DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—
In 2010, an English-language newspaper in Dubai ran a cover story titled Pigeon Impossible: Rats With Wings. “Pigeons have become a nuisance in the city, leaving many residents exasperated,” the report said. “These birds which have been breeding uncontrollably are messing up property with their droppings.” It detailed how pigeon waste was corroding roofs, windows, machinery, car paint, and infecting air conditioning systems. A public health official lamented the “serious” problem, but said that there was no way to count the number of pigeons that were relieving themselves across the city.
The report pointed out that Switzerland had experimented with pigeon contraceptive pills, Britain had hired air gun–wielding snipers to shoot pigeons off buildings, and the United States had used plastic models of birds of prey to scare them off airport runways.
Dubai has been called “the Manhattan of the Arab world.” Over the past three decades, as the United Arab Emirates rapidly developed, it had been preoccupied with breaking world records: It now has the world’s tallest building, largest mall, longest driverless metro, and fastest steel rollercoaster. But an onslaught of pigeon droppings didn’t fit the city’s glittering public image.
The city’s growth was accompanied by a growth in the pest population, including pigeons. A proliferation of pest control firms, now over a hundred in Dubai, was accompanied by a niche market specializing in bird control, many of them employing falcons—natural predators of smaller birds as well as a prized status symbol for the Emirati elite. At the upper end of the market, falcons now travel on private jets with royals from the Persian Gulf on hunting expeditions across the world. In 2010, the UAE led a submission to UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, eventually having falconry, a tradition dating back at least 4,000 years, recognized as an example of intangible cultural heritage. But thanks to the pigeon problem, falcons are being put to work in less glamorous occupations as well.