Rats with wings, or majestic streetwise bird? It’s a debate that’s raged almost as long as New York City has been called that. And this week, the war between the two sides boiled over again.
It started when the exclusive University Club had its feathers ruffled. It wanted to drape its storied building in netting, to protect it from pigeon poo, which eats away at stone and metal. But the Landmarks Commission said it would have to wait for approval, as it would be a “visible change” to the landmarked Italian Renaissance building’s façade. As if the crap wasn’t a “visible change” enough.
Meanwhile, over on East 93rd Street, there was a scuffle involving longtime pigeon activist Anna Dove and her neighbor, who snatched away her bag of seed after he saw her feeding the pigeons on the sidewalk. The police were summoned.
“It’s disgusting,” said her nemesis, retired teacher Arthur Schwartz. “She’s feeding the rats.”
And with the live pigeon-shooting state championships in Pennsylvania coming up, it’s almost guaranteed that there will be an increase in demand of pigeon-poaching — New York City is a favorite spot for trapping them and transporting them to be used as live targets. The animal-rights activists will be out with their cameras and signs to stop them.
No matter which side you’re on, one things for certain — by the end, things are going to get a little birdbrained.
“It’s not the pigeons that are the problem, it’s the number of them,” says Andrew D. Blechman, author of “Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird.” “They’re gentle creatures. The problem is that they get in our face, just like we get in each other’s faces.”
No one one’s quite sure of how many pigeons are in New York City. One adage is “one pigeon per person,” which would put their numbers at about 7 million. They each produce about 25 pounds of waste per year.
Pigeons love cities because of the many ledges, windowsills, eaves and rooftops available for them to roost in, which mimics their natural habitat of high cliffs. Pigeon pairings are monogamous, often mating for life, and both parents raise the babies — called squab — for a time, sitting on the eggs in shifts.
The pigeon includes about 298 species of bird, but the Rock Dove is the most common to the New York area, according to the Parks Department. The grey, bobbing-headed birds usually have purple-green iridescence around the neck area. They’re the scruffiest members of the dove family — although “dove” usually connotes the pure white symbols of peace, not the pizza scavengers of city streets. (Just say they’ve been pigeonholed.)
“If they were white,” Blechman says, “people would love them.”
Blame the French for our pigeon problems. The little pluckers first arrived in the early 1600s with French settlers who used them for meat. They were easy to raise — they could be kept in a barn, where they’d perch on the rafters, and young pigeons served as a good source of protein.
But they soon escaped their confines and went feral.
City life agreed with them and allowed them to flourish — and in some cases, over-flourish. Their natural predators, like falcons and hawks, aren’t found here in great numbers.
Courtney Humphries, author of “Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan . . . And the World,” concedes that pigeon are pilloried partly because of their “persistence. They nest on the buildings we consider our territory, and they don’t like to be moved.”
The average city pigeon has a lifespan of three to five years. With all the food scattered throughout the garbage cans and sidewalks — plus well-meaning human feeders — they spend less time looking for grub, which leaves more time for mating.
“The biggest problem is the people who overfeed them,” says Blechman. “Every city has about a dozen of them, and they’re the ones who cause the [overpopulation] problem.”
He suggests that if you want to feed the birds, hand out just a teaspoon full of birdseed for a flock. “It’s just enough to give them a little extra energy while they’re out trying to find their own food.”
“If nobody fed pigeons, I think things would look a lot different,” agrees Humphries, who says that human feeders end up creating dense flocks. “A lot of the problem with pigeons comes from people.”
If you can’t freeze the hearts of little old ladies, though, you could try eating them (the pigeons, that is). Squab — baby pigeons that haven’t flown yet — is on the menu at many restaurants around the city, particularly French. They’re “basically the milk-fed veal of the sky,” says Blechman — tender, mostly dark meat, and one of the only poultry that can be eaten rare. (Pigeons produce their own milk-like substance, which they feed to their young by regurgitation.)
Pigeon pot pie was a huge colonial favorite. Today, try the Squab and Foie Croustillant at the Modern, Danny Meyer’s restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art.
Unless the appetite for squab skyrockets, New York’s options are few. Avicide — poisoning birds — was made illegal in 2000, when the state Legislature passed a bill outlawing the use of “flock dispersal agents” like Avitrol in cities with more than 1 million people.
Before that, property managers regularly hired pest control services to dole out Avatrol to flocks of pigeons.
“In theory, you would mix it with feed, and when one pigeon ate some of the treated food, they would begin to suffer from neurological toxicity,” explained Stephanie Boyles, wildlife expert at the Humane Society of the United States. “When their flockmates saw them suffering, it would prompt them to leave the area.”
In practice, however, overdosing often led to large numbers of birds convulsing and writhing in pain on the street before their deaths. Welcome to New York!
The last major flare-up between pigeons and people was in 2007, when City Councilman Simcha Felder released a report plaintively titled, “Curbing the Pigeon Conundrum.”
Claiming that their droppings carried a host of diseases like histoplasmosis, he proposed a $1,000 fine to anyone feeding them, as well as curbing their numbers through birth control (a measure that cities like Los Angeles have adopted, although some argue that it’s unsustainable), and appointing a city “Pigeon Czar” to oversee other pigeon-control issues.
The NYC Department of of Health and Mental Hygiene maintains that contact with their droppings only poses a small health risk, and that “routine cleaning of droppings (e.g. from windowsills) does not pose a serious health risk to most people,” although disposable gloves are a good idea.
The Humane Society came out against the anti-feeding fine because they weren’t sure it would actually make a difference in reducing flocks, said Boyles. “We still suggest working with communities to create places where pigeons are welcome, and discouraging them where they’re not.”
While Felder’s bill didn’t fly, it was only one of many efforts to keep pigeons clipped.
In 2006, pigeon loitering was so dense near the Army Recruitment Center in Times Square, speakers were set up to broadcast sounds of falcons and pigeons being attacked, in hopes of scaring them away. In 2003, they had so overwhelmed Bryant Park that the operators invited a falconer and his hawk to the park for a week to scare away (not eat) the pigeons.
In 2007, the MTA installed Bird-B-Gone on some of its elevated stations along the 7 line, as well as others. The electronic system zapped birds that got too close.
In the ’80s, plastic owls were a big seller. Today, a slightly more high-tech version, called the RoboHawk, moves its head, wings, and makes what its creators hope are pigeon-threatening sounds.
Every so often, a politician considers reviving an overall anti-feeding bill, since, for now, it’s only illegal in city parks where signs are posted (the fine is usually $50).
Some cling to the hope that the city will come to its senses and declare war. Because they’re a non-native species, pigeons are not protected by either the Federal Migratory Birds Act or New York state laws. Can anyone say hunting season?
It’s got to be done mafia-style, though. Culling is only a temporary solution — as with most wild birds, quick breeding will put their numbers back to pre-cull figures within weeks, according to Pigeon Control Advisory Service.
But spare a thought, pigeon haters, for your majestic foe. Pigeons have more qualities than you think.
Although city birds aren’t particularly active, pigeons are built to be athletes — a trained bird can fly up to 60 miles per hour, and they can stay in the air for 500 miles. They’re meant for flying long distances, and have “homing” instincts, which means they will naturally find their way back.
This talent is why they were literally drafted into the United States Army Pigeon Service.
A million served in both world wars, where they delivered messages across enemy lines and saved thousands of soldiers’ lives. One pigeon, Cher Ami, won a French medal for his bravery for flying through gunfire, finally delivering the message dangling from what was left of his foot. He’s now stuffed and in the Smithsonian.
The army’s Pigeon Breeding and Training Center was based at Fort Monmouth, NJ, and opened in 1917. Many of its “Pigeoneers” were “basically just boys out of Brooklyn, and they’d just bring their best birds,” Humphries says. (The training center was closed in 1957 when the Army stopped using them as messengers.)
Keeping pigeons on rooftops — and racing them — used to be much more popular. Who can forget Marlon Brando’s character in the 1954 film “On the Waterfront” shouting up to his friend Joey, “I got one of your birds!” right before Joey “accidentally” falls off the roof?
The city is full of equally vocal bird-lovers.
“They animate our lives,” argues Blechman, who says that despite writing a book on pigeons, he is not a “bird person,” and admits to having eaten them before. He’s come around, though. “You look out the window and you can have a pigeon land on your windowsill, and the same one will come back every day, and at the same time.
“What would the lonely, the unemployed, and the elderly do every day if it weren’t for pigeons?”
The Internet is atwitter with kooky pigeon fans. There’s a pigeon appreciation society on Facebook. On photo-sharing site Flickr, there’s a group called The Global Pigeon Art Appreciation Society.
“You are not alone,” the site reads. “Many artists have been inspired by pigeons.”
There is also a city listserv called “New York Pigeon People,” where members discuss how to rescue birds and share pigeon news.
You can eat them, race them, breed them, feed them, but you can’t escape them, whether you consider them the most misunderstood creatures of the flying community or the world’s worst bird. As Blechman put it, “We’re just going to have to learn to co-exist.”
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