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City Desk

Pigeon Watching

by Richard Brookhiser

The city has been great for species other than man — roaches and rats; cats and dogs; once upon a time, horses. Another big winner in the lottery of urbanization has been the pigeon. The rock dove, as it is called in the wild, flourishes in the Mediterranean and India, where it roosts on cliffs. No snob, it found multi-story buildings equally congenial and spread to cities worldwide. Man wiped the passenger pigeon out of existence; in compensation, his tenements, piazzas, and skyscrapers made millions of homes for the urban pigeon.

The natural colors of the wild birds still predominate in their city descendants — gray, with two dark wing bands. But pigeons come in every shade from Batman black to Holy Ghost white, while the gray birds can show iridescent impressionist hues — mauve, green, blue. Pigeon fashion sense ends at their trouser cuffs: their naked red feet are as homely as chicken feet, only smaller.

Pigeons seem stupid. Lordly predators, sly corvids — those are birds one can imagine having an intelligent conversation with. Pigeon stupidity seems built into their posture and gait. Unfortunately for them, they resemble us a bit too much. They stand upright, and they spend a lot of time on the ground, walking by putting one foot in front of the other, just like we do. A dark bird with the right white markings can look just like a best man at a fancy wedding, or a floor walker in a luxury store. And yet they don’t seem to know what they are doing, or where they are going. Pigeons have the attention span of journalists — they may walk in a straight line for a few moments, but always seem to curl off or stop in what looks like a break dance of indecision.

But isn’t there method in their meanderings? Pigeons are opportunistic feeders, always foraging, and what they eat are the scattered crumbs and scraps of sidewalk detritus. Random movement may be the most productive way of covering their territory. Only predators and scavengers who feed on larger meals can afford to watch, wait, then zoom in.

Pigeon courtship is more purposeful, but not much more edifying. Pigeon man fluffs, bobs, dances. Pigeon woman mostly pays no attention. When she acknowledges his charms, he mounts her behind and flaps his wings. I see it all in bars whenever we stay in the city on weekends, or when the guys down the hall throw a party.

One morning my wife and I were awakened by a mourning dove on our window sill. Fourteen floors above Third Avenue, there sat our visitor — a lovely thing with a sleek, trim breast, cinnamon colored with rose undertones. Its cooing was unbelievably soothing, like a wake-up lullaby. We bought a cheap little plastic bird feeder and tied it to the center post of our window. The experiment lasted about three days before the pigeons discovered it. They were twice as big, and many times as loud. They also drove off the mourning dove. When the gods arrived, the half-god went. We took down the feeder and gave it away.

Where do dead pigeons go? (Their life span is five years.) Occasionally you see one squashed by a car, very occasionally you see a half-dead one, hobbling on its last legs. Hawks and falcons do clean up. They are around, if you look; sometimes you don’t have to look hard. I once saw a hawk in the ground ivy of Union Square, pouncing after something; everyone was filming him on their cell phones. I saw another on a lawn in Central Park, brazenly standing next to a KEEP OFF THE GRASS sign. Rats do night-time clean-up. The city, as per the 311 website, will collect ten or more dead pigeons (three or more dead geese) and test them for West Nile virus. “To dispose of nine or fewer dead birds or one or two dead geese . . . use plastic bags or disposable rubber gloves to put the dead bird or birds in a double plastic bag. . . . Wash your hands with warm soapy water afterwards.” Then mail them to Mayor Bloomberg, who will fly them to Bermuda on weekends.

The most famous description of pigeons is in John Updike’s short story “Pigeon Feathers.” The hero, a boy troubled by fears of mortality, is told to shoot the pigeons infesting the family barn. When he has to dispose of the bodies, he marvels at the “effortless mechanics of the feathers”: “The God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds,” he concludes, will not let him die forever.

A better subject for theodicy might be pigeon flight. I see them out my bedroom window, startled into motion by a crow; by the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, where they roost on the overpasses that lead buses into and out of the Port Authority; above the short old buildings of the East Village. I don’t know what besides fear puts them to flight, but it often seems to be the time of day, something about departing late-afternoon light. Twenty or thirty of them will start up, swing around, then circle back — or not quite, for there may be a second loop, and a third and a fourth. Sometimes they will change course in mid-swing, as if tying a knot in dozens of invisible laces. The little flock expands without ever disintegrating, then pulls itself back; if there are two flocks in motion side by side, they never seem to get in each other’s way. If I could draw, I would despair; it is clear, exuberant, and controlled, like Bach playing a piano. I suppose it serves some life-function, like the dumb-dumb street walk, but pleasure has to be one of the functions: theirs, and incidentally, mine; maybe also the Creator’s.

No comment on mortality. It is possible that life is designed for five- or 85-year increments. That would be the great thing about reproduction: There will always be more when the old ones wear out. Still, they are beautiful.

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