Considered pests by the City of Calgary, residents are free to catch and eat the birds

Source: CBC News

Calgary resident Curtis Fagan knows the stigma that surrounds pigeons — that the birds are dirty and filthy, famously dubbed “rats with wings” in the 1980 comedy Stardust Memories.

But before they were regarded as nuisances or pests, pigeons were consumed for thousands of years. They fell out of favour in the 1930s and 1940s when media began to report on the prevalence of the birds in large cities, along with their perceived irritating noise and reported links to disease.

As a culinary option, however, the pigeon didn’t fall out of favour for some — including Fagan.

“They’re cute, they’re sweet animals, and they’re delicious,” Fagan said. “This is also partially because I wanted to get my hands on raising and catching my own food, just because I think that’s kind of lost.”

Fagan said he first became interested in the concept of catching and cooking pigeons after watching outdoorsman and YouTuber Zachary Fowler catch the birds using a slingshot.

Along with his housemate, Fagan ventured out to Calgary’s Ogden neighbourhood and found a roost of about 150 pigeons. They soon captured their first pigeon dinner.

“Vegans and vegetarians don’t tend to like it very much, but the property owner here loves it … we scare them out with a laser or a piece of dowel or a piece of PVC pipe,” Fagan said. “Then, we stand with a net and catch them.”

Considered pests by the City of Calgary, residents are free to catch and eat the birds. Alberta Fish and Wildlife consider pigeons as non-license birds, so residents can hunt them without a license so long as they follow bylaws with respect to the discharge of firearms and other weapons.

But is it safe?

Fagan brings his pigeons back home and keeps them in a sort of pigeon loft in his backyard, complete with makeshift homes made out of buckets.

He said Calgary’s pigeon population is “really healthy” — adding you’ll know if a pigeon is sick the moment you begin to prepare it for dinner.

“The moment you gut the bird, if he or she is not healthy, you’ll see bruises or issues around the breast, issues with the skin where it’s darkening in areas where it shouldn’t be, stuff like that,” Fagan said, adding that out of the 25 birds he’s eaten in the last six months, he’s only had to throw away one or two.

Of course, one wouldn’t want to risk eating a street pigeon without cleaning it and introducing it to a new food source, according to Colin Jerolmack, a scientist at New York University and author of The Global Pigeon.

“Given what [street pigeons] eat — street garbage — and are exposed to, like lead, [you shouldn’t eat them],” Jerolmack said in an email to CBC News. “People do eat farmed pigeons, which are called squab … in that case, from a health and safety perspective, it would be unproblematic.”

Once Fagan brings the birds home, he’ll introduce them to a diet of bird food mixed with lard and proteins.

“We’ve been taught forever that they’re dirty animals, but every bird will have dirty insides if they eat dirty food, just like human beings,” Fagan said.

‘Rats with wings’?

Over the last century, Jerolmack writes in his paper How Pigeons Became Rats: The Cultural-Spatial Logic of Problem Animals, pigeons have been shot, gassed, electrocuted, poisoned, trapped and fed contraceptives.

In short, people don’t really like the birds. People frequently think that pigeons are dumb and that they’re disease vectors, Jerolmack said, but that’s entirely not the case.

They aren’t unintelligent — they can do basic math, distinguish an impressionist from a cubist painting and recognize themselves in a mirror, something even dogs can’t do.

“They can find their way home from somewhere they’ve never been from hundreds of miles away without Google Maps,” Jerolmack said.

Regarding the birds being disease-ridden, Jerolmack said there’s no evidence that pigeons have more diseases than other urban animals, including many pets.

“Few of them are communicable to people, and there is almost no evidence of anyone ever getting sick from casual sidewalk encounters with pigeons,” Jerolmack said. “They are not responsible, as far as we know, for any disease pandemic.”

So why eat them?

Though Fagan said he finds the birds sweet and has grown accustomed to their personalities, being able to catch and raise his own food has long been an interest of his.

“I try to give them a high-quality life. It’s optimal food, optimal environment, optimal circumstances. And it really does allow me to reduce my carbon footprint,” he said. “All of their droppings are used in compost for the greenhouse that we’re building in the spring.

“So yes, they’re cute, they make great pets, but they’re yummy, yummy birds.”

Fagan said the birds taste like steak. Squab, when served in restaurants around the world today, is often described as tasting like flavourful dark meat.

He said he now has 16 birds in his backyard garage, but hopes to expand that and add upwards of 40 or 50. At that point, Fagan thinks he’d have the equivalent amount of meat as he would with one and a half white-tailed deer.

“So it’s this carbon neutral zone, without necessarily partaking in the larger industry of meat consumption,” Fagan said. “So for me, it came down to being an ethical and planet-smart choice.”