For many people, the pigeons of St. Mark's Square are as inseparable from Venice's mystique as the enigmatic gondolas that cruise the city's canals.
"Pigeons can get away with almost anything in Venice," the British travel writer Jan Morris wrote in 1960. "Sometimes you will see one, all puffed up with pride, swaggering into the narthex of the Basilica di San Marco itself."
But those proud pigeons could soon have their wings clipped -- figuratively speaking -- if the city succeeds in removing birdseed vendors from St. Mark's Square in time for a ban on pigeon feeding that begins May 1.
Silvia Chemollo, a spokesperson for the city of Venice, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the only roadblock to meeting that deadline is a dispute over how to compensate the 18 licensed vendors in St. Mark's Square, who make a living selling birdseed to tourists.
"What is certain is that they will not be selling birdseed after April," said Chemollo. "The problem now is what to do with the vendors."
The vendors, meanwhile, say the birds are harmless and resent what they see as an assault on their livelihood. "It's absurd to take away our jobs like this. We have to live," one licensed vendor told the Italian news service ANSA. Vendors have insisted that they be compensated for the loss of their businesses or be given souvenirs to sell elsewhere in the city.
Chemollo said seven vendors were in favor of having their licenses converted to souvenir sales, but that a more likely solution might be to pay off vendors for the loss of their businesses. The city would compensate each of them with a sum equal to two or three times their yearly earnings from birdseed sales.
"The mayor is aware that the vendors depend on that money, and we want to see that taken into consideration," Chemollo said.
The feud between politicians and the square's birdseed vendors had languished in an Italian court of appeals since last year when some vendors balked at the idea of having their licenses converted from pigeon feed to souvenir sales. But Venice's mayor, Massimo Cacciari, circumnavigated the dispute by signing the upcoming May 1 ban on feeding pigeons in St. Mark's Square.
City leaders turned against the ubiquitous winged Venetians in recent years as the bird population reached critical mass. In fact, a pair of pigeons can produce up to 12 chicks a year, and today there are 120,000 pigeons infesting Venice, twice the number of humans.
In 1997, the city council made feeding pigeons a crime punishable by a fine of over 500 euros ($726) -- except in St. Mark's Square. There, the licensed vendors were allowed to continue selling bags of birdseed to the tens of millions of tourists flowing through the sinking city each year.
But a series of recent scientific studies prompted city leaders to reconsider the exemption for St. Mark's Square. Research has proven that pigeons often carry parasites and bacteria and that proximity to the winged vermin can cause allergies and illnesses, particularly in children and the elderly. More recently, city officials have asserted that pigeon droppings are eroding historic facades and flagstones in St. Mark's Square.
Whatever deal the officials work out with the sellers, biologists agree that cutting off the seed supply is the only surefire approach to tackling the pigeon menace. "The best way to reduce the population is not to feed them," pigeon expert Professor Daniel Haag-Wackernagel from the University of Basel in Switzerland told SPIEGEL ONLINE in a recent interview.