By Gila Kalman
We’ve all heard the names. Rats with wings. Gutter birds. Feathered rats. Of course, the bird I’m talking about is New York City’s widely disdained pigeon. Despite how intelligent these birds have proven to be, New York City residents and those from surrounding areas have learned to not just ignore, but hate them. One native New Jerseyan offered her commentary on the New York Pigeon. “Pigeons are gross and annoying,” she told me, “They are everywhere and do not care if they are in your way.” These feelings are not unjustified– she shudders as she tells me about her negative experiences with pigeons. “Pigeons and birds in general have attacked me. I don’t know why this is my luck but it contributes to the negative feelings I have about them.” It seems that she speaks for the city. Most would agree Pigeons get in the way, carry disease, and generally don’t contribute much – or do they?
Pigeons have a long history in New York City. They were brought over to America from Europe during the 1600s and have heavily populated the area ever since. Both in the early days of their time in the U.S., and long before, pigeons had been an important source of food, entertainment and communication. They spent thousands of years occupying both menus and homes. Eventually, NYC residents stopped raising pigeons for food and stopped needing them for company and communication. Those that escaped from captivity formed flocks and took up residence on New York City’s rooftops, sidewalks, and alleyways. Today, there are roughly four million pigeons in New York City alone, nearly half of the city’s human population.
With so many pigeons and humans living so closely to each other, there are bound to be those who appreciate the bird. I spoke with fellow pigeon lover, Shaina Matveev (SCW, ‘24) who, just like me, likes to occasionally feed the local pigeons, labeling pigeons as one of New York City’s “most iconic wildlife species.” She inherited this love from her grandfather who, along with many others in the 1940s and 50s, housed pigeons on his roof in the Lower East Side. Even as a child, Shaina interacted closely with the bird, going as far as to nurse one back to health after it had injured its wing. Now, she occasionally feeds the pigeons when she has the time. She looks wistful as she tells me, “I have always enjoyed feeding wildlife. It’s an activity that connects me to nature like no other and I especially enjoy feeding the pigeons and admiring their unique feather patterns and interesting ways they interact as I feed them.” I ask her why she thinks so many people dislike the bird. She sighs, “Pigeons are often disliked for the way they block pedestrian walkways… and for their traits as a disease-carrying vector.” She’s not wrong– pigeons are known for carrying various transmittable diseases. However, it should be noted that these diseases are rare and, when they do crop up, only affect a small portion of the population. So while it’s important to be cautious, it is unlikely that you will develop a disease by interacting with pigeons.
Very often it seems the only facts people seem to know about pigeons relate to which diseases they carry and how to avoid contracting them. This is unfortunate given how wonderful pigeons really are. While definitely not the smartest birds in the world, pigeons can still hold their own. Their most impressive trait is probably their location abilities; pigeons can find their way home from 1300 miles away! Apparently, they “can do this even if they’ve been transported in isolation—with no visual, olfactory, or magnetic clues—while scientists rotate their cages so they don’t know what direction they’re traveling in.” Due to this amazing ability, pigeons have been used as means of communication as far back as Ancient Greece. Genghis Khan used pigeons to communicate with both his allies and enemies. Pigeons were also used to deliver messages during both world wars. Cher Ami, a racing pigeon, aided in the rescue of 194 U.S. soldiers in 1918. This wasn’t the last time America used pigeons– during WWII we used approximately 200,000 of them! Pigeons have proven instrumental in the saving of human lives– because of their great sense of direction, eyesight, and their amazing ability to detect ultraviolet light, they are trained to locate people lost at sea.
Aside from direction, pigeons also have incredible recognition abilities. In 1995, Japanese psychologist Shigeru Watanabe and his colleagues earned a Nobel Peace Prize for training pigeons to recognize and distinguish between the paintings of Monet and Picasso. It doesn’t stop there. Studies have shown that pigeons can differentiate between pictures of themselves versus other pigeons and between pictures of different humans. Lastly, and probably most fascinating, pigeons can identify cancer. University of California Davis trained pigeons to differentiate between benign and malignant biopsies of potential breast cancers. Once trained, these pigeons were able to identify new biopsies. On average a single pigeon had an 85% accuracy rate, and together their accuracy rose to 99%.
Clearly, pigeons are incredibly intelligent creatures and have played enormous roles in the lives of us humans. However–despite all of this–it is not, in fact, why I love them so fiercely. Those of us who hold the bird so dearly in our hearts do not just see how useful they have been to humans, we see how they are so intrinsically beautiful regardless of that fact. We see the way they flock together as one harmonized unit for food and shelter. We see the way their iridescent colors glisten so magnificently in the sun. We see the way their feathers swell into soft billows around their bodies when the air turns to ice. Though most of all, we, ever the champions of the underdog, see the way such a magnificent bird fell so quickly from a place of adoration to the cold sewers of disdain. So we show appreciation where we can, even if it just means throwing some seed their way. If after reading this you still aren’t convinced, I urge you, the next time you pass a pigeon on the street, stop to look at it. Really look at it. They have far more to offer than any of us know.