Alfred Hitchcock would feel right at home on the 1300 block of Sanchez Street in Noe Valley. Actress Tippi Hedren is nowhere in sight, but a winged menace is out in full force. Pigeons, to be exact. Flying rats. Hundreds of them.
“It's like a scene from The Birds,” says 25-year-old Lisa Villagran, who lives with her mother, Nora, on the corner of Sanchez and 26th streets. “The pigeon population is just insane around here. They aren't even afraid of humans anymore. They're taking over.”
Local residents blame the flocks of ornithological bottom feeders on Ann Muru, an unassuming, 85-year-old native of Estonia who lives on the block. They call her “The Pigeon Lady.” For several years, Muru has fattened her not-so-fine-feathered friends with seed three times a day. Always eager for a free meal, the pigeons lay claim to power lines, take over rooftops, and camp out on ledges like they own the place. A few of the more insolent birds gather around a plastic owl installed on a rooftop to scare them away. One resident claims to have counted 700 birds recently, but the pigeon population seemed closer to 400 last week.
Regardless of the exact numbers, the pigeons leave countless tokens of their esteem on houses, sidewalks, cars, and slow-moving pedestrians.
“I've learned to move quick and never look up,” says Dorian Clair, who runs the Antique Clock Repair shop across the street from the Villagrans' second-floor apartment. “If you look up, the pigeons will get you. I warn my customers to park a few blocks away to save their cars.”
The persistent complaints of neighbors have finally landed the Pigeon Lady in deep doo-doo. The San Francisco City Attorney's Office filed a complaint against Muru in Superior Court on May 29 for creating a health hazard and violating a law against feeding birds outside of designated city parks. The action came after Muru ignored repeated requests from the Department of Public Health to cease the feeding frenzies. A court date has not been set, but Muru could face up to $5,000 in fines plus city attorney's fees.
“It's a very difficult person we're dealing with,” says Deputy City Attorney Karen Carrera. “She just doesn't care. She's sort of like an anarchist. I'm angry I have to be put in this position with a senior citizen. Obviously, it doesn't make me feel good.”
Muru, who's partial to a blue raincoat and a babushka, denies she feeds the pigeons that congregate around her tidy yellow and green house on Sanchez.
“I don't know anything about these pigeons,” she explained during a very brief interview last week. “Do you know why they are here? I sure don't.”
Muru was picking up pigeon feathers and sticking them in planters along the street, just one of her beautification efforts. She also attempts to wipe the pigeon droppings off cars with a rag each morning.
“She's trying to do right, but she just makes it worse by spreading it all over the car,” Lisa Villagran says. “She tries to clean up after the birds, but she won't admit she's feeding them. She's obviously in very deep denial. I would definitely chip in for a therapist for her.”
Anjan Nordlund, the Pigeon Lady's 90-year-old next-door neighbor, has a less politically correct assessment of the situation. “That woman should have been in the crazy house many years ago,” Nordlund shouts in a Finnish accent.
If the pigeon siege lasts much longer, Muru's neighbors may end up in therapy before she does. Nora Villagran says she's tried to reason with Muru, but their brief sidewalk encounters have been more frustrating than fruitful.
“I had to say to myself, 'Wait a minute! I'm a nonviolent person. I demonstrated against the Vietnam War.' But thoughts of pigeoncide are starting to infiltrate my dreams,” Villagran says with a laugh. “It's like a little rock in your shoe. It seems insignificant, but it can ruin your whole day. The problem never goes away. It's like getting mugged every day.”
Parking blocks away from your apartment, dealing with roof and paint damage to your house, and dodging bird poop is bad enough, but pigeons also present serious health concerns. They attract mites, bedbugs, fleas, and ticks. More significantly, they may pose a risk to individuals with weakened immune systems, especially those with HIV and AIDS. Pigeon feces can be a breeding ground for fungal spores that can cause everything from respiratory infections to cryptococcal meningitis, an infection of the fluid around the brain.
“If I had a T cell count below 50, I would not be happy about coming into contact with large numbers of pigeons,” cautions Jan Gurley, M.D., of the San Francisco AIDS Office.
Dennis Parks, who has a bird's-eye view of Muru's house from across the street, has friends with HIV who stay clear of his apartment because of the pigeon droppings that blanket the neighborhood. Despite this inconvenience, Parks says Sanchez Street just wouldn't be the same without the Pigeon Lady.
“I try not to let the birds bother me because I really appreciate Ann,” Parks says as he gazes out his bay window, a window that's splattered, of course, with bird droppings. “She's a sweet little old lady who looks like she just got off the boat from Estonia. She's from a different world, and I want to hang on to a bit of that world in this neighborhood. Noe Valley is too gentrified already.