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[Seoul Struggles 3] Forced from public squares, 'flying rats' crowd residential areas

Flying rats settling in residential areas a burden to Seoul citizens as they are no longer welcomed

A city pigeon sits on top of a statue installed by the Seoul Station Square on Tuesday. (Ko Jun-tae/The Korea Herald)
A city pigeon sits on top of a statue installed by the Seoul Station Square on Tuesday. (Ko Jun-tae/The Korea Herald)
At any time of the day, on any day of the week, Seoul residents are used to being “greeted” by pigeons fearlessly roaming the roads alone or in packs.

It’s hard not to notice these “flying rats” if they are near, and people in Seoul became used to sharing the space with them when visiting populous areas. Many have come to accept them as the norm, but there don’t seem to be many in the public eye anymore.

“Now that you speak of it, I don’t know,” said Jang Mi-seon, a 42-year-old administrative worker who was near the Seoul Station on Tuesday to grab lunch. “I see two of them just over there, but there used to a lot more here. I have no idea where they might be.”

Another office worker surnamed Koh near Gwanghwamun area said the same, questioning where they had gone and how he hadn’t noticed it until now. He said he was overjoyed that he doesn’t have to worry about covering his daughter’s eyes when they are outside for snacks.

But Seoul’s pigeons are still thriving. It’s just that they have only been driven out of public spaces and have instead moved closer to Seoul citizens’ homes.

No country for pigeons

The very existence of city pigeons has been a widespread social issue in Seoul, as the birds scavenged the streets for food and defecated on buildings throughout the city, but thousands of the birds were welcomed to the city not that long ago.

A total of 6,000 pigeons were released into the air during the ceremonies for the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Summer Olympics. The city had also built nests for pigeons near the Han River, and amusement parks sold bird food for visitors to feed them.

But after some years, criticism rose that there were just too many pigeons in the capital, and negative sentiment toward them began to build, prompting the Ministry of Environment to designate them as harmful wildlife in 2009 for carrying pathogens and damaging properties with droppings.

Their ubiquity meant Seoul had to deal with the corrosive effect of pigeons’ droppings on buildings, cars and cultural assets. At Wongaksa Temple site, authorities used a thick glass cover to protect a 10-story stone pagoda from pigeon feces.

Studies also revealed that pigeons posed significant public health risks, with their droppings known to spread more than 60 diseases to humans and other animals. Then can also cause various disorders for people as well as contaminate food and water.

The designation prompted local governments to remove nesting boxes from public facilities while advising people to refrain from feeding the birds. Public parks were sprayed with repellents and installed with anti-roosting spikes.

As more and more spikes were installed over the years, pigeons gradually lost their place in public places and populous areas.

Too close for comfort
Dozens of city pigeons roam around an apartment building in Gangnam-gu, southern Seoul. (Ko Jun-tae/The Korea Herald)
Dozens of city pigeons roam around an apartment building in Gangnam-gu, southern Seoul. (Ko Jun-tae/The Korea Herald)
Neither the Seoul Metropolitan Government nor the Ministry of Environment have up to date figures on city pigeon populations throughout South Korea or its capital.

The latest available official data from 2009 shows that there were 35,575 pigeons living in Seoul, but media reports put the figure at least 500,000.

“Who says pigeons are gone? They are all still here,” shouted a resident surnamed Hwang of an apartment complex in Gangnam-gu, southern Seoul, when interviewed by The Korea Herald. Pigeons lurking near her home have bothered her for years, she said.

“I have trouble sleeping at night from these pigeons making noises, and I know a neighbor who had to call in a firm to remove a pigeon nest found next to an outdoor unit of her home’s air conditioner,” Hwang said.

Official records show that pigeons have gradually moved away from public areas to nest near people’s homes. According to city government data, the number of pigeon-related complaints filed to the city surged more than fivefold from 126 in 2015 to 682 in 2019.

Close to 30 percent of the complaints filed in 2015 were in residential areas, but the proportion spiked to 62.2 percent of those filed in 2019.

“These city pigeons had to move away from public areas as they ran out of options to get food there,” said Park Chan-ryul, a senior researcher at the urban forest research center under the National Institute of Forest Science, calling the situation an outcome of a “balloon effect” -- used to describe a situation where suppressing a problem in one place causes it to rise up in another, like pushing down on an inflatable.

“A lot of residential buildings have adequate living conditions for city pigeons, like eaves below roofs or outside air conditioning units. We tried to remove city pigeons from public parks, so the problem moved on to residential areas.”

Pest control firms agree that the number of pigeons has increased over the years, especially in residential areas, as evidenced by their thriving business.

“I’ve been in this business for six years now, and what I can tell you for sure is that I have always stayed busy,” said Hwang Seung-bae, owner of a pest control service firm named Twinkle2Clean that specializes in pigeon-related nuisances.

“We are constantly overloaded with requests asking to remove bird nests by their apartment units or install deterrents so that pigeons don’t sit around by their windows.”

Hwang said he takes care of around 1,600 client orders a year, even after having to decline most of the incoming requests he receives because he simply does not have enough time.

“A lot of other pest control service firms like mine are dealing with the same issue, so I know for sure that pigeons are alive and well,” he added.

No help underway

Even though people continue to suffer from a growing number of pigeons in residential areas, the city and its district governments have remained rather passive towards the issue, leaving those struggling to fend for themselves.

“City pigeons are only categorized as ‘harmful wildlife’ when they cause real disturbance to Seoul residents,” said Lee Myoung-hee, an official at the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s nature & ecology division.

“We are obliged to provide medical care for city pigeons if they are hurt, and district governments respond to cases on city pigeons when real harm to residents is identified.”

Lee said the city government’s administrative manual stipulates they refrain from culling city pigeons when responding to these cases. Killing the pigeons should only be pursued when all options are exhausted, she said, referring to the manual guidelines.

Even though city pigeons are categorized as harmful wildlife, the designation does not give one liberty to kill or harm city pigeons on their own.

According to the Animal Protection Act, people who catch, collect or kill wildlife are subject to up to two years in prison or a fine of up to 20 million won ($17,700). City pigeons are included in the scope of wildlife in legal terms.

The city government also does not have regulations on penalizing those who feed pigeons, one of the problems raised as a reason for the growing pigeon population in Seoul.

“Some foreign countries and cities have penalization standards set for feeding city pigeons, but we don’t,” Lee added.

“The city government is managing with the purpose of creating an environment where people and city pigeons can coexist. We can’t be eliminating every animal that we find problems with, so it is our intent to minimize the damage from these pigeons while treating them as valuable lives.”

Learning to coexist, not eradicate

Experts suggest the city government is right in its approach, as culling is not an end-to-end solution for all harmful wildlife in urban areas. Controlling where city pigeons live is critical to enhancing the living conditions of people and birds alike, they say.

“The focus should be finding ways to limit the number of newly born city pigeons and concentrating the birds in designated areas to live,” Park from the urban forest research center said.

“These pigeons tend to move over to residential areas with habitable living conditions, which causes a lot of complaints from residents. It may be wise to work on creating shelters for these pigeons while working to naturally reduce their population size.”

Some animal activists agree that the number of city pigeons should be controlled to promote coexistence of birds and Seoul residents. One suggestion is for the city government and the private sector to add supplements in bird food products that would curb the pigeons’ fertility rate.

“The problem comes down to whether we should focus on city pigeons’ right to live or right to reproduce,” said Lee Won-bok, president of the Korea Association for Animal Protection.

“This is already practiced in some European countries, and this could be a way for people to be respectful of these pigeons’ lives and create cleaner and healthier living conditions for themselves.”

By Ko Jun-tae (