Pigeon Paranoia

Published: November 25, 2007

WHILE a proposal by Councilman Simcha Felder, a Democrat from Brooklyn, to ban the feeding of pigeons in New York City — and fine the violators — may speak to those who detest the humble rock dove, the proposition itself is sadly misguided.

Not only is the measure difficult to enforce — who wants to ticket toddlers and grandparents? — it skirts the real issue. While overfeeding does lead to overbreeding, the city's alleged overpopulation of pigeons has little to do with casual park bench encounters.

It has a lot more to do with the amount of litter we leave behind. It's important to remember that pigeons basically subsist on the food we drop. Pizza crusts, doughnuts, bagels, hot pretzels — sadly, these are the cornerstones of many a modern pigeon's diet, instead of the seeds and grains they should be eating. The city can install trashcans that leak less garbage, as Mr. Felder suggests, but New Yorkers need to actually use them.

The other problem has to do with compulsive overfeeders. Every city has them. New York probably has a dozen or two of them. These are the people who disperse 50 to 100 pounds of feed every day. They are generally eccentric loners who view flocks of pigeons as their friends — and their responsibility.

These people will continue to feed pigeons no matter what. If need be, they'll do it under the cover of darkness. The only way to handle habitual overfeeders is to identify them, befriend them and urge them to stop. The city can also establish designated areas for feeding. For example, urban dovecotes, where weekly egg culling retards population growth, are a perfect place to encourage bird feeders.

If New York is truly concerned about harnessing its pigeon population, then a comprehensive and coordinated strategy is needed, and there are a number of national animal-rights groups that can help. Such an effort would include controlled breeding in urban dovecotes, increased deterrent measures like netting and possibly feed laced with birth control drugs. Most important, the public must be thoroughly educated about the hazards of overfeeding, which harms everyone, pigeons included. (Overbreeding stresses the pigeon population and can lead to starvation.)

To be sure, Councilman Felder suggested some of these measures in his report to the City Council, but the question remains: Are pigeons really the problem? Like all living creatures, pigeons defecate. If that's a crime, then perhaps we should target squirrels for filching the city's acorns. Or instead, maybe we should celebrate the wildlife that is thankfully still in our midst.

Pigeons, squirrels, sparrows and the like animate our often-drab urban vista and give us something natural to marvel at. Indeed, Cornell University runs Project PigeonWatch, which encourages the city's schoolchildren to study pigeons as an introduction to the wonders of urban wildlife.

Moreover, pigeons pose little to no threat to human health. Their modern-day reputation as filthy disease carriers is unwarranted. Nor are they stupid. In addition to their heroic history and unparalleled athleticism, pigeons are among the most intelligent creatures in the animal kingdom. They mate for life and are wonderful parents as well.

And if you happen to appreciate pigeons, you are in good company. The Queen of England, Paul Newman and Mike Tyson are all pigeon fanciers.

Unfortunately, an irrational hatred of pigeons has led to their daily abuse. In addition to the use of poisons and caustic gels by landlords to drive away birds, thousands of pigeons are poached weekly from city streets and taken to Pennsylvania gun clubs where they are used as target fodder in lieu of clay pigeons. This brutal practice has been brought to the city's attention, but to no avail. After all, they're just pigeons...

It's true that wildlife can be inconvenient; nobody enjoys a window ledge or car hood splattered with excrement. But that doesn't mean we should persecute the animals in our midst, let alone those New Yorkers who appreciate and care for them. Councilman Felder's policy is flawed precisely because it fails to see this reality.

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