I was passing the north face of the Central Market in Des Voeux Road the other day when I noticed a new set of signs had appeared on the wall outside the public toilet.

One of these was clearly modelled on a road sign: a red ring with a mysterious black silhouette inside it and a diagonal red line to indicate that something was forbidden. It was difficult to make much of the silhouette, but any mystery in the matter was cleared up by the next sign. This, in a less graphic and witty way, urged passers-by not to feed pigeons and warned of a possible fine if you were caught doing so.

Photo: GovHK.

In case the fear of official disapproval was not enough to deter degenerate pigeon-fanciers, the third sign carried a set of warning cartoons about the evil consequences of feeding pigeons, notably a grossly over-weight pigeon and a grossly inflated pigeon population. Presumably, these were alternatives.

This came as something of a shock. In my neck of the woods, near a country park, we are used to signs urging us not to feed things. The most general one, just down the road, says “Do not feed wild animals. Nature can meet their needs.” Very trusting.

From time to time we are treated to more specific signs urging us not to feed monkeys. Lately, we have also been treated to one urging us to avoid feeding – or indeed any other interaction – with wild pigs.

I understand the rationale for this. Wild animals belong in the wild, and it is better that they should not be encouraged to forsake their traditional hunting and, or gathering lifestyle for an easier life foraging through suburban dustbins.

We have the awful example of the Sacred Ibis, an outstandingly beautiful bird native to Australia which, finding its traditional boggy habitat shrinking under human impact, found a new lifestyle as an urban scavenger. It is now known informally as a “bin chicken.”

Still, I was a bit shocked by the idea of an official ban on bird feeding. This is, after all, something of a cultural tradition. It has a song of its own in Mary Poppins, to be found here:

YouTube video

A darker variation by Tom Lehrer:

YouTube video

When I was a kid young Londoners were regularly taken to Trafalgar Square, where it was traditional to feed the pigeons, and hawkers offered food for the purpose. This is usually described in reminiscences as “grain” though as far as I remember it was dried peas.

Anyway, you bought your little bag of food. Pigeons gathered at a respectful distance. Then if you dropped some on the floor they would gather to pick it up. More daring feeders would hold out a handful and the birds would come and perch on your wrist to eat it. Exhibitionists could put a little heap on their head and “wear pigeons,” though there was a risk of getting an unwanted type of shampoo doing this.

Health watchers regularly warned that the pigeons were carriers of, as one writer put it “every disease from Athlete’s Foot to Zarathustra’s Elbow.” But nobody I knew of ever caught anything. Still the Health and Safety experts won in the end. In 2001 the food hawkers were banned, and pigeons are now deterred from the square by a large tame falcon.

This certainly saved a good deal on the maintenance of Nelson’s column, which stands in the middle of the square. The Admiral regularly had to be rescued from a growing pile of bird poop.

Pigeons in Trafalgar square
Pigeons in Trafalgar Square, London. Photo: Wikicommons.

Elsewhere, the feeding of birds is still regarded as a benevolent interaction with nature. People who have gardens erect “bird feeders,” which will attract wild birds and are carefully designed to protect diners from the attention of predatory cats.

In short, the desire to interact in a mutually satisfying way with wild animals is generally regarded as one of our nicer characteristics. There are, of course, numerous anomalies in human relations with animals – as friends, as food, as spectacles – but throwing the odd crumb to a sparrow has generally been given the green light.

Well, we all understand that in an urban context you can have too much bird life. On the other hand, I can think of few less likely venues for a bit of irresponsible bird feeding than Des Voeux Road, which is hideous with traffic and has no seats. As far as I could see it had no pigeons either.

Hong Kong is not a great place for outdoor eating, and there is no tradition of food sharing here. Moreover, it is too late to regard the local pigeon as a wild bird to be protected from the temptations of city life. Any pigeon which has found its way to an urban park is probably already past that.

I take particular exception to the suggestion that feeding a pigeon may subject you to a HK$1,500 fine. There is no mention of pigeons, or bird feeding, in the Laws of Hong Kong (which are, thank goodness, electronically searchable) so I suppose the authors of the poster had in mind the offence of littering.

Des Voeux Road west
Des Voeux Road West. Photo: Wikicommons.

The relevant ordinance defines litter at great length. Take a deep breath:

  • (a) any earth, dirt, soil, dust, ashes, paper or refuse;
  • (b) any glass, china, earthenware or tin;
  • (c) any mud, clay, brick, stone, plaster, sand, cement, concrete, mortar, wood, timber, sawdust, plastic, construction material or excavated material;
  • (d) any rubble, rubbish or debris;
  • (e) any filth, manure, dung, excretal matter and any other offensive, noxious or obnoxious matter or liquid; and
  • (f) any substance likely to constitute a nuisance.

No doubt the official hope is that (f) can be extended to a substance which is likely to encourage or enlarge the bird population. This is a long shot. The usual rule of statutory interpretation is that where a general term follows the specific ones it is held to refer only to the specifics already mentioned. As there is no mention of bread, birdseed etc. this should be a serious obstacle.

Well, we must not underestimate the willingness of local magistrates to connive at prosecutorial abuses of the law. But there is another problem. It is surely in the nature of litter that it stays in the place where it is dropped, thus frustrating the purpose of the law, which is to provide cleaner pavements.

But, My Lord, I only dropped the piece of bread in the confident and justified expectation that a bird would immediately pick it up and eat it. So it was not litter. Case dismissed?

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.