City Dwellers

Pigeons: They’re not just rats with wings.

They are like a gang — intimidating and slightly unnerving. Dominating the same place every day, they stare at each passerby and occasionally deface public property.

Photo by Flickr user detsangThe gang of pigeons in my neighborhood is occupying its usual turf, a patch of shade under a tree in Welburn Square. Their small legs move jerkily as they keep their beaks to the ground, searching for pieces of Potbelly and Cosi sandwiches.

A large, brown, shaggy dog on a red leash comes a little too close to the flock. They all keep one eye, which is all their prey-animal-shaped heads will allow, on the beast until it has walked safely away. The pecking and scurrying continue. The birds resume looking a little like stockbrokers: The park, their floor of the New York Stock Exchange; the empty potato chip bag, their worthless asset that is swapped back and forth as their memories of its worthlessness evaporate.

They do not react with fear when people walk by. This is because food sometimes plummets from people’s palms, new assets in a dried-up market. Sometimes, on my way home, I see an older man with a mustache holding a plastic bag full of fluffy pieces of white sandwich bread. He grabs a stack and tosses them. They glide through the crisp autumn air and flop on the cold, hard ground. The birds huddle around the new prize.

The Pigeon Man isn’t the only one looking out for pigeons. Groups such as the Humane Society and PETA advocate for humane population control methods, such as slipping the birds oral contraceptives through food instead of poison, to keep flocks from growing out of control. Additionally, in 2008, the New York Bird Club began a National Pigeon Day in Central Park, featuring a guitar performance during a candlelit prayer service. They also had pigeon shaped cookies.

I am not sure those well-wishes are catching on. Two women and a man in professional clothes walk toward a rustling group of pigeons. The birds stubbornly stay put. “Get out of here,” one woman says, kicking threateningly in their direction. The birds barely budge. “Get out of my way, anyway,” she adds, defeated.

It is not just their tendency to take over a park and nonchalantly defecate on dignified statues that irks people. Pigeon poop can spread diseases with daunting-sounding names such as histoplasmosis, cryptococcosis, and psittacosis. It has even been suggested that the acidity of these droppings, which can erode metal, may be partly responsible for the recent collapse of the Minneapolis Bridge.

All this concern about pigeon poop probably would have seemed very strange to someone transplanted from the 16th, 17th, or 18th centuries into modern, urban society — that is, after he got over the rush of time traveling and the surprise of inventions like computers, cell phones, cars, and Snuggies. Once he adjusted to all of that, though, he would still be confused that pigeon poop, the very valuable fertilizer and a key component in gunpowder, was considered a disgusting nuisance.

Here, on a low brick wall, I realize I’m sitting very close to some white remnants of pigeon meals, though luckily they are completely dried. I move to a cleaner spot as the brown shaggy dog returns and makes a determined pull toward the pigeons’ territory. The pigeons fly away before the dog gets close enough to sniff the tree and assess its pee-worthiness.

Having ceded part of their turf momentarily, the birds scurry about. Their gang signs include light gray feathers surrounding gold eyes and ink colored feathers smoothing down at their rear into a blunt, stunted “V” shape. A tinge of green and purple around the neck changes color as their throats stretch and turn, achieving a surprisingly beautiful effect. This is a standard characteristic of the Rock Dove. It’s odd to think of common street pigeons as doves — the symbol of peace and the species that saved Noah and his ark — but it’s what they are.

These doves have offered more to society than most people realize. In 1902, Ronald Ross won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work with pigeons — specifically, using pigeons to prove that malaria was transmitted via the mosquito and not “dirty air” as was previously thought.

More than three decades later, the famous psychologist Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner, also saw pigeons’ potential. As he gazed at them perching outside his office window, he had the novel idea of putting one in a box. His invention, the Skinner Box — now a staple of Psychology 101 — rewarded pigeons with bits of food when they did any small action that he wanted them to keep doing. If they turned their head just a smidge to the left, they got a treat. Just a little more, then they got another treat. Unlike Pavlov’s dogs, who simply slobbered, these pigeons ended up doing sophisticated tasks like pressing levers and turning around in circles.

Skinner was so impressed that he thought pigeons could also solve the US military’s problem of missiles that didn’t quite land where they were supposed to. He convinced the military that trained kamikaze pigeons could guide missiles more accurately. The government was in the process of adapting missiles to accommodate these live, avian navigators when it decided instead to pursue slightly more reliable electronic means of controlling weapons.

But pigeons served other important roles in US military history. Homebodies at heart, they will fly great distances to return to their nests. So, for centuries, armies have used the most navigationally gifted pigeons to relay vital messages. During World War I, more than 90 percent of those pigeon-carried messages were delivered successfully.

In France in World War I, the U.S. Army used more than 600 carrier pigeons. The most fondly remembered of these service birds was Cher Ami, who, despite being shot in the breast and leg while in route, still delivered a message on October 4, 1918 that is credited with saving 194 lives in the battle of the Argonne. In World War II, a pigeon named G.I. Joe delivered an equally vital message to U.S. bombers who were about to attack an Italian village. They learned just in time that Germany had retreated and the British had already moved in.

And pigeons were more than just military messengers. During the World Wars, they served the Allies as avian spies by carrying cameras over enemy territory. In the 1970s, yet another military use for pigeons emerged and, for a few years, the U.S. Coastguard trained these brave birds to help in search and rescue missions.

(Editors’ note: We’d be remiss if we neglected to mention “Internet Protocol over Avian Carriers,” a means of transmitting Internet data using pigeons instead of wires. It hasn’t quite caught on yet.)

Apart from their cowardice with the dog, the pigeons in Welburn Square otherwise seem as brave as their military veteran cousins. They are not afraid of walking near me. Eyeing me, they seem to beg, ‘Do you have food? I like food!’ I start thinking maybe pigeons are not so bad. Maybe they are just out to tame their hunger like any other animal.

A black pigeon, perhaps the leader of the pack, shuffles up next to me, expanding his gang’s turf. His shifting golden eyes suggest he feels entitled to some of my lunch. His feet, which are salmon-colored and crusty, look like they have perched on every dumpster within a 300-yard radius.

I lean away.

Article © 2013 by Caitlin Sinead Jennings