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The very surprising reason why so many of London's pigeons have no feet

MyLondon logo MyLondon 27/01/2022 Bea Isaacson

If there's one thing all Londoners can agree on - a substantial claim, given the eight million of us reside in the grumbling capital - it's that the city could do with less pigeons.

They flock to our squares in their dozens, and defecate all over, even our most treasured monuments and statues. They squabble over leftover sandwich crusts, and nip furiously at cigarette butts.

And if you get too close to the flying rats, as they've come to be nicknamed over the years, and you might even notice a somewhat grim detail of missing toes - or even the whole foot.

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There are various theories for this, but none have quite managed to stick. Some have argued the long-term effects of urban pollution; others rationalise its from them standing in their own excrement.

Luckily, the French seem to hate pigeons just as much as their neighbours across the Channel, and a team of scientists in Paris - in which there are more pigeons per square mile than in London - have seemingly come up with a solution to this phenomenon, once and for all.

A new study by scientists from the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN) and the University of Lyon, first published in 2019, suggests that human hair may in fact be a culprit.

A man feeds the pigeons in Green Park during the coronavirus lockdown. Credit: Getty Images © Getty Images A man feeds the pigeons in Green Park during the coronavirus lockdown. Credit: Getty Images

Study co-author Frédéric Jiguet, of the National Museum, told CNN he came up with the idea for the study after noticing mutilated pigeons as he walked through the Jardin des Plantes, a botanical garden, in Paris.

Scientists started by studying the extent of pigeon toe mutilations at 46 different areas dotted around the French capital.

Jiguet and the team found that toe mutilation surprisingly "tended to increase with the density of hairdressers," according to the study.

He said pigeons could lose digits which get stuck in human hair, a phenomenon known as "stringfeet."

"When they walk, they can trip on strings or hair," he explained. "The string might just fall, but sometimes it forms a knot around a toe, and in the end the toe dies and falls off."

So, with that being found in Paris, it could too be the reason why so many of London's pigeons have missing toes, and sometimes, even feet.

The study concludes with a sentiment considerably less shocking than the hairdresser detail; that ultimately, pigeons in greener spaces are healthier, and pigeons in denser and more urban spaces are less so.

Which is one thing us humans have in common with pigeons, outside of a fancy for Pret sandwiches and McDonalds french fries.

Do you have a story you think we should be covering? Email bea.isaacson@reachplc.com

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