The last time I saw Pidgey he was outside Popeyes Chicken, eating a biscuit and drinking a 40 of Hurricane. But the truth is, Pidgey had been going downhill for a long time.
Before that, Pidgey liked to spend his days in my backyard, alone. Just hangin' out. No other pigeons around, although he had plenty of sparrows and squirrels for company. Not that he cared.
I don't know where Pidgey spent his nights, but frankly, I didn't want to know. What he did on his own time was his own business.
I haven't seen Pidgey since January.
Maybe he fell in with the wrong flock. I prefer to think he died of old age, doing what he loved to do: eating biscuits and drinking Hurricane.
Poor Pidgey. He'll be missed. This story is dedicated to him.
If you're a hater, like almost every idiot in this city, no amount of poignancy can move you to pigeon love. Pigeons, you say, are filthy, stinking vermin — rats with wings, if you like those tired old cliches.
OK, so be that way. Spread your pigeon ignorance. Pick on someone one-fiftieth your size. See if I care. I can handle being a lonely lover in a hater's world.
But before you go telling me that pigeons should die a violent death because they crap all over you and carry disease, you need to know that the average pigeon is no more unclean or diseased than the average house pet, or — perish the thought — the average toddler. At least pigeons don't cry in restaurants or throw up all over the backseat of your Civic. And, by the way, they don't carry West Nile Virus or avian bird flu (if only because they are city-bound).
Sure, pigeons can make you sick. But so can food-cart hot dogs and American Idol. Truth is the birds themselves aren't the problem. Rather, it's their droppings, which when they accumulate on ledges and rooftops can breed fungus or bacteria, producing an exterior ripe with toxic potential.
God forbid someone decides to take a hose to the problem, thus stirring up decades of dried crap. Because breathing in aerosolized poop — no matter what kind of creature it came from — can make anyone ill.
So don't blame the pigeon for its droppings. Unless you're freelance pest management consultant Dave Steiger, who points out, "the droppings come directly from the bird."
Even so, the problem with pigeons, explains Karen Purcell, project leader for Project PigeonWatch and urban bird studies at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, is really just their numbers. Though the lab is working on an urban pigeon tally (with the help of schoolkids, who are in no particular hurry, apparently), it'll be years before they have hard stats to share.
Want a dirty bird? Look who's migrating in the spring. You never know where those old birds have been sleeping. Not so with pigeons, though. You'll always find those guys near the poop. Which, remember, isn't any dirtier than what you'd find in the average diaper. The difference is that no one leaves dirty diapers lying around to grow fungus and breed bacteria.
Dr. James Dean, acting medical director of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and rebel with a cause, confirms that unless you're in a Hitchcock movie, your risk of disease or death by pigeon is incredibly small. If you really need something to worry about, try raccoons.
Dean says the biggest health risk associated with citified wild critters is raccoons with rabies. In any case, he says, don't feed anything that lives outside, and you'll be fine.
BLAME YOUR ANCESTORS
Pigeons didn't ask to be here. People brought them here, in cages, against their will. They'd be rare, exotic creatures on our continent if it weren't for the earliest Americans. Every pigeon living on the streets of U.S. cities is descended from a pet, an animal once bred by humans.
Pigeons exist in their current numbers thanks to thousands of years of human interference for fun and profit, and ultimately, human irresponsibility. Project PigeonWatch at Cornell's Lab of Ornithology attempts to explain why our feral friends have retained the characteristics they acquired during breeding, instead of reverting to their initial mutt-like state. But the project's covert goal is to spark an interest in science among city kids, who don't get to see a lot of nature. Kids, apparently, have to learn to hate … pigeons.
It's not tough for some of us to see why pigeons would make good pets. They're pretty cool birds, after all. They mate for life. Both pigeon parents feed the young — and not just their own. They care for any hungry babies in the colony. Humans won't care for other people's kids unless there's money in it. And you don't see any baby pigeons because their protective parents keep them in the nest till they're grown up and ready to fly.
Pigeons are native to Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Now they live on every continent but Antarctica. And they've grown so skilled at survival, their population has exploded in most cities. Good going, people.
Beginning in the early 1600s, the white devil trapped these once-worshipped creatures and shipped them off to Canada, where they endured slave labor and were even eaten by the first Canucks. Until the last world war, people lived comfortably with pigeons. They raised the birds to serve them (sometimes for dinner). They built rooftop coops on apartment buildings and bred the birds for speed. (The fastest pigeons can fly about 75 miles an hour.)
People still raise pigeons for sport, either competition or hunting, in isolated areas of weirdness across the country.
Pigeons have enjoyed a happier history in other places. According to the New York Department of Recreation, during World War II, five pairs of pigeons from every coop across the U.S. — many in New York — were "drafted" to carry messages from the front lines.
But the Allies were far from the first to take advantage of the pigeon's intelligence, skill and famous homing instinct. Ancient Egyptians and Romans used the birds as messengers. Greeks sent word of Olympics winners across the city-states on pigeon power. The tireless birds, with their superior hearing and eyesight, have even been used to transport medical supplies and locate shipwreck victims for the Coast Guard and the Navy.
In a report titled Street Pigeons: War Heroes, Devoted Parents, Clever Learners People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals tells the story of a World War I hero named Cher Ami who carried a message that saved almost 200 people, only to be shot, left blinded and with one leg, on his flight back home. Then in World War II, London's lord mayor awarded the Dickin Medal for gallantry to GI Joe the pigeon, who carried a message that saved the lives of more than a thousand Allied soldiers.
Oh, and then there were the fearless pigeon heroes a rafting company used to transport tourist film to a one-hour processing facility while the amateur photographers were still out there on the rapids. By the time the tourists returned, says Cornell's Purcell, their pictures were printed and ready. Sadly, advances in digital technology pretty much pushed pigeons out of the photography business.
But they weren't prepared to leave the art world altogether. And who could blame them when they, as PETA claims, can distinguish between different styles of painting and the works of different artists? How many human babies can do that?
Not that most people give a crap about pigeon creativity.
BUNCH OF PIGS
So if pigeons aren't native to our area, why do they remain here in such huge numbers? This is your fault too, people. We humans, you might have noticed, are incredibly messy, destructive creatures. And if you don't believe we're filthy disease breeders, just take a gander down any dumpster-lined alley. Yep, we're pretty gross. And on a much larger scale than pigeons ever could be.
Sure, acidic pigeon shit does a number on the facades, signs and even asphalt roofing tiles of city structures, but look what we've done to pretty much any commercial strip in the suburbs. None of that crap can be taken care of with a hose.
We humans are good at adapting our environment to suit our purposes. Pigeons don't mind adapting themselves. Given the choice, they'd much rather live naturally, away from us. But as long as we run our cities like a giant pigeon Vegas, complete with endless free buffets and gaudy statuary, can you blame them for staying?
OK, so you're still not buying my argument. Pigeons are evil, dammit, and so am I for defending them. What kind of weirdo gets worked up about a bird?
Maybe your problem goes beyond pigeons. Maybe you're afraid of birds. And maybe there's good reason for that. Because, well, have you ever considered that birds tried to kill your ancestors?
Really. A recent discovery suggests birds may have been our mortal enemy in ancient days. The February issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology reported a landmark discovery that early man was hunted by some kind of primitive eagle.
Yep, said paleoanthropologist Lee Berger at a press conference announcing the discovery, human ancestors had to worry not only about large predators that prowled the ground but also vicious birds that attacked from the sky. Ornithophobia may have its origins in evolutionary biology, which may explain why most city dwellers are stricken at the merest mention of pigeons.
Though Dr. Deborah Roth Ledley, a psychologist with Temple University Adult Anxiety Clinic in Philadelphia, doesn't claim any special knowledge of birds, she also doesn't laugh me off the phone when I suggest people might be hardwired to hate pigeons. After all, she says, you can't make a monkey fear a flower, no matter what you do to make that flower frightening. But wave a snake in front of a monkey and watch out. All monkeys hate snakes. No one's sure why.
Despite their many talents, pigeons are fairly powerless to hurt people. Face it: You have a much better chance of getting flattened and then backed over again by a bus than being pecked to death by a pigeon.
Dr. Ledley once treated a woman suffering from pigeon phobia. She says the woman was traumatized when a pigeon swooped at her friend's head. Ledley used cognitive behavioral therapy to help the woman work through her fears. Together, she says, they "trooped around the city, confronting pigeons." It took eight forays, but it eventually worked. Maybe you should try it, haters.
I may be nuts, but I'm not unrealistic. I know my chances of convincing would-be bird killers to quickly change their minds and embrace the pigeon is slim. I also know that without intervention, these underrated animals we've introduced to our cities, where there's ample food and shelter and no predators but us, are just gonna keep on annoying us, especially as their populations keep increasing.
I'm not opposed to controlling the population. And neither is PETA, which recommends birth control as part of a comprehensive plan to keep pigeon populations in check so they don't drive humans to kill and maim. (Of course we'd both also like to find practical ways to control the populations of those humans who kill and maim, but why mention that when I'll be getting so much hate mail for this story as it is?)
Turns out birth control for pigeons is almost here. PETA has been monitoring the efforts of the Southern California company Innolytics to bring a yummy birth-controlling pigeon feed to market soon. The company already found success with a similar product for Canada geese that's been shown to dramatically reduce the number of goslings born to populations that take the bait. But unlike with the geese, which must be targeted during the breeding season, pigeons can enjoy the childless life year round.
And why shouldn't they? Don't most of us gravitate to cities to avoid kids? Who says pigeons don't deserve a similar luxury?
So if we humans could control the pigeon population and clean the eaves of buildings more frequently, we'd have no real reason for our pigeon problems. Which makes me wonder if all our hatred is misplaced.
"Pigeons are cool animals," says Cornell's Purcell. "Both males and females feed their young. They both incubate the eggs." It's nice of her to not mention pigeon milk. Or the fact that in mating, the male pigeon stands on top of his poor lover. So maybe pigeons aren't all that romantic.
A version of this story appeared originally in Philadelphia Weekly.[email protected]