Pigeon-napper hits London Squab rob: Tourists who enjoy feeding the tame birds in Trafalgar Square are disappointed at their diminished numbers, blamed on a man believed to be catching the pigeons for sale to restaurants.

March 09, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- The streets of downtown London aren't even safe for the pigeons anymore.

Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of the world's most famous pigeons are missing from their favored concrete feeding ground in the shadow of Nelson's Column at Trafalgar Square. The stolen birds are presumed to have been sold off to pie-making restaurants.

The stomach-flipping whodunit has bedeviled police and outraged the flocks of tourists who trek to Trafalgar Square and pay for the privilege of feeding the birds.

"We've got a pigeon thief on the loose," says Bernard Rayner, whose family has been running the bird food stand in Trafalgar Square for three generations.

The great pigeon caper has apparently been going on for three months. The prime suspect is a man in his 20s who wears blue overalls and a red baseball cap. He has been seen in the square scooping the birds into a cardboard box 40 at a time. He then makes his getaway in the subway.

Police claim that at this rate, the thief could clear out the entire flock of Trafalgar Square pigeons in seven months. That would be a feat that German bombs during World War II and a pigeon birth-control campaign enacted three years ago failed to accomplish.

"We've tried to stop him," Mr. Rayner says. "He just flouts the law."

Since no one actually owns the pigeons, police can't file theft charges. A Wildlife and Countryside Act prohibits individuals from damaging or destroying wild birds.

"If this man gets away with it and tells his mates, I'm worried we're going to have an army of people scooping up pigeons and selling them to restaurants," Trafalgar Square beat bobby Roy Riggs said in yesterday's editions of the Sun of London. "It must be stopped."

Mr. Rayner claims the thief told him he is collecting the birds for a pigeon-racing club.

"That's a lot of pigeons to race," says Mr. Rayner. "He's obviously doing this for monetary gain."

Pigeon is a favored dish in many London restaurants. Apparent- ly, patrons savor the bird's liver-like taste.

The Grill restaurant at the Savoy Hotel is currently spotlighting pigeon stuffed with truffles and served with shiitake mushrooms and celeriac. The dish goes for the princely price of $29.

"We only ever go to recognized suppliers," says Pam Carter, spokeswoman for the Savoy. "Gentlemen turning up with boxes we'd regard with suspicion."

If the law can't stop the pigeon thief, then public opinion surely will. In Britain, animals are so beloved, it's not uncommon to wander into a pub where children are prohibited but dogs are welcomed with open arms.

The tourists also can never seem to get enough of the Trafalgar Square pigeons, which are as much a London attraction as Madame Tussaud's wax figures or the Tower of London's guards, known as the Beefeaters.

"It's good to watch the people's faces when they feed the birds," says Mr. Rayner, who charges the tourists 35 cents for each cup of bird food. "This is good cheap fun."

Yesterday, 11-year-old Thandi Dewit of South Africa and her 9-year-old brother, Tjaart, wandered around the square with birds on their heads, their arms, even their shoes. Nearby, their mother, Lynn Ferguson, watched the bird-luring spectacle with mounting laughter -- and horror.

"Personally, I can't stand those birds," Mrs. Ferguson said. "But the kids love them."

Mrs. Ferguson, visiting the city for the second time in five years, said she noticed immediately that the Trafalgar Square flock was diminished.

"My first reaction was, 'Is that all there is?' "

Maija Kelly of San Jose, Calif., came to the square to show off the diminished flock to her boyfriend, Christopher Larson. While she snapped photos he, unsteadily, let the pigeons climb on his shoulders.

"These pigeons are nothing but rats with wings," Ms. Kelly said.

So, why go to all the bother of feeding the birds in Trafalgar Square?

"You can't do this in California," she said.

Pub Date: 3/09/96

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