March of the Pigeons

Published: April 9, 2006
Great Barrington, Mass.

CALL me an urban greenhorn, but the first thing I did when I moved to Manhattan from Iowa was rip out the steel bars on my studio apartment windows and affix a birdfeeder to the fire escape.

I expected to see the red-breasted robins and distinguished cardinals I used to see back home. Instead my cat, Virgil, and I were treated to an ever-growing display of speckled pigeons, cooing and roosting just outside our now unobstructed window. I was fascinated by their knack for thriving in a seemingly hostile environment.

Our window onto this peaceable urban kingdom was shattered one day when the building's superintendent made a critical discovery regarding the chalky mound of pigeon droppings that had recently and mysteriously accumulated at the building's entrance. With great satisfaction, he bounded up the fire escape, untethered my bird feeder and smashed it against the sidewalk below. It wasn't until several months later that I gained insight into the city's general disgust for these feathered street urchins. Midway through a job interview at an outdoor cafe, the interviewer looked at me with a mixture of horror and revulsion -- a pigeon had hit my earlobe as well as my falafel sandwich. I sat there dumbfounded, my napkins already covered in tahini, making a quick clean-up and conversational recovery particularly elusive.

Thus attracted and repulsed by this peculiarly frustrating breed of bird, I set out to learn more about them. As I suspected during my unfortunate cafe experience, pigeon droppings are indeed filled with bacteria and transmittable diseases. But then again, so are yours. Denunciations of the lowly pigeon as merely a winged public health hazard, I learned, miss the point, and have led to the bird's persecution far beyond the realm of hurled insults. Consider this: for target practice, gun clubs in Pennsylvania routinely shoot thousands of live pigeons poached from the streets of New York City.

But this fanatical hatred of pigeons is actually a relatively new phenomenon. Far from being reviled, pigeons have been revered for thousands of years. Ever since Noah released a dove (''pigeon'' is merely a French-derived name for the English ''dove'') to seek land, pigeons and people have led inescapably overlapping lives.

Domesticated since the dawn of man, the bird appears in our biblical texts, religious ceremonies and earliest histories. The Greeks, Romans and even the Mongol hordes used them to deliver critical messages. It was a pigeon that delivered news of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, and a pigeon that saved a British regiment from certain death in World War II.

The breeding and racing of pigeons is an internationally popular sport that can count the Queen of England as one of its ardent fans. While racehorses receive all the glory with their 35-mile-per-hour sprints around a one-mile racetrack, homing pigeons -- a mere pound of flesh and feathers -- routinely fly more than 500 miles in a single day at speeds exceeding 60 miles per hour, finding their way home from a place they've never been before. A winner won't stop for water, food or even bad weather and will pinpoint its loft from thousands of feet above and hundreds of miles away with remarkable accuracy.

These very same navigational abilities and swiftness enabled Julius Reuter to build his news empire, literally, upon carrier pigeons' delicate backs, 150 years ago. At the time, a note tied to a pigeon's ankle was the fastest and most reliable means of communication.

Charles Darwin was an enthusiast of fancy pigeon breeds. He filled his backyard with all sorts of exotics -- some of which had corkscrew-like feathers; others with necks like geese -- and relied heavily upon these birds to help formulate and support his theory of evolution.

Walk through Little Italy or Chinatown and you'll see that pigeons are also highly prized as food. Tender pigeon meat (squab) is considered the milk-fed veal of the skies, with a moist, dark flesh that can be served rare. Once the most abundant bird in the world, the passenger pigeon was doomed to extinction by its succulence (as well as human avarice). Nowadays squab are raised on giant farms and sold to restaurants by the pound.

So there you have it: while some New Yorkers pay exterminators to rid the city of ''feathered rats,'' others pay dearly for prized breeders and racers, somewhat less dearly for an oven-roasted squab and even less for a target.

Sportsman or chef, Queen of England or New York pedestrian, like it or not, we all have at least one thing in common -- a humble feathered creature with an unparalleled history. The pigeon has an uncanny ability to annoy, satiate and amaze, but perhaps its most unusual talent is its ability to bring out the very best in us, and the very worst.

Andrew D. Blechman is the author of the forthcoming, ''Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird.''