LONDON (Reuters) - Shortly before dawn at one of Britain’s most famous city landmarks, 27-year-old Magic is playing his part in a battle to the death -- with a bag of bird seed.
He opens his gym bag and starts spraying corn feed left and right near the imposing portico of the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, surrounded by flocks of hungry pigeons.
He is one of a small but dedicated band of bird-lovers who have vowed to stop London Mayor Ken Livingstone starving the birds out of the 160-year-old square.
Livingstone says pigeon droppings have caused thousands of pounds worth of damage to Nelson’s column and has vowed to get rid of them, to the dismay of bird-lovers who say the pigeons are part of the square’s appeal.
“If we stop, they will starve and they will die,” said Magic, who uses only his nickname.
The 27-year-old from Poland has been feeding the pigeons almost every morning for the past two years before going to his construction job. His girlfriend and his brother also help.
Another ally is nearby with a bag of seed.
“Pigeons are part of Trafalgar Square,” said Vera Petrovic, a grocery cashier who has fed the pigeons every Wednesday morning for the past two years.
“Somebody must care for them. They deserve to be here. They are part of London tourism,” she said.
Petrovic moved to Britain in 1996 during the post-Yugoslav war in her native Croatia. She says the pigeons remind her of Ban Jelacic Square in Zagreb.
The war over Trafalgar Square’s pigeons has been going on for over six years -- well before the 25-million-pound facelift of the square which was completed in 2003 -- and has involved various deterrence tactics including the use of megaphones and even hawks.
The two Harris hawks proved expensive and had to go after they started overstepping their remit and killing pigeons in front of horrified tourists.
Feeding pigeons was prohibited and seed-sellers were banned from the square amid accusations of cruelty to animals and dark predictions of mass starvation.
But in 2002 a managed feeding programme was agreed which allowed pigeon-lovers to feed the birds ever-diminishing amounts of seed, provided by the Greater London Authority (GLA), to bring down numbers gradually.
Since the programme began, feeding has been reduced to 35 kilos a day, down from 150 kilos, helping cut the number of pigeons in the square to 1,500 from 4,000.
The programme was supposed to end next year but last summer the GLA pulled out of the agreement after “rogue” feeding on the square’s north terrace in front of the National Gallery, which is controlled by Westminster City Council and does not fall under the Mayor’s jurisdiction.
And that is where the legal problems began.
The Save the Trafalgar Square Pigeons group (STTSP) claims the deal was binding and that the Mayor had failed to pay an agreed 3,000 pounds for bird food.
Livingstone says the activists failed to adhere to the spirit of the agreement by allowing the rogue feeding and the whole case will be resolved in court in April.
“We have no intention of going backwards,” said a GLA spokesman. “Since the introduction of a byelaw banning unauthorised pigeon feeding ... there has been a reduction in the number of pigeons on Trafalgar Square so that the space can be properly used by the public.
“The ban has significantly improved the environment of the square.”
Livingstone is not alone in his fight against what he has called “rats with wings.”
“I walk through every morning and I slip over what they leave behind,” said bank manager Paul Torpin as he crossed the square last month.
Torpin is one of many Londoners who agree with Livingstone’s campaign -- but the pigeons can still count on tradition and the tourists.
Feeding pigeons is popular with tourists at landmarks around the world from Venice’s San Marco Square to Central Park in New York City, says Tim Webb of The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in London.
“It’s like chucking a coin in the Trevi fountain (in Rome),” he added. “It’s one of the things you do when you go to these places. There’s a romantic notion of feeding the pigeons.”
Hansel Gonzalez, an American who is working on his PhD in petroleum engineering in Edinburgh, remembers how he used to feed pigeons in Central Park when visiting New York as a child.
“It’s almost a ritual you do when you’re a tourist,” he said.
“London around here is just so fast and moving so quickly -- with the square and the pigeons it just seems time goes a little more slowly and it’s a little more enjoyable.”
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