One good use for avian flu would be the destruction of pigeons. But, what's the likelihood of that?

avflupigeon.jpg Credit: Terry J. Alcorn

Everyone’s getting all worked up about avian flu. Will the virus spread to North America? Will it mutate and spread between humans? Will it Kill Us AllTM? Valid questions, to be sure, and these concerns have led several nations to decimate bird populations in an effort to stop H5N1 in its tracks.

Romania recently culled 1 million domestic birds; India deep-sixed between 300,000 and 500,000; and Germany took out 400,000 of its poultry stock. In Iran, Slovenia and the UK, the most elegant of birds, the swan, has been slaughtered in the name of public safety when a couple of its ilk were felled by avian flu. In Thailand, sparrows succumbed to the paranoia of a pandemic.

It is truly a shame to lose our fine, feathered friends. Sparrows are adorable chirpers, swans radiate enough grace to inspire balletic masterpieces and chickens go really well with a nice sweet and sour sauce. But, in these avian dark ages there’s a glimmer of light.

Recently, New York state pathologist Ward Stone told the New York Post that the city’s 100,000 pigeons could all be euthanized should bird flu make it to the area.

Pigeons are perhaps the vilest scum to waddle above ground. They congregate in public squares, barely clear the top of your head when you invade their personal space and yet achieve remarkable accuracy when aiming their poop.

Unfortunately, it’s likely the extinction of the pigeon wouldn’t do anything for public health, and if the authorities catch on, we may not experience the joy of a mass execution. According to experts, there’s nary a bird more robust than the pigeon when it comes to bird flu.

“Generally, you can’t even infect pigeons, even with high doses [of the flu],” said David Swayne, director of the USDA’s Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory. “If you give them high doses, occasionally you can get infected pigeons, but they usually don’t shed very much virus.”

Swayne has made it his business to shoot obscenely large doses of avian flu into pigeons’ noses, using three strains of H5N1 in his experiments: The first, a strain found in Hong Kong in 1997, failed to infect even one pigeon, even when he gave them a far higher dose than they would ever encounter in nature. His other two strains were both found in birds isolated in Thailand in 2004, one a dead pigeon, the other, a dead crow. He nasally administered a high dose of the Thai strains to six pigeons each. Only one of these birds died. Six showed signs of infection but never became sick, and Swayne couldn’t even detect the virus in the other five.

“I guess the bottom line is pigeons do not host influenza well at all,” said Paul Miller, an avian diagnostician at the Pennsylvania Veterinary Laboratory. “The more pathogenic strains, they will be able to host, but it’s not normally thought of as a pigeon disease.”

While the virus in its current state won’t drive pigeons into the annals of history, it’s always possible the right mix of mutation and recombination will produce a virus so finely tuned to pigeons that our picnic food will never be touched by their dirty beaks again.

Miller explained that we humans are resistant to H5N1 because the receptors that bind the virus lie deep in our respiratory system. In order for the virus to penetrate far enough to reach those receptors, we need to be exposed to a very high load. Other airborne viruses bond with different, more accessible receptors in our upper respiratory systems, so we contract those illnesses much more easily.

If pigeons fail to contract the disease for similar reasons as humans, our best chance for a pigeon-whacking strain lies with the pig. Pig lungs contain both kinds of receptors, those found in the upper respiratory system that bind with viruses we often contract and those found deep in the lungs that take in avian flu. Since pigs have both receptors in the same environment, the genes from different strains could recombine into one übervirus that latches onto both kinds of receptors. And don’t think that’s too remote a possibility to hope for—both pigs (and even tigers) were infected by a 2004 strain going around East and Southeast Asia.

Sadly, while this sort of recombination could prove to be the fall of the pigeon, it could also breed a virus that kills people. And, really, what good is axing pigeons if there are none of us around to enjoy the pigeon-free world? Not much good, I say, not much good at all.

Even on the off-chance that a perfectly pigeon-prone virus does develop, it would probably not spread far enough to wipe out the species, says Miller. Apparently, there is a small but serious underground community known as “pigeon fanciers,” who have an unhealthy love for pigeons and like to race the birds as if they were real athletes. These renegades on the fringe of society constantly have their eyes on pigeon welfare.

“If pigeons are susceptible to [a strain of influenza],” said Miller, “the pigeon community around here will begin to bring it in to me very quickly, I can assure you. You know, these guys lose a race and they call me up with all sorts of sob stories about what’s wrong with their pigeon.”

While these pigeonphiles do everything in their power to let the pigeons soar free, we pigeon-haters can still find allies in government.

European countries, even those that have not had any recorded cases of avian flu, are placing restrictions on pigeons, said Pascal Lanneau, a Belgian veterinarian. In the Netherlands, still untouched by incidence of bird flu, domestic pigeons were confined to their lofts from February 20 until March 15. In addition, they were not allowed to race until May 1, much to the chagrin of the inscrutable pigeon fanciers. In France, which has seen several cases of H5N1, birds could not train until May, and they cannot race until June.

“Everything is related to the migration of the wild birds during that specific period,” Lanneau said via e-mail. “Because wild birds could be infected and shed the virus, the government is and was afraid that the pigeons could become infected if they were in close contact with infected birds.”

There is only one conclusion to draw from all this: To eliminate the pigeon problem, we must convince misinformed and paranoid governments that pigeons are extraordinarily susceptible to bird flu and an imminent threat to urban populations around the world. Only then will they begin the great pigeon poisoning that will free up our plazas, our parks and our outdoor cafes so we can finally live in peace.

Perhaps Ward Stone has some connection to the Bush family. If so, I think we have an extremely endorsable candidate for the yet-to-be-created position of Avian Flu Czar. 

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Originally published May 21, 2006


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