Tuesday, 4 February 2003

Richard Cooper's 2003 Hoban Adventure 18/28

13:39

Trafalgar Square

(Amaryllis Night & Day)

It was on the walk from the Royal Festival Hall back over Hungerford Bridge and across the Embankment that my feet started to make noises. I told them to be quiet and just get on with it, and they took me grumbling to Trafalgar Square.

When I got there I was so busy trying to work out where to leave this quote, because there were no phone boxes in sight, that it took me a few moments to notice the surreal spectacle of a grown man walking around with an enormous hunting bird on his gloved hand chasing pigeons away. What on earth kind of new Livingstone directive was this? The pigeons have been flocking to Nelson’s Column and Trafalgar Square ever since anybody can remember. My dad has a photo of himself aged about nine feeding the pigeons there, his mother and father in their 1950s Sunday best looking on in the background. Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, has made his views on the banishment of the pigeons fairly clear, but I always thought his reasons for doing so were a bit of a bureaucratic joke, and in any case I never thought it would come to such surrealism as this. Nothing else in the passage I had chosen was present in the Square, except the lions and the fountain; only the pigeons, and the pigeon-scarer.

Then again, maybe this wasn’t an official happening; maybe the guy just turns up with his kestrel or whatever it was and frightens pigeons away all day for a laugh. After all, armed with a bird like that you wouldn’t argue with him. That said, he didn’t seem to be having much fun. A tall man with the ruddy face of a boxer and a thick brown anorak, he walked with great strides into the flocks of birds, his own bird occasionally lifting its wings half-heartedly, the pigeons dispersing even more half-heartedly from the ground and looping up to sit on Nelson’s Column. When he’d walked across the square, some of the pigeons came back down on the other side and started pecking at the ground again. It was like the myth of Sisyphus, and it seemed clear that the pigeons, the hunting bird and even the bloke knew it was all futile but they just had to get on with it.

I wanted to speak to the Bird-man of Trafalgatraz but he was walking with such huge strides that I could barely catch up with him. “Are you an official pigeon-scarer?” I panted.

“Yep,” he nodded expressionlessly, still wading into the flock.

“And what kind of bird is that you’ve got?”

“’Arris ’awk,” he said.

“A what, sorry?”

“HARRIS HAWK.”

“Oh, right. Any chance of a photo?”

“Yep,” he said as if this was the 94th time he’d been asked this today. Finally he stood still, his bird-arm outstretched like a scarecrow while I took the picture.

“Cheers.”

“No problem.”

A few days later, on Saturday 15th February, I ended up in Trafalgar Square again on the huge Stop the War rally. The bird-man wasn’t there that day: perhaps pigeons got the weekend off from being scared. I imagined them gearing up for the day on a Monday morning:

PIGEON 1: What’s the time?

PIGEON 2: Five to nine.

PIGEON 1: Shall we look scared yet?

PIGEON 2: Nah. Wait until he turns up.

PIGEON 1: You know what?

PIGEON 2: What.

PIGEON 1: I actually quite like being scared. Gives you something to think about.

PIGEON 2: I know what you mean. A sense of identity.

PIGEON 1: A role to play.

PIGEON 2: Yeah.

As for the quote, in the end I didn’t leave it anywhere because Trafalgar Square now seemed so unHobanesque. No pigeon-scarers in Peter Diggs’s day, nor my dad’s, nor mine when I was a kid. The times they are a-scarin’.


Postscript

I emailed the Mayor of London’s office with several queries about this curious method of pigeon unfancying, and a few weeks later received the following reply:

From: "Andrew Eyre"
To: "Richard Cooper"
Sent: Wednesday, March 12, 2003 4:51 PM
Subject: MGLA260203-1370: RE : Pigeon scarer in Trafalgar Square

Dear Mr Cooper,

Thank you for your email asking about the use of a hawk to deter pigeons from gathering in Trafalgar Square. I have been asked to reply.

Hawks are used to control pigeon numbers in many buildings and public spaces that have a large pigeon population - e.g. the Treasury, Portcullis House, at London Underground train depots. They provide a natural means of dealing with the problem and the RSPCA say that 'using a hawk as a deterrent is not cruel to the pigeons. feeding the pigeons is the root of the problem and must be addressed'. The hawk is being flown as part of a series of measures to reduce the number of pigeons in Trafalgar Square, which also includes a controlled feeding programme that is gradually reducing the amount of food available to pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

Specific details about the handler are not publicly available, however, I can assure you that the handler is reputable, well qualified and experienced and that these activities are closely monitored.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Eyre

Project Officer

Greater London Authority


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