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.