Being the most common bird in Amsterdam, probably you’ve seen pigeons walking around with great difficulty, as some toes or even the whole foot is missing. I never thought much about it and assumed that this individual had an unlucky accident. But they are not isolated cases and it’s actually very common among city pigeons. It’s caused by little strings, threads or human hair from the city streets which get wrapped around the toes and feet, eventually can lead to those body parts dying off. This is known as stringfoot.
In Amsterdam a group of people is determined to help them and are checking on pigeons on a regular basis. Many pigeons can be helped by just catching them and cutting the strings with a small scissors. I’m talking to animal rights activist Billie Savage, who initiated the project.
Toffee the pigeon
She recalls the very beginning, back in 2020. “I was on my way to an Animal Rebellion weekend workshop, and I saw a pigeon laying on her belly at the station in Den Bosch. I noticed she couldn’t walk because both feet were so inflamed with strings. It was obvious she was in terrible pain. I tried to catch her, but I had no experience with that so did not use the right techniques and she would keep flying away.” The next morning Billie tried again with another pigeon friend, and after 1,5 hours they succeeded. ” Toffee made a full recovery and was released some months later. After that I saw stringfoots everywhere, and built up techniques and expertise.”
The strings end up around the pigeons feet, because in cities pigeons have to walk around a lot in the street to find food. As they are not wild birds, but domesticated, they don’t just fly to the forest, but prefer to stay in the same area in town. When the strings get attached to their feet, they unfortunately can’t take it off by themselves.
After this first case Billie starts to help pigeons on a regular basis. During Stringfoot Sundays, pigeon friends meet and together go help pigeons in the streets of Amsterdam, and other cities as well. At these occasions new people can also learn how to help the birds. The pigeons who are in a really bad condition get taken to her home in Amsterdam Oud-West, where they can recover. To take it to a next level she set up the foundation Stichting Stadsduiven Hulp Nederland. Its goal is twofold: to raise awareness about the problem, and to help and rescue individual pigeons in need.
“A possible solution for the problem would be to install duiventillen (pigeon houses) by the city of Amsterdam”, says Billie. When the pigeons lay eggs here they can be exchanged for plastic eggs, in order to reduce the amount of pigeons in town. Mid 2000’s such existed for a few years on top of the roof of De Bijenkorf, but not anymore at the moment. “Sadly right now there is no motivation from the gemeente Amsterdam to implement these. Our first steps so far have been to raise the alarm about the stringfoot crisis, since when we started there was not even any city council acknowledgement that this condition existed in Amsterdam.”
Another goal this year is to create a sanctuary for disabled pigeons in the Netherlands, already existing in Germany. Because the existing bird sanctuaries here don’t take pigeons. At the moment Billie is looking for logistical support for this.
“I believe as a population we need to take responsibility to be kind and helpful to these birds who are only here because we put them here, because we used them for our benefit. If we come together we can change this injustice.” Billie likens our city pigeons to stray dogs who you would see in other countries, as they are both originally domesticated animals. “Pigeons are just as deserving of compassion.”