                    If one did a proper analysis, it wouldn't surprise me to find out that pigeons are actually healthier to eat. Or maybe not..

                    1. re: Metatron

                      Chickens and turkeys produced in the US are not fed hormones.

                      ETA: there are plenty of reasons to think twice about consuming conventional, factory farm poultry, hormone use just isn't one of them.

                    2. re: drongo

                      Thanks Drongo, can you post a link to the original source of that Friend quote? Maybe a published paper or something? I'm looking for hard scientific analysis here.

                      1. re: RealMenJulienne

                        RMJ, the following is the reference that seems mostly widely cited. The journal's online archive doesn't go as far back as 1980, so if you want a copy of this paper you'll need to ask an academic library.

                        Hutton, M. and G. T. Goodman. 1980. Metal contamination of feral pigeons Columba livia from the London area: Part I—tissue accumulation of lead, cadmium, and zinc. Environmental Pollution 22: 207-217.

                        Edit: Here's a slightly more recent paper from the same journal: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/...

                        1. re: drongo

                          I notice that the papers are fairly old ( 1980 and 1988 ). Probably a major source of lead was from leaded gasoline. As leaded gas has been phased out for some time, it may be that there will be less lead in the birds.

                          Newer studies may show different results.

                          1. re: Metatron

                            Less lead in birds... can they fly higher and farther now?

                            1. re: Metatron

                              Yes, Metatron, that's a good point. Anyway, without new data I won't be trying those urban pigeons!

                              Veggo: lol, lol. Though even with the lead, pigeons were wonderful fliers (evolved to avoid the merlins perhaps?).

                          2. re: RealMenJulienne

                            LMGTFY:

                            http://www.gourmet.com/food/2008/09/e...

                            But if pigeons are so tasty, why shouldn’t we all start feasting on the ones that fill our streets (and do our part for pigeon control)? Some Europeans did just that during the lean years of World War II, but under normal circumstances few people are tempted by city birds, and with good reason. Milt Friend, a wildlife expert from the National Wildlife Health Center, says that city pigeons are notorious for having large amounts of lead in their bodies. They accumulate lead not only by breathing polluted air, but also by ingesting everything from paint chips to roadside dust, which also includes such nasty stuff as cadmium particles from vehicle tires. (For this reason, the birds have been used to study environmental contaminants in cities.) While pigeons living in rural areas are fair game, Friend says, “I’d have to be awful hungry to eat a pigeon off the street.”

                            1. re: Just Visiting

                              Ok you talked me out of it!

                            2. re: RealMenJulienne

                              Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology
                              November 1982, Volume 11, Issue 6, pp 761-767
                              Accumulation and renal effects of lead in urban populations of feral pigeons,Columba livia
                              M. S. Johnson, H. Pluck, M. Hutton, G. Moore

                              Ohi, G., H. Seki, K. Akiyama, and H. Yagyu: The pigeon, a sensor of lead pollution. Bull. Environ. Contam. Toxicol.12, 92 (1974).

                          3. I'd rather starve!

                            1. Probably no less safe than a sewer rat, or a possum.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                Sewer rat might taste like pumpkin pie, but I wouldn't know because I wouldn't eat the filthy...

                              2. I don't even like domestic-raised pigeons, but that said - even domestically-raised poultry contain pathogens easily transferred to humans. Wild pigeons? Uggghhh.

                                Go to it if you want, but I hope you have excellent health insurance. And be alerted that said health insurance may not cover you if they see that you purposely consumed something that is pretty much universally considered unedible.

                                1. I suppose they are something of a 'tweener. If they were safe to eat, there would be fewer of them. If they were unsafe, there would be fewer street people.

                                  1. I think it would certainly depend on where you live. There are some major cities that do "feed" the pigeons a form of birth control, so you might not want any of that in your system. You are what you eat could take on a whole new meaning?

                                    1. Roosting in rafters be the habit of pigeons,
                                      just clucking and fluffing and shitting.
                                      Far better just cook up a chicken.

                                      1. fitly disease infested flying rats. crawling with lice and bird mites. No thanks.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: KaimukiMan

                                          Hey, all wild game potentially have ticks, fleas, and worms. Doesn't mean they are transmissible to humans. And I would expect that bird parasites are way less transmissible than those of mammals like deer and wild pig.

                                        2. One day in Cairo, we rushed out after dinner leaving the large sliding window in the kitchen open. My son went to get something in the kitchen when we got home, and he rushed out saying that there was a pigeon in the kitchen. I told him to get the bowab, who came up, caught the pigeon, twisted its neck, and came out of the kitchen offering it to us. He was very excited when we refused it -- he had just caught dinner! Pigeon is the national dish of Cairo, and up and down the ALex Dessert Road, you see these pigeon farms with these white cathedral like structures where the pigeons roost and breed. They stuff the pigeon with some sort of rice mixture, and then eat the whole thing -- bones and all.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: roxlet

                                            Jeepers, bones and all? I love a nice squab but would not eat one from the street (unless in dire extremity).

                                          2. im confused.

                                            i always thought that pigeons=squab more or less, which is definitely edible. am i wrong here?

                                            4 Replies
                                            1. re: mattstolz

                                              You're confused!

                                              1. re: mattstolz

                                                A squab is a pigeon but a farmed one, raised (at least one hopes) on grain.

                                                1. re: buttertart

                                                  A squab is a very young pigeon that has not flown yet, roughly a month old. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squab_%2...

                                                  1. re: Eldon Kreider

                                                    I didn't know they were so young.

                                              2. A friend of mine makes excellent stews using squirrels from Central Park

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: beevod

                                                  How does he catch em? Snares perhaps?

                                                2. Am I the only one who is amused that this topic is right next to a topic titled "Is finding quality ingredients a struggle where you live?" :)

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: pamf

                                                    that's a great observation!

                                                  2. i was walking with several friends down a sidewalk (minneapolis). a wild dove flew right in front of us and smacked into a large window, breaking it's neck and falling to the pavement. my friend, an urban farmer, retrieved the body, i plucked it while the bird was still warm, and he ate it for supper. said it was very tasty.

                                                    2 Replies
                                                    1. re: soupkitten

                                                      I commend your friend for his waste-not attitude. I have to ask though, did he suffer any gastrointestinal consequences afterward?

                                                      Also, how was it prepared?

                                                      1. re: RealMenJulienne

                                                        i believe he wrapped it in bacon and roasted it with some mushrooms and whatever veg he was harvesting at the time. if he had any problems i didn't hear about them. fwiw this was a smaller songbird-dove, not a big pigeon. it was very small, just a few oz. and fitting into the palm of my hand.

                                                    2. This whole thread is making me cringe!!!! :-)

                                                      1. In Australia they are a introduced pest species, well turtle-doves are anyhow.
                                                        However there appears similar distaste. Here is one man in an outback city who eats them. I have yet to find any more information on the topic.

                                                        http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2...

                                                        1. My guess (and it's only a guess) is that they would be safe to eat. I imagine the biggest concern would be if they are drinking contaminated water. But I think even a pigeon can tell if the water is relatively clean and if it's laden with pesticides or diesel fuel.

                                                          But even if they were 100% safe to eat, harvesting city pigeons by snare/net/trap wouldn't be the best way. All you'd have to do is set up a suitable habitat for them and attract some breeding pairs. Then they would lay eggs and raise young which would make for a tastier treat than their lean hard-working parents.

                                                          "Squabs, about four or five weeks old, can therefore be freely harvested from their nests before they are able to fly. At this time they weigh about 400 grams and to catch them at this age is convenient because, when they begin to fly, their live weight decreases measurably."

                                                          http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/themes/...

                                                          http://books.google.com/books?id=mywo...

                                                          And as a bonus: "squab meat is regarded as safer than some other poultry products as it harbors fewer pathogens, and may be served between medium and well done.

                                                          http://ps.fass.org/content/80/1/66.fu..."

                                                          3 Replies
                                                          1. re: seamunky

                                                            yes, I have an aviary and was considering using this to cleanse the birds at the very least. However each pair only lays 4 eggs per annum on average, which is not many birds.
                                                            My aviary will handle about 10 birds, which is about 20 young a year... not exactly what you'd call a bounty!
                                                            Certainly not worth it for the eggs alone.

                                                            Where I am, I could trap using a live trap, about 2-3 a day if I tried hard (as I work, this is unlikely to happen though) so it shouldn't be hard to collect some birds.

                                                            Live traps are cheap and sometimes subsidised for the trapping of pest species where I am, so it's becoming quite affordable. What I really want to know is: While breeding them may produce better food, will it hurt me to eat the wild ones.

                                                            I'm not fazed by having to grind the meat for patties if need be. I know how to skin a pigeon breast in under 4 seconds, and my dog will clean the rest up.

                                                            If anybody is interested in skinning small birds, place the bird on its back, stand with your big toes on each of its shoulders, then pull hard on the legs. Feed the legs to the dog, clip off the wings and you're left with a perfectly skun breast (still attached to the breast plate though)

                                                            This is wasteful (well it's cheaper than dog food) of the legs, wings and necks, but it's certainly the easiest way to get good useable meat.

                                                            1. re: kudapucat

                                                              More like pull evenly and gently on the legs. I like to keep the legs/thighs.
                                                              No need to "pull hard" on the little bird.
                                                              Done it a thousand times on all sorts of up-land birds including wild pigeons.
                                                              Brine in salt water for a few hours. Then very low and slow in tin foil with butter and herbs.

                                                            2. re: seamunky

                                                              Ok, after reading the article JustVisiting posted, I'm changing my answer and admitting my first guess is probably wrong.

                                                              http://link.springer.com/article/10.1...

                                                            3. I find it appalling that so many who are normally so virulent bout promoting better eating are so silent. They are a non-native invasive species. Organic and hormone free. Free range poultry. What is there to find fault in a nutritional evaluation?

                                                              And if the urban environment so lethal, will the last survivor of Manhattan please turn out the lights?

                                                              Had this discussion with my BIL the life long hunter. He did not want to eat the crows I had shot as he classified them as carrion feeders. Of course in the fall, they are far more likely to feed on the grain in the fields. And he admitted that there was nothing wrong with the flavor of the breast meat, although chewier than the squirrel.

                                                              Until you have tried it, or have some empirical data for your locality, I would recommend keeping an open mind.

                                                              2 Replies
                                                              1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                                                                Having seen what the pigeons in San Francisco eat, I don't think I'd eat them unless I was desperate. We don't have many on the Peninsula where I live (or much of anything else since the bleeping crows have driven off most of the smaller birds) but we've been getting ravenous hordes of Canada geese recently, but I think for some misguided reason they're protected.

                                                                If I were to harvest pigeons or the local squirrels, I'd wear gloves while handling them and make sure they were cooked thoroughly.

                                                                1. re: tardigrade

                                                                  I thoroughly endorse those precautions as most people have no idea what tularemia looks like. Let alone checking the liver.

                                                              2. You can buy squab, which means young pigeons that have been specifically bred for eating. This is the main reason people don't eat city pigeons. They have more meat on them than your urban rock pigeons, they're louse- and disease-free, they aren't fed garbage, and they're all defeathered and dressed when you buy them.

                                                                Ernest Hemingway used to tell Ed Hotchner or someone that he used to catch and eat pigeons from the Luxembourg Gardens during his Paris days, but that might just be Papa telling another tale.

                                                                1. My father-in-law had gone out with friends and bagged (a bunch) and took them back to their vehicles to clean, only to find out they were infested with lice.

                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                  1. re: 3MTA3

                                                                    Yeah, it's the lice that would scare me off.