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Why Do So Many Chicago Pigeons Have Missing Toes And Feet? Blame Human Hair

By Justin Breen | September 22, 2016 5:44am | Updated on September 23, 2016 10:29am
 This pigeon is missing its toes.
This pigeon is missing its toes.
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Flickr Creative Commons/Roger Bunting

DOWNTOWN — Walk anywhere in Chicago, and you'll see pigeons flying or walking around.

Many of those urban dwellers are doing more hobbling than walking — the result of deformed or missing feet or toes.

There are several causes for the deformities, according to the Field Museum's Dave Willard, who's also president of the Chicago Audubon Society.

Willard said the city's pigeons routinely get their feet or toes wound up in string, thread and human hair on the ground. If those materials wind tightly enough, it cuts off circulation, and the toes or foot can be lost.

The organization pigeonrescue.org classifies the condition as "stringfoot." Pigeons outside the city use twigs, straw and hay to build nests, the website said, but in cities like Chicago, the nests are constructed with string, wire and human hair.

Willard said pigeons, like humans stuck in the snow or cold, are subject to loss of toes and feet from frostbite.  In Chicago, they can be seen congregating near air vents in the winter to keep warm, he said. Many city pigeons also hang out near the Daley Center Eternal Flame, sometimes getting burned.

Willard said the injured birds feel "something akin to pain," but it's not clear how much. Research has shown injured birds will choose food containing pain medication over untreated food, but that's obviously not an option on Chicago city streets.

Willard said pigeons can survive just fine despite the deformities as long as they can eat. He noted though, that "for all those deformed feet you are seeing, there are countless individuals that probably died from their injuries."

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