Meet Barcelona’s pigeon super-feeders

Barcelona, Spain, has a major pigeon problem, like a lot of cities. But the heart of the problem, government officials say, are the super-feeders: some 350 local residents who don’t just toss a few breadcrumbs from a quaint park bench, but distribute bags of food that attract massive flocks of birds.

The World

In the center of Barcelona, on the vast, iconic Plaza Catalunya, Pepi Lopez snaps photos of her 9-year-old grandson, Gabriel. He’s covered in pigeons. They’re roosting on his arms and shoulders while all are eyeing the same thing: the fistful of sunflower seeds in the young boy’s right hand.

“It’s amusing. Their little claws tickle,” he said. “They give me goosebumps.”

Nine-year-old Gabriel loves feeding pigeons and getting them to perch on his arms and shoulders.

The young boy may not know it, but his sweet-looking grandmother, sitting on a nearby park bench, is wanted by local authorities. She’s one of hundreds of pigeon super-feeders — people who spend a lot of time tossing a lot of food to the birds.

“I usually buy my breadcrumbs in the supermarket,” Lopez said. “I brought this big bag, see? I’ve been in Barcelona for 60 years, and we always come to this plaza to feed the pigeons.”

If you multiply Pepi Lopez by 350, that’d be the estimated number of super-feeders in the area, which makes for a lot of happy pigeons. 

That’s 40,000 pigeons, according to Carmen Maté, head of the city’s animal welfare service: “We estimate that we have around 1,100 pigeons per square kilometer in Barcelona when a healthy number would be a quarter of that.”

Thousands of pigeons flock to Barcelona’s Plaza Catalunya, where tourists and a small group of local super-feeders dole out seed.Gerry Hadden/The World

The city is trying to rein in the feeding, using mainly persuasion to convince super-feeders to keep their crumbs to themselves. But it isn’t easy, Maté says, because most of the super-feeders are older, and lonely.

“They’re people who feel ostracized socially,” she said. “Their only connection to another living creature often comes through feeding pigeons.”

Social workers are treading lightly. They are trying to build relationships with them, hoping to gain their trust before mentioning pigeons. 

Tourists can’t seem resist a photo with pigeons while visiting Barcelona.Gerry Hadden/The World

But to find the super-feeders depends largely on complaints from residents.

At a café on another pigeon-filled plaza, barista Diana Sanmudio said that she holds down two jobs because of the birds: serving her customers and cleaning up pigeon droppings.

“There’s this woman who sits just outside, and she tosses them breadcrumbs,” she said. “We have to chase her off to keep our tables clean.”

When The World talked to Sanmudio, she said the woman had just left and could have been interviewed. But city officials asked The World to leave the super-feeders alone and expressed worry that media attention could undermine efforts to win the feeders over. 

In addition to the super-feeder campaign, officials are now using specially treated seeds that leave pigeons sterile and have also banned birdseed sales in the touristy parts of town.

Back at Plaza Catalunya, a young couple sets their baby on the ground, sprinkles seeds on her lap, and films the frenzy. Meanwhile, other kids chase after pigeons while tourists take selfies nearby. High overhead are several much larger birds: seagulls. 

A gull kills and eats a pigeon in a sidewalk in downtown Barcelona, Spain, May 31, 2020.Emilio Morenatti/AP/File

Seagulls are beginning to move more inland, in part, because they are attracted to pigeons, which are an easy meal. City officials are also now monitoring seagull populations.

“Seagulls, in large enough numbers, transform,” Maté said. “They become very aggressive, and they’re considerably bigger than pigeons. And unlike pigeons, seagulls bite.”

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