LONDON — Pigeons are as much a part of Trafalgar Square as the statues of empire-building generals — much to the displeasure of London's new mayor.
Mayor Ken Livingstone has announced plans to banish the birds and two of their favorite perches — statues of 19th-century generals Sir Charles James Napier and Henry Havelock.
The move is ruffling more than pigeon feathers.
"This is London," said birdseed vendor Bernard Rayner, gesturing toward a swirl of pigeons boldly feeding from the hands of thrilled tourists. "This is what people come to see."
History, tradition — and the specter of thousands of starving pigeons — have all been invoked against the mayor.
For his part, the mayor argues the flock, estimated to swell to 35,000 during the day, is a health hazard. London's new government, facing a bill of $150,000 a year to scrub away pigeon droppings, says the birds are known carriers of influenza, encephalitis, tuberculosis and other diseases.
Rayner was the mayor's first victim. He and his tiny kiosk were evicted on Oct. 1 — though he is back in business pending an appeal.
Rayner's great-uncle set up the stand shortly after World War II. The business passed through three generations, and a fourth — Rayner's 16-year-old son, Jason — has already worked at Trafalgar Square, peddling plastic cups of seed for 30 pence — 45 cents — each.
"I've been here all my life," Rayner said. "They feel that if the business stops, the situation will just go away, but it won't. The pigeons have been here for more than 100 years — a lot longer than us."
Trafalgar Square regulars — mostly elderly, bird-fancying Londoners — emphatically support Rayner, but animal-rights groups are his greatest allies.
Animal Aid has described the war on pigeons as "inept, cynical and callous" — warning that young and elderly pigeons will be particularly vulnerable to a food shortage.
Animal rights campaigner Carla Lane argued that pigeon feeding has educational benefits.
"People come from abroad just to do it," Lane said. "For many children the pigeons are the first contact they have with animals. If a pigeon lands on a child's shoulder, it will paint a good picture in their mind and show them that all animals are worth caring for."
Recently, Labor party lawmaker Tony Banks introduced a motion in the House of Commons urging Livingstone to spare the "gentle London pigeon."
"The square's feral pigeons are sociable and intelligent creatures who have become accustomed to a food source provided by human beings," said the motion, which is simply an expression of opinion and would not affect city policy.
The two stone generals have also won support from historians and Livingstone's political enemies.
Napier and Havelock were immortalized at the square in 1855 and 1861, respectively, shortly after ending long and distinguished careers maintaining British authority over its sprawling colonial empire.
Livingstone called for the statues to be moved to a less prominent location and replaced with Britons "that ordinary Londoners and people from around the world would know."
Havelock is remembered in part for helping crush the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and Napier quelled an uprising in northern England that, in the words of the London newspaper the Guardian, suppressed demands for "universal male suffrage and the reform of Parliament."
The newspaper backed Livingstone's plan, suggesting that scientific-minded British heroes Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton be selected to grace Trafalgar Square.
Military leaders and Livingstone's chief rival blasted talk of a change, warning it would set a dangerous precedent that could someday allow Admiral Horatio Nelson — one of Britain's greatest war heroes — to be removed from a towering column that dominates Trafalgar Square.
David Laven, a lecturer at the University of Reading, said the issue proves that history "is still an ideological battlefield."
"It is a sure sign that a country is a banana republic when the statues in the squares are changed every 30 years or so to conform with current political thinking," said Niall Ferguson, a history professor at Oxford University.
"The point is not whether or not we recognize Havelock and Napier now, but the fact that they were recognized in their own day as worthy of immortalization in stone."
A Londoner visiting the square agreed.
"I don't know much about him," said retired nurse Dilys Clark, 61, gazing up at Havelock. "But why remove someone revered by the people of his time?"