Persiflage on Pigeon and Peregrine Population Problems

by David Francis

Possibly you have heard some of the discussions in recent years regarding the problem of too many pigeons populating the major metropolises of this country. I live in the moderately rural parts of Indiana, myself, where the people there have so far managed to maintain a peaceful relationship with these creatures, so I am somewhat divorced from the problem. Curiously, it is a bit of a twist on the usual Man vs. Bird struggle in that, unlike the spotted owls, bald eagles, and California condors, the pigeon has had the upper hand in the conflict so far. Which, when you think about it, should be pretty embarrassing for owls, eagles, condors, and all such birds of prey. If you ever get up close to a pigeon, you will see that they all have a look on their faces as if they just flew through a fan or ran into a wall. If you run up to them menacingly, they wobble around on the ground with a glazed and dizzy expression, and then, at the last moment, it occurs to them that they have wings and can simply fly away. This is the way they are in Indiana, anyway--not at all like the majestic and powerful hunters of the hawk, eagle, and falcon families.

And yet, for all of their lack of majesty, pigeons have had far more success in dealing with humanity than has any bird of prey. Rather than being pushed out or killed off by human expansion, pigeons have adapted and can survive and even thrive in our largest cities. I find this ability remarkable since I know very well that I, at least, could never do the same.

I went to New York city a few months ago and if my whole visit hadn't been arranged and overseen by others, then the best I could have done to imitate the pigeon's survival techniques would have been to walk around with a glazed and dizzy expression until someone took pity on me and put me back on a plane to the Midwest. And finding someone who would do that in New York City would have been pretty unlikely. I'm not saying that New Yorkers are unfriendly, but I discovered quickly that they do prefer that you know what you're doing rather than having to explain something to you.

Let me give you a strong example of what I mean. Before I went to the airport and flew to New York, I stopped into a diner in Indiana for breakfast. I ordered bacon, eggs, and toast. Now, for some reason, whenever I order eggs, I can never remember any other ways of preparing eggs except scrambled. I wasn't in the mood for scrambled eggs so when the waitress asked me how I wanted my eggs, I asked her what my options were. She seemed surprised at the question at first, but then smiled and ran through the list (which I have forgotten again. I know there's a sunny something) of options. The next morning, when I was in New York, my brother and I went to a diner near his apartment in Manhattan. Same situation, except that when I asked for my egg options this time, our waiter only tilted his head, frowned, and walked away.

I suspect that this characteristic of New Yorkers (and perhaps all big city inhabitants) relates directly to what they perceive as their pigeon problem. Its not simply a question of there being too many pigeons. The prevailing view seems to be that pigeons just don't fit properly into city life. For instant, I understand that the main complaint against these birds is their excessive defecation--in particular on cars, canopies, and sidewalks. In rural Indiana, of course, this isn't much of a problem because we have so much open space to accommodate this kind of behavior. But this is exactly the New Yorker's point. The principle of random defecation just doesn't work well in a city of millions. Fecal material is to be gathered up in massive batches and processed into a bay--not splattered here and there on the city itself. If the birds can't understand that, then they have no more business populating the city than does a person who doesn't know how to order eggs.

Suggestions have been offered, of course, to solve, or at least control, this pigeon problem in New York and other places. The earliest and still popular suggestion is the obvious poisoning method. In this scenario, the city places doctored up little morsels in all the favorite pigeon roosts around town, which the brainless little birds gobble down without hesitation. The solution seems simple enough, but, in fact, there are down sides to this method of extermination. Before finally kicking off, the pigeons now leave behind poison-enriched droppings, and when they do pass away, their poisoned carcasses themselves rain down from rooftops and ledges--not necessarily an improvement from a sanitary viewpoint.

In light of these difficulties, more radical, less obviously messy methods have been suggested. One that makes a lot of people happy is the importing of peregrine falcons. The peregrine falcon, if you didn't know, is one of Nature's most impressive predators. As it plummets after its prey several hundred feet above the ground, it reaches speeds up to 100 mph, making it the fastest animal on the planet. Still, for all this remarkable ability, it is not below eating dim-witted, slow flapping pigeons. Many people point out that this is a natural method for eradicating pigeons, and (assuming that peregrine falcons do not poop) should return cities to the state of cleanliness they maintained when the pigeons had sense enough to live in the country without having to resort to chemical alternatives.

On a utilitarian level, there is obviously little to fault with this falcon idea. However, I do have some strong philosophical arguments against it. First of all, since there is nothing particularly natural about paving 300 square miles of deciduous forestland and then setting up a population of 7 million people to live on top of it as they have in New York City, I don't see why we should go to any great pains to seek out a natural solution for pigeon removal. If you polled the pigeons themselves, I'm confident the vast majority would prefer death by poison over death by ripping talons and tearing beaks.

In fact, I am not sure it is quite decent to single them out for elimination at all. After all, these pigeons came to the city for the exact same reasons humanity decided to start building cities in the first place: They didn't want to have to prepare their own food, and they didn't want to become any predator's food. If anything, I would think city dwellers would take pride in their pigeon populations. Imitation is the highest form of flattery after all. You would think people would embrace the pigeon as one of the few of Nature's creatures that appreciates and even thrives in the urban world. I fail to see the moral sense of subjecting them to the primal rigors of life in the food chain now after they have come so far.

And I certainly hope you don't expect the kind of flattery from the peregrines that you currently receive from pigeons. If you let them into your city, you can bet they will be looking down their beaks at you from the tops of those sky scrapers. They'll perch up there smugly--the one bit of majestic, unbridled, raw, natural behavior in a sea of artificial and industrialized existence, hunting and soaring freely while below humanity grinds out its monotanous workday. What could be more unfair? Peregrine falcons are only here today because some nice folks at Stanford University took pity on the bird and set up an organization to halt the extinction from which they could not save themselves. Already now in many cities they leisurely gobble down the hard working, rugged, most human-like birds in the world: pigeons.

But I suppose the peregrines' time will come. People enraptured by the natural aspects of pigeon removal by falcon would do well to remember some of Nature's basic principles: Falcons don't have any predators in the city, they have a limitless food supply, and they have secure sky scraper homes. In ecological models, such a situation is a guarantied prelude to overpopulation. Which makes me think it is probably easier to just poison the pigeons now rather than poisoning them later to get rid of the falcons.

Or, if you're like, me, the next time you see a flock of pigeons descend on some trash left on the sidewalk or street, you can see a little of yourself and your race in these birds and appreciate them as kindred spirits.