A man who came in contact with pigeons but didn't much like them has died in an unexpected way—from a pigeon allergy. Peter Willoughby of Hampshire County, England, cleaned bird droppings at a Ford factory for 25 years and let a friend store pigeons in his garden, the Daily Echo reports. But Willoughby's family struggled to connect the dots between his bird contact and fatal illness, which killed him last summer at age 72. "He wasn’t into pigeons," says his wife, Teresa. "He didn’t mind watching them from a distance. If he did go anywhere near them he put a mask on." Yet an inquest found that the bird allergy (or "pigeon fancier's lung") had scarred his lungs and triggered pneumonia. Experts said that his job at Ford was to clean windscreens heavily coated with pigeon droppings.
And at home, "he was also exposed to feathers and excreta when he was close to the pigeon loft," says the senior coroner. "I think it was a combination of those two factors." The family found it "heart-wrenching to see somebody so independent go downhill like that," says Teresa, adding that the roughly year-long illness "must have been hell for him but he never complained." The pigeon allergy afflicts up to 22% of the world's pigeon fanciers with a range of symptoms from exhaustion to weight loss, but isn't usually fatal, according to British Pigeon Fanciers Medical Research. Pigeons are threatened by disease, too: Hundreds of the birds are dying in the San Francisco Bay Area, possibly from illness related to drought, CBS San Francisco reports. (In fact, thousands of dead birds are washing up on the West Coast.)