Homing pigeons cause for concern among some city officials

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Wilmington City Hall. File photo.
Wilmington City Hall. File photo.

What started out as a dispute between neighbors has morphed into Wilmington city council members divided over homing pigeons.

At their meeting last week, council members considered an amendment to a city ordinance that regulates the keeping of domestic fowl, homing pigeons, livestock and wild animals. The amendment would have defined the types of animals that would fall under the different categories as well as outline the specific size of lots needed to keep said animals and how many were allowed.

Homing pigeons, in particular, have been the center of the issue. According to Williane Carr, the city’s chief code enforcement officer who presented the issue to council at the meeting, the issue was brought up a few years ago when a resident who owned pigeons called the city to complain about their neighbor raising chickens. The chicken owners then called to report the pigeons, so the ordinance and enforcement of it was examined.

The current ordinance names chickens but does not specify what falls under “domestic fowl.” As it stands, domestic fowl owners must keep them on a 20,000-square-foot minimum tract of land that is under single ownership, keep all the birds in an enclosure, have a minimum of 10 square-feet per fowl within the enclosure and not keep more than 20 birds per acre of land.

The proposed change separated homing pigeons and gave them their own category with its own set of rules. For the new definition of domestic fowl (which includes chickens but bans roosters, geese, ducks and turkeys within the city), lots must be a minimum of 5,000 square feet under a single owner and only in an area zoned as single family residential. A maximum of five birds, kept in a fenced enclosure, may be kept by one owner, including chicks. For homing pigeons (defined as “any pigeon selectively bred to carry messages and equipped by training and breeding to find its way home”), which are also limited to single family residential areas, a lot must fall under single ownership and be a minimum of 15,000 square feet. Enclosures are still required, but there is no set number on how many pigeons would be allowed per owner.

“If we pass this we’ve now opened up the city for any 15,000 square-foot lot to have homing pigeons of any number – hundreds could be there,” said Councilman Kevin O’Grady. “We’re an urban area, and raising large numbers of homing pigeons in an urban area is not a very good idea.”

“We should be considering it in a way that’s most appropriate for an urban residential lifestyle,” he continued. “It’s not rural.”

Councilmember Laura Padgett agreed, saying that pigeons also pose a threat to human health.

“Pigeons in particular carry diseases that humans as well as other animals are subject to, and some of those diseases for certain portions of our population – not insignificant portions of our population – could be seriously threatening,” Padgett said. “I just can’t see putting this into an urban environment where people are living close together and putting that risk out there. It’s just not the right thing to do for a city that’s becoming denser and more urban.”

“None of us live next door to any of these things, I’m betting. If we did, we might feel differently,” Padgett went on to say. “It’s part of an urban environment that we look out for the health and safety of our citizens who do live close together.”

Councilmember Charlie Rivenbark, who made the motion to pass the amendment ahead of the council discussion, disagreed.

“I think if there were an issue you’d have people out here … [saying] ‘Down with the pigeons.’ I don’t see that,” Rivenbark said. “I’ve never had one person call me up in almost 16 years on this council … about the pigeon problem because there isn’t one.”

“We don’t have a problem right now with a couple of people [who own homing pigeons],” said O’Grady. “I want to find a way to let them continue to work as they are but not open the door to perhaps any others.”

O’Grady made an amendment to Rivenbark’s original motion. He moved that city staff separate homing pigeons from the ordinance in front of them and bring back a zoning change, which would ban pigeons within the city, for council to consider adopting. O’Grady’s motion passed 4 – 2, with Rivenbark and Councilmember Earl Sheridan dissenting.

Rezoning ordinances require a public hearing for residents to voice their opinions. No date has been set for a public hearing or for council to revisit the issue.