Pigeons in peril: Is salt the culprit?

Raven attacks on birds surprise witnesses, who fear road salt is making pigeons easy prey

Posted: Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Some urban wildlife observers fear the salt on Juneau's roads and sidewalks is killing more than two birds with one stone.

Bird enthusiasts and downtown residents have seen ravens preying on sickly pigeons. Some have witnessed "lethargic" pigeons torn apart by bands of ravens in the streets of Juneau over the last several weeks. Some blame the salt's health effects for making the birds susceptible.

"I was like in shell-shock," longtime Juneau resident Sharon Kelly said, of the recent mayhem.

A little more than a week ago, Kelly saw about a half dozen crows or ravens gang up on a passive pigeon that did not try to defend itself.

"They killed one (pigeon) and started into another one," she said. "It was like a little massacre."

Biologists and bird watchers have noticed too. The local birdwatchers' Internet chat site, "Eaglechat," has been filled with postings. That enticed at least one biologist to get into the field for more observations.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Ryan Scott spent part of Friday and Sunday downtown looking for samples of dead pigeons. He found two, which he sent to the department's wildlife veterinarian in Fairbanks.

Eaglechat

Check out the local bird-watchers' chat site at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Eaglechat/

"It's something that has generated quite a bit of interest around town," Scott said. "But the bottom line is we don't know a lot of what's going on at this point,"

It's not uncommon for ravens to scavenge on a dead bird, but for them to be so vicious just might be, Scott said.

"It is kind of interesting that they are preying on live pigeons," he said.

Pigeons are not native to Southeast Alaska.

The Fish and Game Department will know more about the cause of death when the results of the necropsies sent to Fairbanks come back, possibly in several weeks. Scott said it is plausible the salt spread to melt ice on roads and sidewalks could be leading to dehydration of the pigeons, making them more susceptible to predators.

He also said it is plausible that the pigeons are lethargic because of the cold weather, disease or even bacteria in bird food left out by humans.

Beth Melville thinks it's the salt on the roads that is leading to the pigeons' demise.

"We treat our roads with salt in order to melt the snow, but the problem is the pigeons depend on the snow for their water," she said. "The reason those pigeons are so lethargic is because they are actually becoming dehydrated from digesting the salt."

A posting on "Eaglechat" said bird rescuers treated two sick pigeons for dehydration and released them.

Melville says she has seen the lethargic pigeons getting ripped apart by ravens. She said they don't fear people and will not fly away when approached.

Silverbow Inn & Bakery employee Dani Byers has also seen the carnage.

"I've noticed a bunch of dead pigeons around, and I wasn't sure if it was other animals doing it or people mutilating them," she said. "It was really strange. Walking home from work I kept seeing wings with nobody or anything attached. It was like the wings just fell off."

Photographer Art Sutch recently witnessed the ravenous ravens from his downtown shop.

"I saw one eating and it looked like the lower end of a pigeon," he said. "It had a pigeon leg stickin' out of its mouth."

Pigeons are not the city's most glamorous animal residents, but Melville said they should be respected.

"I think they're like rats and cockroaches. They're something that live with people," she said. "I really don't mind squashing cockroaches, but I do mind the idea that we're harming (pigeons), although I don't really have a clue of what we can do."

Ryan said people should wait until the necropsy results before making conclusions about the increase of pigeon deaths.

"While we don't have a lot of information at this time, we don't want people to become too concerned about it until we have more information," he said.



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