Art by Sue Coe
We must be wily like the pigeons.
On June 22, 1966, an article appeared in the New York Times that was to make (pigeon) history. In it, Thomas P. Hoving, the city’s parks commissioner, harshly condemned the vandalizing and defiling of Bryant Park. Hoving explicitly singled out “homosexuals,” who he said were “pulling faces” at other park patrons, and pointed out the extraordinary number of “winos” congregating in the green spaces. The article described a public park in crisis, hopelessly overrun by homeless people and shamelessly misused as a garbage dump. This was followed by a subheading: “And then there are the pigeons.” Hoving declared this heretofore blameless bird species to be New York’s “most persistent vandal . . . the pigeon eats our ivy, our grass, our flowers and is a health threat . . . But everyone seems to want to feed them . . . It’s impossible to stop the pigeon-feeders.”
After the author’s appeal for a “clean-up”—more desperate than hopeful—a phrase appeared for the first time that was destined to follow pigeons everywhere they went: “Commissioner Hoving called the pigeon ‘a rat with wings.’” Woody Allen’s 1980 film Stardust Memories quoted this New York expression, vaulting it into global circulation.
In no time, the public image of pigeons was transformed. Once the epitome of the delicious, the beautiful, the wholesome, and the good, in the course of the twentieth century they were increasingly viewed in more and more Western cities as an urban plague: nasty, ugly, and germ-infested. But how did this transformation come about?
One important material reason for the high esteem these birds enjoyed was likely their ability to produce what is perhaps the world’s best fertilizer: pigeon droppings have been valued by agrarian societies across time and space. In the most remote corners of the globe, dovecotes and pigeon towers stand as monuments to this esteem. Generally regarded as peaceful, monogamous, and handsome, pigeons—in this context called “doves”—became the symbol of the Holy Spirit in Christian mythology, which for its part could draw on existing traditions of dove veneration. In Catholic lore they were considered the only creatures on earth so pure that no demon could ever possess them. Doves are among the earliest domesticated animals and have accompanied human societies since there have been written records. Homer, Socrates, and Aristotle exhibit an intimate knowledge of how doves live, and they wrote about their selective breeding and domestication. Visual, sculptural, and literary depictions of the relationship between humans and doves go back five thousand years. Some authors trace their domestication to the beginning of sedentary societies in and around the Near East and North Africa ten thousand years ago.
The pigeon is regarded as what is called a synanthrope, or companion species. Interacting with humans and their buildings has proved to be highly advantageous for pigeons. It appears that the earthen and stone structures of the first human dwellings resembled the original habitat of pigeons so much that they were readily commandeeredas nesting sites. Pigeons, that is, do not build nests; they set up accommodations in existing nooks and crannies.
And since pigeons hardly seemed to care about the difference between nature and culture, they got comfortable around humans and showed little fear of them.
These traits peculiar to pigeons were the prerequisite for human interventions. Their rapid reproduction cycles made them ideal breeding stock; Charles Darwin himself devoted many years to observing them. Pigeons, it turns out, are fertile longer and more often than most other animals. Thus, they became mythical beasts in various cultures, standing for gentleness and monogamy, for fertility, and for the good as such. No wonder doves were popular sacrificial animals and temple birds, consecrated first to Aphrodite and later to Venus . . .
The same economic processes that increasingly tarnished the dove’s halo also led to an explosion in pigeon populations in the world’s urban zones. The Fordist postwar boom bestowed on them an increased food supply in the form of litter, and the advent of shopping streets and pedestrian zones provided them with an abundance of natural/artificial habitat. As they had done in the earliest human settlements, pigeons also made themselves at home in the new metropolises and took possession of the city. After losing their erstwhile economic value for human beings in the course of the twentieth century, their status changed appreciably too. Halved and laid on a wound or eaten in a soup, for example, the dove was long considered healthful, ideal nourishment for the sick or hospitalized. Well into the 1950s, dove was a weekly fixture on the menu in half of Vienna’s hospitals, a bird thought to be so pure that it would even heal the sick. But increasingly it was perceived as a disease carrier.
Home interiors grew more and more aseptic, and city exteriors ever more groomed. Higher standards of hygiene made private individuals worry about the cleanliness of their window ledges and backyards. Businesspeople and local politicians fretted about the aesthetics of public shopping areas. And although squirrels spread more pathogens than pigeons do, the latter came to be seen as “germ factories.” That people are so ready to believe this points to a symbolic urban order in which visions of disciplined city spaces merge with commercial demands for sanitized zones of consumption at the intersection of orderly aesthetics and biosocial hygiene. In such spaces, not only pigeons but other figures perceived as parasitical and useless—punks, beggars, junkies, graffiti artists, the homeless—become disturbers of the tamed cityscape and the regular flow of business.
Even if the German Federal Supreme Court has ruled that pigeons are definitively not pests, building cleaners and similar stakeholders with an interest in cleansing the city of pigeons still like to claim that they are. Consequently, in the fight against pigeons, facades have been militarized with spikes and nets. Pest exterminators are ready to assist. Eco-moralistic signs in parks showing rats wearing nasty scowls pull off a semiotic short circuit to another pest whose status seems unambiguous: feed a pigeon and you feed a rat.
THE VISUAL ECOLOGY OF DIRT
The sociologist Colin Jerolmack combed the archives of the New York Times for the period from 1851 to 2006 looking for evidence of the demonization of pigeons as a problem species. He comes to this conclusion: “I contend that pigeons have come to represent the antithesis of the ideal metropolis, which is orderly and sanitized, with nature subdued and compartmentalized. While typified as a health issue, the pigeon’s primary ‘offense’ is that it ‘pollutes’ habitats dedicated for human use.”
Dirt, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas has shown, is primarily a social category. Dirt does not exist as such. What looks like dirt under a goldsmith’s fingernails, once removed and put in the right place, is pure gold. Or, as an old British saw has it, “Dirt is matter out of place.” Applied to living beings, this means: the attribute “dirty” denotes subjects that are to be removed from a certain space.
This is the secret of the increasing public antipathy towards pigeons. It’s not because they’re dirty that pigeons should be removed from urban spaces; it’s because they disturb the new urban order that they appear dirty.
Their visibility is part of the problem. In contrast to badgers, polecats, deer, and other denizens of the borderlands of nature and culture, pigeons are not found on the periphery of cities. They live in the most public, most visible places in the city. In contrast to rats and cockroaches, they do not emerge only at nightfall, but exist within the city in the bright light of day. They can fly away, and have always done so, which is why they cannot be banished indoors like cats or put on a leash like dogs.
The pigeon also runs contrary to another constant of domestication: since most domesticated animals no longer have to find their own food, they are intellectually inferior to their wild counterparts—with pigeons, it’s the other way around. Contrary to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s fears, it appears that civilization does not always lead to ruin. Pigeons in general occupy a middle zone between domesticated and wild animals, because urban pigeons are the feral descendants of once-domesticated animals, which also often bred with their wild cousins from outside the city. From the perspective of urban ecology, city pigeons are viewed as a “bastardized” population of individuals that did not duly return to their dovecotes or, as happened in France after 1789, were freed from them and joined the feral fellow members of their species: city air brings freedom, apparently sometimes to non-humans as well . . .
FEED A PIGEON, FEED RESISTANCE
The philosopher Jacques Derrida devoted his final lecture to the bestiality and wolfishness of sovereignty, setting it against non-violence and dovishness. In this case, the otherwise astute thinker of deconstruction was taken in by the hegemonic history of ideas, and overlooked the dialectic of olive branch and fecal bomb.
Unlike English, the German language does not know the duplication of Taube into “dove” and “pigeon.” The conceptual Gemini constellation of good doves and evil pigeons, however, must have at least seemed familiar, for it recalls the gendered pair “virgin” and “whore.” Let’s not kid ourselves: the two names mark legitimate and illegitimate movement in public space. The careful parceling of the two forms of Columbidae, which are genetically and zoologically indistinguishable, shows the influence of social technologies: the white dove of peace, meekness, monogamy, and obedience belongs to ceremonies of state, peace accords, and weddings.
The pigeon became the outcast of urban wildlife, whose aggressive guano threatens to corrode national cultural monuments, and who doesn’t belong anywhere. It conforms neither to conventional notions of wild beauty nor to the husbandry of servile livestock. That is why pigeons are to be the targets of recent species-appropriate prosecution—preferably in “ecological” form, with falcons that are virtually officers in the service of municipal administrations.
Yet pigeon numbers are declining, because gentrification crosses even species boundaries. The increasing use of glass for building exteriors and the continual upgrading of attics into penthouses are reducing the nesting sites and sheltering spaces available to pigeons. Added to this are the effects of deterrent measures like nets and spikes. Bans on feeding pigeons are also slowly showing some success, and undeveloped urban spaces are disappearing.
Michel Foucault once defined critique as “the art of not being governed or, better, the art of not being governed like that and at that cost.” In this sense, pigeons emerge as unruly creatures. On the basis of their numbers, visibility, and tenacity, pigeons assume a special role as disruptors of the urban order. In humans too, such recalcitrance both affectively and viscerally resembles old folks’ dirty jokes more than a deadly serious petition drive.
In the urban space, we find a human figure associated with pigeons: the elderly person, or more precisely, the elderly woman. Like animals, older people are also thought of as a home for conservatism and inflexibility. Thus, in the typical urban imagination, two losers meet in public spaces: the haggard grandma who squanders her excess affection on something that does not seem worthy of it; and the object of that affection, the pigeon. But what if feeding pigeons reveals contours of a large-scale affective militancy among older people in the public space? When as “granarchists” they pursue their publicly condemned practice of feeding the pigeons, old women really do take on joggers, park wardens, and the like.
The pigeon is a living metaphor for excess and communication, for insubordinate migration without a fatherland, and for producing solidarity in improbable places. The pigeon is a cipher for wealth, proliferation, and sociality (“pigeons fly to where pigeons are”). It is based in material, non-innocent history and the associated multifarious production of meaning. But the pigeon is also just as much a sign of excess and of the utopian: in Mary Poppins (1964), the children break loose—instead of taking their savings to the bank, as their father demands, they give it to the old beggar woman who sits on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, selling pigeon feed.
Interestingly, pigeons became a problem of urban pollution just when portions of the left wing discovered dirt for themselves. If the right to cleanliness, that is, to adequate opportunities for washing and bathing, was a self-evident demand of socialist and communist groups until the mid-twentieth century, now beatniks and punks emerged as movements in popular culture that related positively to dirt. The punk with a rat on his shoulder or a mutt on a leash has become a familiar figure. As far as human-animal relations in urban ecology go, however, the punk remains within the bourgeois framework of property ownership. He’s merely switched animals. Thus, the relationship between older women and pigeons, who can come and go as they please and belong to no one but themselves, can be seen as a social-revolutionary praxis. To paraphrase Foucault, we can say: Where there are cities, there are also pigeons. And where there are pigeons, there is resistance.