There are many people who have deeply focused interests and principles and values. They stick to them carefully, and are guided by this scheme of values. Each event in their lives is evaluated and fitted into this scheme of values, and from the degree to which such events and experiences is found to match with positive values, they determine what is good, and pursue it — and what is evil, and to be avoided.

That is to say, many — maybe most — people are dogmatic. They don’t actually think much about what they believe to be the case, or whether it is really the case; they just assume the filter of their value-hierarchy is correct. Tribeca newcomers who are objecting to pigeon-feeding in our neighborhood are a very good example.

They ignore reality; I did, too. I had to deal with reality when Mrs. Jenner decided Feeding The Pigeons Is Good! Not my usual taste, but prudence of several sorts sent me to do a bit of research. That is, I had to waken from my dogmatic slumber anent pigeons.

Once past the limits of dogmatism, the realities about pigeons are really quite interesting.

First — and most important: We are responsible for the pigeons around us. These urban birds — descended from Rock Doves — are not native to the Americas. We brought them here. We are answerable for their welfare, having made them part of our natural human habitat. It is a severe moral failing, not to care for the world we ourselves make, as part of our being human. To put it properly, it is a severe deficiency in moral judgment to fail to care for pigeons. You might as well go fuck your neighbor’s wife, or dog or something.

Aside from providing a tasty dish for the well-to-do and a slang term for a pretty young girl — squab — pigeons have been real companions for us. Their remarkable homing sense has made them couriers of surprising reliability. Then there is that wonderful grave stele of a little girl; her parents chose to remember her with her pet pigeons; don’t think this is artistic license; I have seen similar interaction right here in Tribeca.
Pigeons exhibit remarkable intelligence. There is some evidence that a pigeon — like human beings, dolphins and chimpanzees — can recognize an image of itself in a mirror; this suggests a rather surprising sense of Self, and greatly disturbs the cognitive-science crowd (”who just now are rather rife…”).

They clearly do distinguish among other pigeons, and take their cue from other birds. Pigeon fledglings learn from parents (both of them) and from other birds around them. [I have actually seen this happen; it is remarkable to see one pigeon copy another to get a desired reward.] Pigeons can learn very complex actions; B. F. Skinner is famous for having taught pigeons to play ping-pong. Pigeons can discriminate between different artists’ works — they do about as well as human college students in the standard undergraduate art-appreciation course, with about the same amount of training. This intelligence, and ability to learn quite complex behaviors led to pigeons serving the Coast Guard training them for use in air-sea rescue; pigeons were dramatically more effective in finding people lost at sea. [The program ended when Republicans changed the Coast Guard mission from rescue to interdiction. Yet another example of Republican turpitude.]

The pigeons in our neighborhood, especially those who gather in Washington Market Park, also appear to remember people. One bird — with distinctive markings — will see me come in and immediately come to sit on the fence, to see if I will give it a peanut. A few others will often come over, lining up to take a peanut one at a time. It is quite a charming sight to see them all lined up nicely waiting their turns. Others will come to perch on one’s arm and feed from the hand. Interestingly, most seem to avoid making messes when they do this. [The exception is one little charmer who thinks it’s a parrot and prefers to ride on my shoulder. It won’t walk down to my wrist even for peanuts. Just sort of sticks its head out to look me in the eye.] They are even more thrilled to see Mrs. Jenner; the word gets out and they all come over to say hello.

They line up, waiting to see what might transpire. One might think this was in hopes of a meal, but then the birds surprise you. For example, one Sunday on the way to Divine Worship, I stopped to give out some grain and some peanuts. After the Peanut Parade — perhaps ten or fifteen minutes later, I left to go meet Mrs. Jenner. The birds walked along with me, down two blocks to Chambers Street and across. [I got a few very strange looks as I was walking along.] No food. Nothing special, just Jenner and a small flock of pigeons out for a stroll. It is not an isolated incident.

In short, these “feral” birds claim a role in the extended community.

This has some interesting consequences. Children who have hitherto gotten their jollies by scaring the birds, see that the birds are actually quite tame, even friendly, and they find feeding them at least as much fun as chasing them. Wise parents find that this is a nice way to show their offspring a different, more civil way of dealing. Greater civility is generally a good thing; we could use a good deal more of it around the ‘hood.
But, goes the common line, these smart, pretty, sweet birds constitute a health hazard. It turns out, this just isn’t true.

The New York City Dept. of Health & Mental Hygiene has made it clear that pigeons pose no special health hazard. Of disease-causing organisms associated with pigeons, two are naturally occurring soil fungi; a person mucking about in the garden is as likely exposed to these same fungi, regardless of the local bird population. See http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/epi/epi-pigeon.shtml.

The United States government’s health authorities concur: “[For example, histoplasmosis disease rates are] misleading and irrelevant, because histo’s so ubiquitous. It’s in the soil, regardless of whether pigeons are around or not…,” according to Dr. Marshall Lyon, National Center for Infectious Diseases.

Another disease claimed to be pigeon-borne is most often associated with caged birds — parrots and so on; in New York, it is so rare that less than one case per year is reported (and none associated with pigeons). “The New York City Department of Health has no documented cases of communicable disease transmitted from pigeons to humans,” according to Manuel Vargas, DVM, MPH, a research scientest in that department. Also: “Since 1996, fewer than 50 confirmed cases were reported in the United States annually. In New York City, psittacosis is very rare with less than one human case identified each year. According to the CDC, about 70% of infected people had contact with infected pet birds. Those at greatest risk include bird owners, pet shop employees, veterinarians, and people with compromised immune systems. No person-to-person cases have ever been reported.”

This view is widely held: “Pigeons are not a public health hazard. Nobody in public health is losing any sleep over pigeons,” notes Dr. Joel McCullough, then Medical Director, Environmental Health, Chicago Department of Public Health. And, comments Dr. Cornelius Kiley, a Canadian food inspection agency veterinarian. “Pigeons do not get avian influenza and don’t carry the virus” — no bird flu.

Summarizing the evidence, pigeons don’t pass diseases to human beings — period. This is admitted even by researchers deliberately seeking the most damaging anti-pigeon case: “In spite of the worldwide distribution of feral pigeons, the close and frequent contact they have with humans, their use as food, and the [claimed] high prevalence of carriage of human pathogens, zoonotic disease caused by feral pigeons is infrequent.” (Haag-Wackernagel & Moch, writing in Journal of Infection 2004, #48, pp. 307-313). That’s as nasty a comment as you will find in the literature, based on a search of 60 years’ records for examples of folks getting sick from contact with pigeons. In short, Mommy (or her nanny) is more likely to give her kid a case of salmonella poisoning by not cooking the chicken long enough, or through cross-contamination in her kitchen.

But what about all the pigeon poop? Agreed; pigeon poop is inæesthetic. But it’s not a great problem to get rid of it. It’s water-soluble. A good rain storm does a pretty good job of rinsing it away; soap and water takes off your clothes. The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recommends washing accumulations away with water under pressure — not a difficult thing to do in most public places. In the few places where dropping have accumulated (in our area, buildings with less than diligent building staff, as a walk around the neighborhood shows), the recommended procedure is to soften the accumulation, then shovel it into plain old trash bags, and dispose of in plain old trash. Pigeon droppings as such are not toxic, and not generally infectious (less so than, say, your neighbor’s infrequently cleaned cat-box in the bathroom next door…).

In fact, pigeon poop can be beneficial. Pigeon droppings are great fertilizer. Nitrate rich, and completely “green”, they rapidly dissolve into soil. In fact, take a look around grassy areas where pigeons have been resting; one rarely sees pigeon (or other bird) droppings. They are there (what? you thought the birds in the trees didn’t poop?) — but out of sight…. Notice, sunbathing remains such fun, especially when the lawn is so lush and green. The kids can shed their shoes and toddle about. One could say, our neighbors who feed the pigeons in and about the gardens and the lawns of our local parks ensure a healthy soil beyond what the Parks Department can promise. A bit of pigeon-processed feed on a well-watered lawn is a Good Thing (as That Woman has been so fond of saying).

Another good thing: Pigeons help prevent rat infestation. Pigeons are — well, bottomless pits; the amount of food put out by pigeon feeders is not enough to sate these birdies. They also clean up stuff that the lunch-in-the-park crowd dribbles around the park benches (you can verify this by inspection). They also clean up after the rug-rats. Interestingly, they do this in park areas, but one never finds them encroaching on the playground areas (clever birdies!). Pigeons are diurnal; they do their cleanup during the day, before the rats come out. Those of us who were here before Tribeca got parks, and who helped fund the first and second parks (the first park was supposed to be locked, and I vaguely recall having a key given out when one made a contribution), recall cat-sized rats in large numbers. Pigeons have reduced the attractions of the park; rats — nocturnal critters, and proven bearers of “zoonotic” diseases — now haunt the trash piles set out by the local restaurants as they close at night and the leavings of the local school cafeterias.

Finally, there is the very obnoxious Tribeca resident who characterizes pigeons as “rats with wings”. This expression gained currency in the Woody Allen movie, “Stardust Memories”. To this woman — on record as not liking animals of any kinds: Life is not a Woody Allen movie. Even in New York. Thank Heaven!

Conclusion? Folks who look at the real world as it is, who check the data and do the research — both pro-pigeon and anti-pigeon — have to conclude that pigeons are fairly decent neighbors. They are not especially dirty (in fact, there is good evidence they are clean-freaks) and such mess as they make is easily managed without much fuss. They are neither causes of disease, nor transmitters of disease. They are occasionally enthusiastic and their enthusiasm can be a bit overwhelming (I speak from personal experience) — but an adult reaction to this quickly calms things down. [On the other hand, it’s sort of fun to walk into a place where you’ve visited the birds before, to be recognized by one or another of them, and have them waddle up and look at you, as if to say, “Hi, and O, you wouldn’t have a peanut with you, would you?”]

The relatively small number of people who take a different view — ignoring fact in favor of personal fantasy — have embraced value-totalities that simply make it impossible see what is really real in front of them. They lead lock-step lives, devoid of clear thinking. What is particularly sad in the case of such folks caught up in their private totalitarian hells: No one else will ever really fit in, so they they will live alone and lonely. Perhaps as a gesture of good will, we might poison their tea.

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