Book Review: Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird

Before reviewing Andrew D. Blechman’s Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird (2006), a book I learned about on the WBUR radio show “Here and Now,” I’d like to relate a few of my own pigeon memories:

  • I’ve long been a fan of pigeons and enjoy watching them (but not feeding them) in Boston’s parks. Once in the North End, I saw a bunch of big pigeons figting over a chunk of bread in the Paul Revere Mall. I thought if I tore the bread up into smaller pieces, every pigeon would get an equitable share without fighting. It was a social experiment gone awry. More pigeons arrived out of nowhere and now there were the same number of pigeons fighting for each of the smaller pieces as there were for the original big piece.
  • In London’s Trafalgar Square, famed for its pigeons (with a song in Mary Poppins no less), seemed fairly bereft of pigeons. I saw a bird of prey circling the Nelson Monument, so I asked the Heritage Guards what type of bird that is. “It’s an ‘arris ‘awk,” replied on of them. When we asked if the hawk keeps the pigeon population down, he responded “It keeps the pigeon population moving. The lads who come on Saturday morning with shovels keep the pigeon population down.” Grim stuff.
  • Nearby in Hyde Park, a father and daughter are feeding the waterfowl in the Serpentine. The father tells the daughter, in a blatant display of anti-pigeon bias, not to give any bread to the pigeons. “Nasty ol’ pigeon,” says the girl as she drives away the innocent rock dove.
  • Meanwhile in Piazza San Marco, the famed pigeons are still an attraction. One of them dive-bombed me within minutes of disembarking. Tourists feed the birds and pose for photos with the pigeons on their arms and heads. According to Rick Steves, the vendors sell a birdseed with pigeon birth control drugs mixed in. While the pigeons are an attraction in Piazza San Marco, John Berendt writes in The City of Falling Angels that they are actively discouraged in the rest of Venice. After reading this book and learning about pigeon behavior, this sounds like Venetian officials are trying to have their cake and eat it too, an impossible task.
  • Who can forget the pigeons hatched and raised on our porch in Somerville? Unfortunately for my former landlord, I’ve learned that due to the homing instinct of pigeons, that porch will forever be home for those two young pigeons.

This is a lovely book about pigeons. The subtitle refers to how pigeons are much beloved in certain niches while despised as “rats with wings” by the great majority of city dwellers. In fact, pigeon-hatred is a relatively recent phenomenon, and Blechman hypothesizes that people don’t so much hate pigeons as they hate large numbers of pigeons and specifically pigeon droppings. Blechman explores several aspects of pigeon-loving and pigeon-hating society and dispels some myths. For example, pigeons are not a significant health risk for carrying and spreading disease, as the anti-pigeon front would have us believe. Here are some things I learned:

  • the lives of pigeon-racing enthusiasts, especially Orlando of the Borough Park Homing Pigeon Club in Brooklyn who prepares his birds for the Main Event. This race sees pigeons shipped to far away places like West Virginia where they are released to race back to their coops.
  • heroic pigeons such as Cher Ami who rescued the Lost Batallion in the Argonne Forest despite being wounded himself, G.I. Joe who saved the lives of British soldiers in Italy in WWII and was honored in the Pigeon Hall of Fame, and pigeons who worked for the CIA.
  • The National Pigeon Association Grand National where fancy pigeons are displayed and judged (and sold), a major event for pigeon fanciers akin to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. This includes a Parlor Roller competition, birds that bizarrely roll across the ground (as opposed to roller pigeons that do mid-air somersaults, also a strange and non-beneficial behavior). Here’s a video of roller pigeons in action:
  • Charles Darwin’s fascination with the study of pigeons which was central to The Origin of Species.
  • Live pigeon shoots throughout history, including the controversial Labor Day event in Hegins, PA which became a target of animal rights activists.
  • Dave Roth who lives in a house full of pigeons in Arizona and founded the Urban Wildlife Society and has influenced communities toward more compassionate and effective bird control methods. Other organizations such as PiCAS have established humane methods of reducing pigeon populations in cities my reducing public feeding and setting up lofts for the pigeons throughout the city.
  • The extinction of the passenger pigeon by over-hunting, with the last pigeon Martha expiring in the Cincinnati Zoo. “It’s the only instance in history when the moment of a species extinction is known: September 1, 1914, at about one P.M. (p. 118).”
  • Pigeon People, a New York-based listserv that acts as a rock dove rescue league. Blechman also meets an underground pigeon protection network called Bird Operations Busted that prevents the netting of birds for pigeon shoots.
  • Heavyweight fighter Mike Tyson is a devoted pigeon fancier, although Blechman is unable to get an interview with Tyson.
  • Squab are also considered tasty to eat.
  • Paccom Films about pigeons.  I kind of want to get these DVD’s now.

This is a great book for pigeon lovers, and perhaps even better to recommend to pigeon haters. I think the noble pigeon is all the more my favorite.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird

  1. This was really interesting! Your book review is very complete. I think it’s good that people see the positives of pigeons even if they don’t want to live with them. It will keep them from using lethal methods (which, aside from ethical arguments, do not work long-term because new birds simply fill any voids).


  2. Another memory: The moving poem that we co-wrote, “Pigeons in the Trees” in the shadow of Brooklyn Bridge.


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