Unpopular Opinions: All Hail Pigeons

These misunderstood, resilient creatures simply reflect humanity’s creation of poverty and waste — and disgust for them says a lot about us.

(Courtesy Image)

I’m surrounded by people who root for underdogs. Iran winning the World Cup? My cousins can dream. A career in engineering? I’d bet money that my mother still holds out hope I’ll have one. Deciding 2016 is the time for a protest vote? We need to have a talk, buddy.

But just about no one is with me on pigeons.

When I look at them, I see curious birds that choose to bumble around with missing toes instead of fly and yet, still manage to survive almost exclusively on the vast human waste we brought them to. When others spot them, they’re shooed away with a fierce glare or avoided altogether with a longer route.

The more I’ve observed this attitude in a city setting, the more I find myself as the Resident Pigeon Defender. Almost no one agrees. (To my simultaneous appreciation and horror, Mike Tyson — whose first fight reportedly began over a pigeon — is one of the few.) Because ultimately, these birds are misunderstood, resilient creatures who elicit a tellingly similar reaction as people facing street homelessness — and we should really think hard about why.

To be fair, it’s likely that I don’t instantly recoil at the sight of pigeons because, well, they were my pets at some point in elementary school. Along with a handful of chickens, my family had four show pigeons that we fed, kept in good health, let fly around the suburbs of Orange County, and watched as the respective alphas got into compulsory fights on the daily.

City pigeons, on the other hand, are a bit rough around the edges. They get flak for being dirty, leaving feces everywhere, clustering in open spaces, and just generally being a nuisance.

As Nathanael Johnson concluded in a chapter dedicated to “the majesty of pigeons” in Unseen City, what he first saw as filth and pestilence was really societal failings that produce poverty and waste. That obviously applies first and foremost to humans, who sometimes develop a connection to birds out of emotional survival.

“Perhaps we’d feel differently about pigeons if we were better at dealing with our own species,” Johnson wrote. “It is our own filth that has created the conditions that enable pigeon populations to swell to slum densities.”

A flock of pigeons gathers near some people sitting in a corner at the 16th and Mission Street BART plaza on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. Benches were removed during a recent remodel of the plaza. (Kevin N. Hume)

In fact, we can draw a pretty direct line from human actions to the pigeons we know today. Pigeons were even once signs of wealth and touted around by aristocrats, Johnson wrote. After Samuel de Champlain, the French colonial governor of Quebec, brought them to North America, the New World’s increasing density proved to be a successful habitat for once-wild pigeons who became commonplace.

When food became abundant after agriculture boomed, pigeons picked up the crumbs and multiplied in numbers to a fault. We now see them aggressively fight for those crumbs, sometimes thrown by well-meaning or lonely folks, while diseases spread in crowded nests.

To dispel some of that disgust, we ought to at least know a little more about them before we write them off. If pigeons seem like they’re in their own world, it’s probably because they can see in ultraviolet, sense the Earth’s magnetic field, and pick up atmospheric changes far beyond humans in elevators.

Pigeons are also quite skilled at hiding their young — if you’ve ever seen a baby pigeon, consider it a deep honor. Squabs, as they’re known, stick their heads in their parents’ throats and thrust around for nutritious milk for the first two months of their lives. You can recognize a juvenile pigeon if you look for an oversized beak and brown eyes, rather than the gleaming, reddish-orange eyes seen in adults.

Better yet, take a moment to notice the green and purple on their necks. Though most pigeons are gray and black, others are white. This begs the question: What makes them so different from doves, that symbol of peace that people release at weddings? Not much besides color and location, as they’re all in the same Columbidae family of birds.

As I repeat these unsolicited points to friends and family, this pigeon advocacy of mine has had some small victories. My years-long housemate — who absolutely hated all birds when I first met her — began to feel wistful about no longer hearing the coos of pigeons that took refuge in the backyard stairway of our former Parkside home.

Another listened in horror as our landlord casually told us he crushed a bunch of their eggs, as if they were parasites. But many people remain unable to see the same majesty I do, and that’s their loss.

At the very least, it’s one less thing to spend energy hating in a stressful world. At most, it’s a chance to observe another species in all its glory while we’re occupied with fear and disgust for the downtrodden.

 

Read more from SF Weekly’s Thanksgiving-Week ‘Unpopular Opinions’ issue:

Pickles Are Disgusting
Shoving vegetables into jars filled with vinegar became unnecessary with the introduction of the refrigerator, yet the outdated practice remains prevalent today.

These Are the Cliches I Can’t Stand
It is a joy to be an editor. But as marketing-speak conquers journalism, I have an ever-growing spreadsheet that lists more than 100 tics and soul-crushing no-nos.

Five Words I’m Trying Not to Use
When I realized the r-word had somehow crept back into my working vocabulary, I had to work hard to stop. Here are some others I’ve tried to move beyond.

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