The irony was too much: When Pope Francis and two children released two white “peace doves” at the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City on Sunday, the doves were immediately attacked by other birds, losing feathers and being driven away as a huge crowd watched. Continue reading
An “epidemic” of pigeon deaths in Moscow has sparked speculation that birds were succumbing to a virus dangerous to human beings. People who came across sick birds paying no attention to cars or passersby described them as “zombie pigeons.”
On Wednesday the Federal Veterinary and Phytosanitary Inspection Service reported that the birds’ abnormal behavior was caused by the so-called “Newcastle disease,” which can spread to humans.
Moscow’s Veterinary Committee said the mass death of pigeons in the capital was due to salmonellа poisoning, an intestinal infection spread among animals and humans. Veterinary specialists detected lesions on the gastrointestinal tracts and livers of the dead birds caused by salmonella, not Newcastle disease, Interfax reported.
Autopsies of dead birds showed that they had all suffered from a common intestinal infection that is not dangerous to humans, said Moscow’s deputy mayor for social issues, Leonid Pechatnikov. Neither the bird flu, dangerous to humans, nor fowl plague or any other diseases threatening people have been found, he said.
Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s chief sanitary inspector, said that while the word “epidemic” was often used in the press, he doubted it could described as one. However, he warned that parents should take care if their children could come into contact with sick birds.
“We are especially worried about children’s playgrounds… And if a dead bird is found on the balcony, it must be washed with disinfectant. Doing this, one must be wearing rubber gloves,” Onishchenko said.
Although the birds’ salmonella is not harmful to humans, direct contact with the sick birds should be avoided, veterinarians said.
“The disease poses no risk for humans, provided standard precautions of personal hygiene are observed and direct contact with sick birds is avoided. Activators of avian influenza and psittacosis (an infection that can be transmitted to humans) have not been identified,” the committee said.
Salmonella infections in humans usually resolve in 5-7 days, but a small number of persons with Salmonella develop pain in their joints, irritation of the eyes and painful urination. The so-called Reiter’s syndrome can last for months or years, and can lead to chronic arthritis.
Newcastle disease, which is transmissible to humans, can cause mild conjunctivitis and influenza-like symptoms.
Ornithologists say that the so-called “epidemic” occurs every year, and not only in Moscow. “Most often, it begins in August. This is due to the fact that the breeding season is over, young birds come out with reduced immunity, and they are more susceptible to all infectious diseases,” ornithologist Natalia Anisimova told Russia’s TV Dozhd (Rain).
Pigeons, those hardy urban survivalists, rarely evoke much sympathy in humans.
But in the past week, many residents of the Russian capital, Moscow, have expressed alarm at the growing number of dead and dying pigeons on city streets.
What’s most unnerving, say capital dwellers like Umid, is the way the normally spunky birds are behaving.
“When I walk to work, I usually see pigeons running and jumping around. But recently, they haven’t been reacting to anything at all,” he says. “When a person walks past them, they used to fly away. But now they just sit there in a kind of funk and don’t even pay attention to you. They’re just not normal. I’ve seen some pigeons behaving very strangely, turning around in circles.”
Hundreds of Muscovites have noted the trend, many with online posts and graphic photographs of the so-called “zombie pigeons.”
One Twitter user said a family meal was interrupted when an afflicted pigeon sitting on the ledge of an open window frame lost its balance and fell into the kitchen.
“I saw a pigeon sitting right in the street, its bill resting on the ground,” another person wrote. “It’s like a bird apocalypse.”
Veterinarians and ornithologists have confirmed the phenomenon. Natalia Anisimova, a vet at Green Parrot, a Moscow clinic specializing in birds, says she’s examined dozens of sick pigeons in recent weeks.
“There is an abundance of various infections, really, and each time something new comes up — either some bacterial infection, or ornithosis, or salmonellosis, or Newcastle disease,” she says. “Infections spread via bird-to-bird contact either through airborne droplets or dust.”
On August 14, Russia’s state veterinary service, Rosselkhoznadzor, confirmed that Newscastle disease and salmonellosis had been detected among the sick birds.
In crowded, summertime Moscow, there are fears the “zombie pigeons” may pose a health risk to their human neighbors.
At least some avian infections, including ornithosis and Newscastle disease — a disease that can cause pigeons to stagger, turn in circles, and twist their heads upside down — can be transmitted to people, although only rarely with serious consequences.
Russia’s chief health inspector, however, says there is no cause for alarm.
Gennady Onishchenko — who last month banned Ukrainian chocolate as a potential health hazard — on August 14 urged people to avoid touching sick or dead birds with their bare hands but said authorities were taking no special measures to deal with the epidemic.
‘Dirty, Stupid Birds’
He also appeared to reveal a personal distaste for rock doves, as common city pigeons are officially known.
“In the hands of Pablo Picasso, a pigeon became an embodiment of peace,” he said. “But, in fact, in a sanitary sense, they’re one of dirtiest, stupidest birds there are.”
Viktor Kharlashin, the president of Pigeons of Russia, a Moscow-based enthusiasts organization, shares the sentiment.
Kharlashin, who keeps “5,000 perfectly healthy pigeons” in special coops at home, says rock doves have been a blight on the Russian pigeon empire ever since they were introduced to the country during a youth festival in 1957.
“Everything Onishchenko said is true. It’s not only that they’re dirty, but they also spread disease,” Kharlashin says. “Ever since 1957, they’ve been inbreeding like crazy, and their immune system is very weak. They can even be infected with diseases that never used to affect pigeons before. They all need to be destroyed.”
To fans of the humble, hearty city pigeon, such pronouncements may seem harsh.
Umid, who grew up in Uzbekistan watching his father lovingly tend his own collection of doves and pigeons, says these normally tough urban birds deserve more respect than they get.
“I’ve always thought that birds are like an indicator of the state of the ecology around us,” Umid says. “If something is happening to them, then there’s reason to believe that the local ecology is going to have an impact on people, as well. I often see how these birds are splashing around in puddles by the side of the road, close to the curb, in all kinds of oil and fluids. Poor birds.”