‘Rats with wings’: The uneasy deal between New Yorkers and our pigeons

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The pigeons of Father Demo Square. ()
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Yesterday afternoon in Washington Square Park, I watched a Dixieland jazz band play an upbeat rendition of "I'll Fly Away" as onlookers tapped their feet in rhythm and pigeons, many dozens of them, strutted idly by in search of crumbs.

In lots of ways, it was a typical New York scene. But the relationship between pigeon and person is not always so harmonious, as Colin Jerolmack, an assistant professor of environmental studies and sociology at New York University, pointed out in a lecture held at the school's Silver Center later that day.

"People complain about pigeons and homeless people in the same way," Jerolmack said. "It's part of this narrative of urban disorder."

For more than three years, Jerolmack observed the ways in which people interact with pigeons in cities. His forthcoming book, The Global Pigeon, which, as he put it, seeks to examine "our social experience of animals," draws from that research. Yesterday evening he spoke about our own city's rather vexed relationship to the birds.

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In the 1960s, for instance, Thomas P.F. Hoving, the former city parks commissioner and longtime director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (not to mention the subject of a famed John McPhee New Yorker profile from 1967), called pigeons "rats with wings," an epithet—often wrongly attributed to Woody Allen—that really stuck. Hoving cited the species, along with litterers and vandals, as a plague on Bryant Park. The park's supervisor at the time, Andrew Petrochko, told the New York Times that “the homosexuals … make faces at people [and] once the winos are dried out at Bellevue, they make a beeline for Bryant Park.”

But the park's greatest menace, he stated, were the pigeons: “our most persistent vandal.” “Everyone seems to want to feed them," he continued. "It’s impossible to stop the pigeon feeders.”

Despite their bad reputation, though, Jerolmack noted that our urban encounters with pigeons "are profoundly social."

"The impulse to feed pigeons is not so different from wanting to chat with strangers," Jerolmack said, speaking about one of the subjects for his book, Anna, the elderly pigeon lady who regularly feeds the birds at Father Demo Square, the tiny enclave in the West Village where Jerolmack's research began.

Then there's also Carmine, an Italian-American pigeon fancier in Ozone Park, who, as Jerolmack pointed out, keeps pigeons not to commune with nature but to connect with others in his peer group who also keep pigeons. (It's worth noting, as Jerolmack did himself, that a domesticated pigeon is not the same as a rock dove, which is the feral bird you see on the streets.)

"Like weeds growing in the cracks of pavement," Jerolmack said, "pigeons represent untamed nature."

At the same time, he concluded, pigeons play a big, socially-binding part in what—to use the sociological nomenclature—Louis Wirth called "urbanism as a way of life" and Jane Jacobs more elegantly referred to as "that intricate sidewalk ballet." Pigeons certainly have introduced a few fancy steps to our pedestrian repertoire.

After the talk, I got a burrito and walked down to Father Demo Square to check out the scene. It was getting dark and no pigeons were in sight. A homeless man had set himself up on a bench near the northern entry, and a man and a woman were having a chat a little further down the way. Not altogether inviting, but a good enough spot to eat a meal. That is, until a big, brown rat scurried out in front of me. My appetite diminished, I circled back for Washington Square Park.

Walking up Sixth Avenue, I couldn't help remembering, as George Costanza observed, that here in New York we have "a deal with the pigeons."

As it stands, the rats are not so lucky. And they don't even have wings.