The Zombie Pigeons of Moscow: It’s an Alfred Hitchcock Meets George Romero World

So you’re walking down the street, minding your own business, when a dead pigeon falls right out of the sky. Well, it’s not just the stuff of science fiction any more. Moscow residents have been crying fowl (forgive me) about a plague of zombie pigeons that’s descended upon the city. Their street birds are dying in droves, and disturbingly, the government and public health agencies appear to be at a bit of a loss in terms of what to do about the situation.

Testing of the remains indicates that the birds aren’t dying of parrot fever or bird flu, which is good news. Both of these conditions are dangerous and highly infectious. Bird flu in particular could be a huge problem if it made the leap into another species, and it could potentially reach into humans. If a strain of virulent bird flu managed to infect Moscow’s pigeons, it could spread rapidly across the city and into the rest of Russia, causing a major epidemic that would be hard to put in check.

What the birds do appear to have is severe salmonella infections, and the bacterial infection is making them behave very strangely. Anyone who’s spent time in a city with pigeons (which is pretty much every city on Earth) knows that the birds tend to be lively and engaged with their environment. They flutter when people walk by, go through garbage in search of food, and are agile when it comes to finding good perches and checking out the view.

Not so in Moscow, where the “pecking dead” are staggering around drunkenly, going in circles, stumbling and finding it difficult to fly in a straight line. The listless and indifferent birds aren’t even going after crumbs on the streets, and they’re tumbling when they try to fly through windows or up to high roosts. Clearly, the intestinal infection is weakening the birds and may be causing neurological problems for them.

Aggressive salmonella is bad news, because this bacteria doesn’t need to evolve to strike humans too: it’s already fully equipped. Residents are being advised to avoid contact with the birds, and those who do inadvertently handle dead pigeons (we can’t imagine the circumstances involved there) should definitely wash their hands thoroughly afterwards and again before preparing food (of course, washing hands before preparing food is good practice anyway). If the outbreak doesn’t stay limited to birds, Moscow’s hospitals could be loaded with frantic patients experiencing nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The result could be a public health crisis as the city rushes to meet the needs of people with the infection.

Curiously, government officials and agencies appear to have conflicting opinions on what’s causing the infection and what to do about it. In addition to salmonella, Newcastle disease has been put forward as a potential culprit. This infection is also zoonotic, meaning it can spread to humans, and it can cause severe eye infections. Officials aren’t taking any firm action in terms of quarantining birds, trying to control the spread of disease, or taking other measures for veterinary health, while citizens are receiving mixed information about their safety.

Some officials are assuring Moscow residents that the birds won’t harm them, while others are advising them to stay away from clearly ill birds, which is some confusing and contradictory messaging. This isn’t the first time Moscow has experienced a bird die-off, so the city may view it as routine, but it definitely shouldn’t. Such events aren’t normal, and could be a sign of an underlying public health issue that needs to be resolved.

Photo credit: Frédéric BISSON.

173 comments

Jim Ven
Jim Ven5 months ago

thanks for the article.

Kate R.
Kate R.2 years ago

This isn't a recent article, are the pigeons of Moscow STILL dying?

Mark Donner
Mark Donner2 years ago

Melissa. Thanks for the unnatural hate you just displayed against animals. There's people who dedicate themselves to rescuing pigeons and the only disease they get is from listening to you. It's humans with hate against life who are the "rats" of the entire living earth, overpopulating to billions and destroying everything they touch. The far cleaner pigeons have the misfortune of being forced to inhabit a diseased unnatural urban human environment.

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener2 years ago

The world we're creating becomes creepier by the day....

Julimar C.
Julimar C.2 years ago

Poor birds. I wonder what exactly would they be consuming or being in contact with to contract salmonella. It must be a creepy -and sad- sight, to see these birds acting erratically and dropping dead all over the place. D:

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing

Berty Jardine
Berty Jardine2 years ago

So sad

Gita Sasi Dharan
Gita Sasi Dharan2 years ago

Feeling very sad for the poor birds.

Mark Vaughan
Mark Vaughan2 years ago

If I wanted to sound like the Westboro Baptist Church and other Zealots, I would say the Zombie Pidgeon Plague is God's Punishment for the way Russia treates it's LGBT citizens. This should be interesting; how do they plan to deal with this and the Sochi games? Now, not only do you face arrest if you are veiwed as "pro-homosexual" but you can also catch a deadly disease. Let's just move the games already.

Melissa A.
Melissa A.2 years ago

There is no way that any one of you whining about not helping sick pigeons has ever lived in a major metropolitan area. At least not in the reaches your recent memory.
It is beyond unsanitary to touch a normal, live one, let alone a disoriented, dying one, and if someone were to try, they'd likely end up with a houseful of dead birds while they entered the hospital for the diseases they acquired from them. Not to mention, these birds are brash and ballsy without the disorientation, I can imagine one might and up injured trying to help them.
They most certainly are flying rats, and in huge huge numbers that make putting 1 or 2 in a shoebox a laughable drop in the bucket. To suggest its somebody or their trash is far too small scale, and to suggest the gov't is wrong in instructing citizens to stat away is just plain ignorant.