Penang’s booming pigeon population a menace to health

What a mess: A car at the Rifle Range car park is covered with pigeon and crow droppings. — LIM BENG TATT/The Star

GEORGE TOWN: While Penang is known as a magnet to visitors from all over the world, the state is also swarming with pigeons.

In the last five years, the population of pigeons has risen sharply in the northern state renowned for its street food and cultural heritage.

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In 2018, 3,419 pigeons were caught and the numbers have since soared – 3,811 in 2019; 6,848 in 2020; 5,572 (2021); 5,020 (2022); and 5,735 as up to Oct 31 last year.

Fauziah Samad, 56, a rice seller at her flat in Mak Mandin on the mainland, had to momentarily stop her business in 2021 after her five-year-old son developed symptoms of psittacosis, which is mainly associated with pigeon droppings.

“My son loved to play with the pigeons near my stall and feed them. One day, he suddenly came down with a high fever and cough, and had to be rushed to the hospital.

“He was diagnosed with inflammation of the brain. I was so worried that I stopped working for nearly a month to look after him,” she said, adding that the birds would usually crowd around her stall to look for leftovers.

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According to health experts, psittacosis is transmitted to humans who inhale the dried droppings, respiratory secretions and feather dust of birds infected with the Chlamydia psittaci bacteria.

A pigeon lover who wanted to be known only as Rose said she fell sick with a mild lung infection six years ago due to what she believed was overexposure to the birds.

“I used to feed them outside my house every evening. Their droppings and feathers were all over my porch.

“The doctors said that was how I got sick. Now, when I see them, I try to avoid getting too close,” she said.

Ornithologist Dr Gino Ooi, who owns Penang Bird Park, said while some people found feeding pigeons entertaining or relaxing, they were not aware of the health risks involved.

“I am a bird lover, so I don’t like to describe a bird in a bad way. But I don’t want us to trigger a disease outbreak.

“Pigeons spread the disease quickly because they live in dense flocks close to humans.

“The droppings could spread diseases through airborne fungal spores and bacteria, and Penang has a lot of pigeons,” he said.

State local government committee chairman Jason H’ng said the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) has identified 28 areas as pigeon hotspots on the island.

“We have put up 31 signboards advising the people against feeding birds or animals in public areas.

“MBPP always reminds the public not to leave behind food particles indiscriminately, which could attract all types of animals and birds,” he said.

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Stern action, he warned, could be taken under Section 47(1)(g) of the Street, Drainage and Building Act 1974 and bylaws (Cleanliness and Public Safety) MPPP 1980 against anyone littering in public.

H’ng said the council had, among others, stepped up its pigeon-catching exercise from twice to four times a week based on the complaints received.

“We also fix bird repellents on suitable locations and conduct joint operations with other related departments,” he said.

H’ng said MBPP was also trying out a birth control programme called “Ovocontrol”, which uses a special type of feed to reduce the laying of eggs by pigeons.

“A special trap for pigeons was also procured recently for a trial run,” he said.

Over on the mainland, the Seberang Prai City Council (MBSP) has taken several measures to reduce the pigeon population, including biweekly operations to look for their nests as well as a public awareness programmes in targeted areas.

“Since 2018, we have conducted 62 operations at MBSP-owned markets and food complexes, and in residential areas.

“We managed to capture 5,140 pigeons,” said Mayor Datuk Azhar Arshad.

Malaysian Nature Society adviser D. Kanda Kumar urged people to stop feeding pigeons because “naturally, like other animals, they know how to find their own food.”

A check at several places here such as Penang Road, the Esplanade and Little India found small flocks of pigeons waiting to be fed.

Near a food stall in Little India, a large flock was pecking at the grains of rice or pieces of bread tossed on the road.

Senior citizen G. Maniam said the pigeons had become a menace in public spaces.

“We don’t hate the birds, but pigeon droppings can mess up the city’s image as a tourist destination. Their faeces is visible on buildings, roads and even vehicles,” said the 73-year-old.

Hotel manager Mohamad Hafiz Mohamad Sholeh, 29, said last year, its management hired a pest control service to install anti-pigeon skewers to prevent the birds from perching on its windows.

“We regularly receive complaints from our guests, some of whom have even cancelled their bookings and gone to other hotels when they saw too many pigeons around,” he said.

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