By Kris Hartley

The Hong Kong legislature is discussing significantly stricter penalties for feeding pigeons. Violators could face up to one year in prison and a maximum fine of HK$100,000 (US$12,750) – 10 times higher than the current amount.

Pigeons in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

This policy revision aims to prevent overpopulation of pigeons and the associated impacts on other species and humans, including the threat of disease. Public signage already warns that feeding pigeons weakens their foraging instinct, compromises their health, and (vaguely) places them in “danger.”

The Hong Kong government evidently considers the feeding of pigeons to be a significant problem and is not satisfied with the outcome of existing policies. Data may not be kept on the number and percentage of people who feed pigeons, but it likely constitutes only a small share of the population. A lingering question is whether this generous subset will respond predictably to increasingly punitive measures.

One possibility is that higher fines fail to convince feeders that their behavior is detrimental. They may see the intervention more as government overreach on an issue of no apparent urgency. As such, these types of punitive measures must be combined with public education that underscores the threat of the problem.

However, with numerous other policy issues facing the city – rising housing costs, fierce competition among new graduates for decent jobs, and other problems – most people and all feeders may not look favourably on the effort. It could be difficult for them to envisage how anybody is directly harmed by feeding, even as there may legitimately be unseen threats to public health and nature.

A pigeon in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

Concerning implementation, measures will work only if they are enforced – and there has been discussion about strengthening enforcement capacity in combination with the introduction of this reform. Interest in cultivating the image of successful implementation may compel the government to prosecute one or several high-profile cases as examples. However, this signalling game risks turning prosecuted feeders into policy martyrs.

Another approach is to continue tinkering with the level of fines. Governments often adopt policies that require quantitative adjustments – moving a key metric up or down. In this case, adjusting fines could be done incrementally and compared to new results over time. An optimal balance can be found this way, but it takes constant tinkering, monitoring, and a lot of public communication. This is a rather inefficient strategy.

For people to act of their own free will, independent of government expectations, they must see the consequences of their actions. The detriment to nature or public health that comes from feeding pigeons – however significant or not it may be – is not readily apparent to most. If education matters, where people get their information is important.

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Recent research I published with colleagues at the University of Melbourne found that people’s receptiveness to policies for scientific or technical issues depends on the credibility of the source – that is, the person or organisation making the policy recommendation. For Covid-19 measures like mandatory testing and vaccination, people in our study were generally found to have more trust in scientists than in government.

This difference in public trust was more pronounced in Hong Kong than in Australia, our comparison case, due potentially to lower existing levels of trust in the Hong Kong government. Nevertheless, low trust need not always lead to ineffective policymaking, particularly if the government solicits the endorsement of experts – as it did on some occasions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our research findings hint at what the government could do in this situation. If feeders hear more from scientists than from policy officials, they may be more willing to comply. Furthermore, connecting feeding with the risk of diseases and viruses could resonate particularly well in the wake of the pandemic.

The relatively few people who feed pigeons probably believe they are doing something good – or at least something innocent. Addressing an issue like this takes a cultural shift in values or everyday habits, something that governments are famously ineffective at managing.

“Life finds a way,” proclaimed Dr. Ian Malcolm in the film Jurassic Park. Feeders can take comfort in knowing that unfed pigeons will find a way. At the same time, I tend to think that feeders will also find a way – to keep feeding.

Kris Hartley is Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Program Leader of the Master of Social Sciences in Development Studies at the Department of Public and International Affairs at City University of Hong Kong.

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