Luigi Costantini  /  AP
Pigeons in Venice's St. Mark's Square are a tourist attraction as well as a pollution problem.
updated 9/11/2006 10:44:19 AM ET 2006-09-11T14:44:19

Just a handful of corn, and the pigeons of St. Mark's Square swoop.

Nothing says "I've been to Venice" better than a photo snapped with pigeons perched on arms, shoulders, head, breast. Multiply that by, perhaps, a million times a year.

The constant feeding has created a pigeon problem in the lagoon city, and feathers are flying. The pigeons are dirty. They carry disease. They are ruining the city's glorious facades and spreading filth in the piazzas. And the mayor wants action.

"In Venice we have a difficult problem, because the birds find food everywhere, and there are millions of tourists who want to take pictures with them," said Mario Scattolin, the top environmental official for the city of 800,000. "We're a small city with a huge influx of tourists."

No one knows for sure how many pigeons live in Venice's 2.5 square miles, but the city estimates 40,000. About one-third of them pass through St. Mark's Square on any given day, Scattolin said.

Five of them perched one sunny afternoon on Constanta Aurel's outstretched arms, three on the right and two on the left. Then another settled snugly on her breast. The tourist from Romania squealed as her husband, Nicolae, shot pictures.

"It's a marvelous picture," he said. "Tourists come here to see the birds and the church. I think it's a big part of the attraction."

Venice already rounds up pigeons regularly and kills the sick ones, but that doesn't seem to stem their numbers. Other attempts have included introducing contraceptives to their food supply and birds that eat their eggs.

The animal rights group LAV says the most effective method is to feed them less. But that would mean shutting down the corn vendors at St. Mark's. "They're a powerful lobby," said Massimo Vitturi, an LAV spokesman.

Still, nothing's impossible. London managed to curtail pigeon-feeding at Trafalgar Square over strenuous public objections, and Venice Mayor Massimo Cacciari is also determined to project a cleaner image of his city. A new pigeon census is planned, with recommendations on population control due by year's end, Scattolin said.

But two separate ordinances appear to be at odds with each other. One forbids the feeding of pigeons. The other grants concessions to sell bags of corn to tourists — 3 1/2 ounces for $1.30.

"There have been pigeons in St. Mark's Square for a thousand years," said vendor Gianni Favin. "To see the piazza without pigeons is like seeing a tree without its leaves."

"It's not true that the pigeons are ruining the buildings," he said, motioning to a grimy arcade front. "That black is caused by smog."

Nineteen families live off the corn sales, Favin says, working two shifts a day at nine stands, with one vendor off each day. On a nice day he makes more than $100, he says; on a rainy day, a tenth of that.

"I understand there are too many birds, and that they are dirty," he said. "The city makes us pick up the bags. We do it for inconsiderate people, but we can't keep on top of all the trash," he said, walking into the piazza to pick up a discarded paper sack. "Where are the city sweepers?"

Favin says if the city revokes their licenses, the vendors will do what the sellers of counterfeit purses do — throw out a blanket with their wares and grab them up whenever a police officer appears.

Geoffrey Humphries, a British-born artist, sat in the piazza painting a watercolor of St. Mark's Basilica for an exhibit next month in Washington, D.C. "I first came here 40 years ago, and at 2 p.m., the bells would ring and a city employee would come with a bucket and feed the birds," Humphries said. "So my canvas would all be covered in feathers."

He's all for diminishing the pigeon population. "They are flying vermin."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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