All About Pigeons

You live almost anywhere except the North or South poles. A pigeon is not far from you. Is the bird in question

1. A death carrier?

2. An urban menace?

3. A trusty messenger?

4. Dinner?

An elderly woman, her ash-blond wig slightly askew and showing tufts of thin gray hair, shuffles slowly to a park bench and sits down heavily. She reaches into a shopping bag, pulls out a handful of grain, and scatters it expertly on the sidewalk. “Hello, Gwendalyn; hello, Jacob,” she coos softly to two of the two-dozenodd pigeons that gather quickly around her feet, pecking the sidewalk anxiously. “Did you think I had forgotten you?”

Since her husband died in 1967, Mrs. Evelyn Johns Schaffer has been coining to the park nearly every day, and for more than three years she has fed the pigeons that crowd around her bench. Gwendalyn. a plump, blue-gray bird with an iridescent green neck and a perky jaunt, and Jacob, a striking brown and white pigeon with an intricate feather pattern on his slightly arched back, are her favorites. At first Mrs. Schaffer brought dry bread crumbs for them, but soon she was taking part of her $120-a-month Social Security check and buying fifty-pound sacks of feed grain. “I used to sit down there and watch the children,” she says, nodding toward a playing field nearby, “but now the pigeons keep me so busy, I just don’t have the time. I sit here and feed Jacob and the rest, and watch them, and before I know it, it’s time to go home.”

Grass is rare in most cities, and wide-open spaces are about as easy to find as clean air. Rats, cockroaches, and dogs are signs of a world of nature among the cars and concrete, but it is the pigeon-swooping gracefully between skyscrapers, bobbing proudly down the avenue, or gossiping on a ledge—that is the ubiquitous sign of nature, the one living being besides humans that nearly every big-city dweller sees every day. “There’s nothing prettier than a flock of pigeons in the city,” declares Encil E. Rains, administrative vice president of the New York ASPCA and an ardent pigeondefender. “What they contribute psychologically! 1 don’t think man can live in an area without animals, and I can’t think of anything that gives an old duffer or biddy as much pleasure as feeding the pigeons.”

There are those, however, who are pigeon-haters. Indeed, some people would like to see Gwendalyn, Jacob, and their friends and relations shot, poisoned, gassed, or run out of town. Pigeons are “death carriers,” says Fran Lee, the explosive president of Children Before Dogs, more widely known as the “Scoop-the-Poop Lady” because of her campaign against dog dirt on New York sidewalks. “There’s pigeon poop on the streets, in the water, on the park benches, in the children’s sandboxes, everywhere! Pigeons are dirty, dirty, dirty animals, they carry disease, and every single one of them should be taken away. I don’t know where they should be taken, and I don’t much care. I don’t know why people treasure pigeons. It’s just incredible!”

Mrs. Lee’s campaign against pigeons is echoed by a number of scientists, doctors, and public health officials who know what pigeons do to a city. Of course, there are almost 300 different kinds of pigeons, and some present no health problems at all. There are show pigeons like the Tumbler and the Tippler, for example, which turn somersaults in the air. The Fantail has a wide, beautiful tail, and the Pouter has a grossly inflated chest that makes it look as if it had just swallowed a balloon. Homing and racing pigeons are bred, trained, and protected by pigeon-fanciers who belong to clubs and disdainfully refer to street pigeons as “diggs.” It is the “diggs,” roaming bands of street pigeons clustered in cities, that present the public health problems. Their droppings not only coat statues (making them disintegrate) and park benches (making them useless) but also contaminate food sold by sidewalk vendors and markets. Pigeons attract fleas, bugs, ticks, mites, and rats, all of which bring their own health problems. Pigeon droppings can dry, crumble, become airborne, and be inhaled by humans, transmitting diseases such as a type of meningitis, histoplasmosis, and ornithosis. Some of these diseases can cause respiratory problems, some can cause permanent brain damage, and some can result in death. In New York City alone, a few people die each year from cryptococcus meningitis, an inflammation of the membrane covering the spinal cord and brain, usually traceable to pigeons.

Pigeons, which are native to Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, are now found everywhere except the Arctic, Antarctic, and a few oceanic islands. In the early cultures of the Near East, the pigeon was a sacred bird, associated with the Syrian goddess Astarte. In classical Greece the pigeon was sacred to Aphrodite, and later in Rome pigeons were associated with Venus.

Pigeons also have traditionally served utilitarian purposes. Throughout the Middle East homing pigeons were used to carry messages, and pigeons have been used in warfare from Rome’s conquest of Gaul until World War II. Egyptian writings dating from 3000 B.c. report the domestication of pigeons for food; last year in the United States more than a million pounds of specially bred and raised pigeons, called “squab,” were sold for food. In medieval England, the lord of the manor reserved the right to let his pigeons forage over the fields that he leased to tenants. The pigeons ate seeds and grains from newly planted fields, and gave landlords a meat supply at little expense. The government regulated the construction of pigeon houses, or dovecotes, and prescribed the method of disposing of droppings to conserve their niter, needed to manufacture gunpowder. Government-appointed inspectors enforced regulations, and collectors gathered the manure. At one time there were more than 20,000 dovecotes in England.

Street pigeons aren’t usually eaten today, although the New York State law against killing pigeons exempts killing for food. Some of the city’s impoverished do eat street pigeons even though they are not recommended by doctors or gourmets. A now-successful New York writer recalls that when he first came to the city in 1958 with $20 in his pocket, he stayed in an SRO hotel on 114th Street while looking for a job. “One sunny afternoon I was sitting on the benches on Broadway, and, man. was I hungry.” he says. “There was this old couple in their seventies, maybe, sitting next to me, and they were feeding a flock of pigeons. I didn’t think anything about it; I thought it was kind of nice. The old man was slowly throwing out bread crumbs, until he almost had this pigeon eating out of his hand. Then—bam! He grabbed the bird, strangled it, and threw it into a bag his wife was holding. Then they got up happily and strolled away.”

Pigeons are sociable, live in communities, and mate for life. But the courting that precedes the mating can be tough, since the sex of pigeons is difficult to identify on sight, even for other pigeons. Females are sometimes smaller, quieter, and duller in coloring, but not always. A courting male pigeon will coo, dance, and spread and scrape his tail rather anxiously in front of a prospective partner. If the prospect turns out to be male, a fight follows. A hen lays two eggs six or seven times a year for her entire ten-to-fifteen-year life-span, although reproduction tapers off after the first eight to ten years. About 70 percent of the baby pigeons survive, an incredible rate when one figures that if there were 10,000 young female pigeons in a city, and each one raised ten young a year, there would be 100,000 new pigeons in the city in one year. More pigeons are born, survive, and reproduce in our cities than the environment can handle, partly because of the availability of “unnatural” food sources, like garbage and handouts from people.

Pigeons do have some natural enemies, of course, including owls and hawks. In the 1950s a few peregrine falcons nested in the Palisades across the Hudson from New York. They would swoop down in the Wall Street area to grab startled pigeons in their talons and devour them. But the falcons seem to have disappeared, though a more common city enemy of the pigeon—the rat—is thriving. Rats will sneak up on a sluggish pigeon, grab it by the throat, kill it, and eat it. Usually they are only brave enough to attack baby pigeons, because an adult pigeon, which can weigh one pound or more, will chase away a rat. Some pigeons are killed by cars, and occasionally there are pigeon epidemics; the birds are susceptible to bacterial, fungal, viral, and parasitic diseases. Most city pigeons, however, simply die of old age.

Pigeons and their human friends have proved remarkably resourceful in evading nearly all the controls, from birth-control pellets to carbide shells to pigeon apartment complexes, that pigeon-haters have devised. One of New York’s leading museums once put large black rubber owls on its wide ledges to discourage the large number of pigeons that roosted there. Within the day the pigeons had gotten over their fear of owls and were back, perched on the owls’ heads. A few years ago San Francisco put a sticky coating on the ledges of some public buildings, but the pigeons got used to the goop and came back to roost. The city then tried trapping, using electric owls, and periodically exploding carbide shells outside a city building, hoping the noise would scare the pigeons away. It did, but not for long, and the program was abandoned. More frequent explosions probably would have distressed the humans in the area more than the birds. Philadelphia tried a feed that makes pigeons vomit, and then, they hoped, go away. A New York firm claimed it had a feed that made a pigeon’s nervous system send “danger signals” to the other members of its flock.

Montbéliard, France, had a distinctively French plan; the town put out alcohol-soaked bread crumbs in the hope of getting its pigeons so drunk that they could easily be picked up and carted away. The pigeons apparently didn’t like alcohol and wouldn’t touch the crumbs, but it probably wouldn’t have done much good, anyway. Paris tried shipping thousands of pigeons out of town on special trucks, but the birds made it back before the trucks did.

West Berlin was tougher. In 1962, workmen spread poisoned bread crumbs throughout the city to kill its pigeons. Pigeon-lovers had been tipped off about the program, however, and they simply followed the workmen, sweeping up the crumbs. Another city with a similar plan was thwarted when pigeon-defenders grossly overfed pigeons the day before a poisoning program was to begin, so the pigeons were too full to eat any of the poisoned crumbs. Akron, Ohio, was sneakier. In the early 1950s. the city spread out poisoned corn in the evening, when the downtown streets were deserted. They whisked the pigeon bodies up and out of sight early in the morning, while most of the residents were still asleep. Similarly, Cincinnati poisoned an estimated 15,000 pigeons last winter in a railroad yard, where the general public did not notice the bodies. A Southwestern city put out bait soaked in anesthetic, then collected the unconscious pigeons and fed them to zoo animals. Buffalo, Indianapolis, and Cleveland at various times hired teams of sharpshooters to pick off the pigeons.

A kinder control was used in Karlsruhe. Germany. The city built pigeon apartment towers in centrally located open areas. The tow’ers provided cubes for nine pairs of birds each, with roosting and feeding facilities nearby. The back walls of the apartments were removable, for cleaning and so each pigeon egg could be pricked with a thin needle, preventing its hatching. (If the egg was simply removed, the bird would lay another.) But the excess pigeon population had to be killed, and the program was obviously expensive.

The cheapest way to deal with pigeons was demonstrated by Bayonne, New Jersey, when it passed a law forbidding “unlicensed” pigeons from flying over the city. Mobile, Alabama, tried a similar approach: there it is illegal for pigeons to eat pebbles from flat roofs. Few arrests have been reported.

Paris tried trapping wfith airborne nets launched from crossbows. In the early 1960s Munich tried to resettle 200,000 pigeons in rural areas. Lisbon used hawks at its airport to keep the runways free of pigeons and starlings. London tried spraying some pigeon-infested buildings with a jellylike substance that dried to a slippery crust, but the pigeons got used to the unsteady perch, and the buildings were left with a useless slippery crust and just as many birds as before. Venice, where the pigeons have abounded in St. Mark’s Square for more than 700 years, recently embarked on an ambitious if slow control program. Each day 300 to 500 pigeons are netted and packed away into the country, and the practice is to continue for years. Authorities hope then to crossbreed a healthy new race of pigeons that will live in modern pigeon coops set up in nearby gardens and will be trained to commute to the Square for the tourists each day.

New York’s most notable experiment occurred several years ago, when the city and the ASPCA jointly sponsored a birth-control program for pigeons. Grain soaked in contraceptive, now marketed by the G.D. Searle Company in Chicago, was scattered for a few selected flocks, and head counts were carefully kept. The contraceptive worked for about eight months, but the results were generally disappointing. Costs ran more than a dollar per pigeon per year, and without a citywide program, the pigeon population could not be expected to drop much. “Anyway,”one participant observed, “you miss a coupla months and boom, you’ve got a bunch of pregnant pigeons again.”

Pigeon, Michigan (population 1174). has no street pigeons at al, although a wild pigeon is occasionally seen. On the other hand, Victor Bartkowski, supervisor of the Buffalo Department of Pest and Vermin Control, estimates that there is at least one and maybe two pigeons for each of the city’s 465,000 people. His seven-man department traps or shoots about 30,000 pigeons each year, just to keep the number manageable. The city’s control program was perhaps the first in the nation, dating to 1948. “Before that you couldn’t even walk down Main Street for the pigeons,”Bartkowski recalls. New York City, 450 miles to the southeast, has five million street pigeons, according to Thomas J. Dalton, a now retired public health inspector who worked on pigeon control for fifteen years. “Other cities are just as bad,” Dalton says, shaking his head. “Philadelphia, Baltimore, Milwaukee—they’ve all got problems like New York.” And European cities? “They’re deluged.”

Dalton may be the king of pigeon control. He has been New York City’s only Special Pigeon Consultant. From 1964 to 1972, he got rid of about 40 percent of its five million pigeons, he says, although the population has grown again since his retirement. Others call his figures inflated-after all, he is claiming the death of two million pigeons—but no one denies that he made significant inroads in the pigeon population. Things weren’t easy for New York pigeons and their feeders when Dalton was at work.

Part of his vehemence may be personal. Dalton’s asthma was aggravated by a lung disease he probably caught from the infected pigeons he worked with. Now he is in and out of hospitals for tests and treatment. His voice is rasping, and he often uses a respirator that stands nearby his chair in his Staten Island home. In addition, after the pigeon program started he discovered that he was allergic to pigeon feathers.

In 1949, after twenty-two years in the Navy, Dalton became a public health inspector for New York City. He was assigned to dog bites and gas inspections, then worked on ragweed control for a year. But he found he was allergic to ragweed, and when the department needed a volunteer for a special research project, he stepped forward.

Dr. Maxwell L. Littman, senior research scientist of the Health Department, got a $500,000 grant in 1957 to study pigeons and disease. Dalton agreed to collect pigeon droppings and run laboratory tests two days a week. Gradually he became more and more involved in pigeon control, until finally he was working as a full-time Pigeon Control Consultant.

The program evolved when, as he collected droppings specimens, Dalton was approached by building owners who wanted to know how to control the pigeons in their area. So Dalton wrote a small pamphlet called “Let’s Control Pigeons,” which used simple words and drawings to explain the diseases that street pigeons may carry and to suggest ways to protect buildings from pigeons, such as fencing off probable roosting and nesting corners with screens and spikes. One newspaper commentator praised the pamphlet as being to pigeon control what Machiavelli’s The Prince was to politics.

Dalton had some problems during his tenure. Some policemen refused to enforce laws against pigeon-feeding, he complains. “They say you take some old lady in for feeding the pigeons, and you’re leaving some young squirt there to go unmolested. Which is wrong. You can get the old ladies for littering, and if you know your business, you can get them for creating a nuisance.” Dalton assisted in prosecuting fourteen cases, twelve of which ended in convictions. One elderly woman was fined after she was arrested for feeding pigeons each day at a particular spot, even after she had been warned to stop. In court she denied feeding the pigeons. She was feeding her sister, she said, who had been reincarnated in the form of a pigeon.

If cities don’t start comprehensive programs of pigeon control soon, Dalton warns, “We’re going to have lung diseases; we’re going to have cryptococcus meningitis; we’re going to have problems with mites; and we’re not even going to be able to diagnose them properly because they’re so similar to the symptoms of other diseases.”

In New York each year, an estimated twenty people contract cryptococcus meningitis from pigeons and a few die from it. Dalton is convinced that the pigeon’s high normal body temperature, 107 degrees, makes its intestine work as a kind of incubator for the disease while allowing the pigeon to escape its effects. Others think the disease develops in the rich culture of the already excreted droppings. Although cryptococcus meningitis is the most serious disease pigeons can transmit to man, it is not the only one. Others include:

Histoplasmosis, caught in the same way as cryptococcosis, and usually a mild respiratory ailment that resembles a cold. In a Kansas study, children living in buildings on which pigeons roosted were found to have a histoplasmosis infection rate three times that of children living in quarters without pigeons.

Encephalitis, or “sleeping sickness,” a virus infection of the nervous system that is usually transmitted from birds to man via mosquitoes.

Salmonellosis, a bacterial food poisoning, found in about 2 percent of all pigeon droppings and a threat to outdoor markets and vendors.

Pigeon ornithosis, a usually mild virus, transmitted to humans through infected pigeon droppings and sometimes by human carriers.

Not everybody considers pigeons a serious health problem, however. Most public health experts don’t worry about reasonably healthy people who have no special contact with pigeons or their droppings. But people who are especially susceptible to disease, or children who handle street pigeons and then don’t wash their hands properly, risk illness. Also endangered are people who scrape droppings off a windowsill or patio. The dried droppings crumble and saturate the air. Professionals always spray the dried droppings with a liquid chemical before scraping to prevent crumbling.

One of the people who do not worry much about the threat of pigeons is the man who replaced Dalton as head of New York’s pigeon control. William Powers is really more concerned about the supervision of pet shops and the control of stray dogs, two areas he also works in. “Three deaths a year from cryptococcus meningitis in a population of eight million just isn’t a major health problem,” he says. “We get eighteen hundred people killed here every year from carrving pistols.” Other authorities point out that the diseases pigeons transmit are also carried by ducks, chickens, and other birds.

Dalton and Powers do not have kind words for one another. Dalton believes that since his retirement, the pigeon-control program has deteriorated. And Powers thinks Dalton is a fanatic. “Mr. Dalton goes on the aspect of ‘these vicious wild little beasties.’ ” says Powers, a tall, middle-aged man. “He’s very adamant about it, very excited about it. Well, the pigeons are a fact of life; it’s not a religion with me. We take a low priority on this, and this bothers Mr. Dalton. We have rat bites, and they are politically oriented. Pigeons, they’re not too politically oriented.”

In fact, in New York the laws protecting pigeons from people are stronger than the laws protecting people from pigeons. The state conservation law designed to protect banded carrier pigeons prohibits the killing of pigeons in cities unless the pigeons are injured or diseased or are required for food. All the city can do is declare the pigeons in a specific area or building a nuisance, then issue a trapping permit. A private company can then be hired to catch the pigeons and take them to the ASPCA, and the ASPCA supposedly takes them to the country and releases them. But it doesn’t work that way in practice. First of all, there is an active biack market in trapped street pigeons. The birds often are taken south and used for skeet-shooting instead of clay “pigeon” targets. And even if the trapped pigeons make it to the ASPCA, they aren’t safe. The society simply gasses them to death, and justifies the killings under the law that allows the ASPCA to kill stray dogs. Meanwhile, the ASPCA also provides hospital facilities for several injured pigeons each month. These pigeons, which may have broken wings or other infirmities, are nursed back to health and set free, perhaps to be trapped and gassed to death later in the same building.

The Audubon Society, traditional protector of birdlife, has no such split feelings about pigeons. It scarcely recognizes the pigeon as a bird, and the prospect of a wholesale extermination of the pigeon population does not particularly alarm it. “The Audubon Society is neither for nor against pigeon control, though we do step in when the control may endanger other native birds, as in the case of scattering poison grain,” says Richard Plunkett, assistant to the biologist of the Audubon Society.

Plunkett is one of those who say that controls of any kind can never do any good, anyway. “There are no cheap means, nor even any expensive means, that would be effective to combat the pigeons,” Plunkett says. “There’s no way to kill all of them. Trapping can’t go far enough. There’s no effective poison. You could get natural control on the pigeon population if you cut down on their unnatural food sources, like garbage and people feeding them. But the people simply are not ready for real pigeon control.”

Mrs. Evelyn Johns Schaffer couldn’t agree more. The mention of pigeon control angers and upsets her. “It’s ridiculous!” she says fervently. “The pigeons are healthy. Just look at them! It’s the people who are sick.” When the afternoon becomes cool and her shopping bag is empty, Mrs. Schaffer turns it over and shakes out the last few grains. Then she gets to her feet and starts away. “Goodbye now, Gwendalyn,” she says, as, head bobbing, the pigeon follows her for a few steps. “Good-bye. And don’t worry. I’ll be back tomorrow.”