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Are city pigeons safe to eat?

"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.

    5 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

          1. re: 4X4

            The reason for a canary comes from the phrase "sing like a canary" meaning to confess to the cops.

        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!

            4 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.

                1. re: kudapucat

                  you mean predator fish. whale sharks eat plankton, and dont have much mercury, I assume

                  1. re: Chowrin

                    It's a function of lifespan as well as diet. While plankton may have miniscule levels of mercury, it accumulates over time in as the fish eats more and more plankton over a long period, so a longer-lived fish will keep building up levels (mercury's accumulated far more readily that it's expelled).

            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: 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).