Look at this picture:

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The whole stele

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Detail

Grave stele of a little girl, ca. 450–440 B.C.; the Met would have you believe they can copyright the picture, but I doubt it, on the grounds that it is a copy of a work which is not under copyright. I learned of this wonderful image from Laurie Spiegel, who knows more about this all than I do.

This child died 2,500 years ago. Her parents memorialized her with her pets. Was this entirely the parents’ idea? Was it the sculptor’s idea? What was at work cannot be known. But: Clearly the idea that a child could love her pet pigeon, and that the pigeon could return that affection was something well understood. The sculptor made the image; the parents seem to have cherished it.

Somewhat to my surprise, I understand it.

Mrs. Jenner has been fond of these birds for as long as I have known her. When some began coming to our balcony on a regular basis, she was charmed. The birds were charming. [I confess my sense of their charm was limited; there is a certain amount of cleaning to be done and I was the one doing it….] If the door to the balcony was open, they would come in, and interestingly, never made messes on the carpets (perhaps because they didn’t stay that long). They were not greedy. They did share space fairly well (regardless of what I recall from reading of Konrad Lorenz). They were remarkably patient birds, and remarkably open — when surely they had no reason to be. [One bird coming to visit us then had a three-inch dart through its neck.]

More recently, Mrs. Jenner has taken to feeding the pigeons in and about our neighborhood. There is a small but active group that do this, and the birds respond in interesting ways.

  • They form into groups — a lunch group and a dinner group.
  • They know of one “normal” feeding area. But, if one who has fed them in that usual place, shows up somewhere else, the same flock may move there. If the feeder starts feeding in one place, then moves to another, many of the same birds will follow along to the new place.
  • These are not tame, pet birdies; they are out there on their own (they are feral, in both senses of that word). But they come to trust some people and they will come to visit. Interestingly, they do this sometimes when there is no food involved.
This is a particular favorite. Mrs. Jenner calls her “Baby Bird”. This photo was taken about three hours after lunch. I’d fed the birds that day then gone off to run errands. When I came back this charming creature came and looked up at me, and when I held out my hand — perch like, but not open as with food — it came up to do whatever it is pigeons do when they socialize with us. This bird continues to do so, sometimes, and very much dependent on its mood for the day. [Update: BabyBird was killed — crushed by a car as she scrounged a morsel of food. Mrs. Jenner found her. It was — is... — a sad thing.]

This is a particular favorite. Mrs. Jenner calls her “Baby Bird”. This photo was taken about three hours after lunch. I’d fed the birds that day then gone off to run errands. When I came back this charming creature came and looked up at me, and when I held out my hand — perch like, but not open as with food — it came up to do whatever it is pigeons do when they socialize with us. This bird continues to do so, sometimes, and very much dependent on its mood for the day. [Update: BabyBird was killed — crushed by a car as she scrounged a morsel of food. Mrs. Jenner found her. It was — is… — a sad thing.]

There is something very pleasant, very warm, in the way these birds react. They are their own creatures, and they have very different intellects (and please, spare me the warning about anthropomorphizing; I know as much or more about that than you do — any of you — and I assure you I don’t confuse birds with people. To start with, the birds are generally nicer.). I don’t understand them, but I find I am rewarded by their company. This is not an uncommon response. To give you the motion-picture version: Consider the old woman feeding the birds in “Mary Poppins”….

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One of the great objections to pigeons is that they are dirty, that they pass diseases. I have looked at some of the claims, and I have looked at the actual reports. Folks, they don’t match. In New York, the Health Department says point blank (as does a U. S. Centers for Disease Control staffer) there is no record of any disease passed from pigeon to human. Period. One can assume, reasonable hygiene — hand-washing and so on — minimizes what risk there may be.

There are some extensive studies I have yet to read in full; they emanate from sources with something to gain from picking on pigeons. Even so. the abstracts suggest that remarkably few problems actually trace to contact with pigeons. Allowing for mis-diagnosis and poor reporting, it seems that pigeons just aren’t a vast health hazard or grand problem. No more so than, say, cats (and many cat owners live with cat- er, feces — a well-documented health hazard — as any visit to their homes proves).

[A real problem is the police — at least, in New York City, at least in the First Precinct. A neighbor was feeding the pigeons; she was beaten up on the street by some man living in the neighborhood. She called the police. Those lazy incompetents refused to come out and do the job for which they are generously paid, on the grounds that pigeon-feeding is illegal. First, pigeon-feeding is not illegal (I checked); second, it still would not justify a person beating up another. Perhaps my neighbor should have offered those fat-ass cops some donuts….]

So what do we have?

Others will tell you (I have seen the preliminary designs) about why pigeons are neat. They will offer you explanations, and they will be good ones. I am offering you testimony: Feed the birds. Come to be with them. Experience both the pleasures and the occasional dismay (there are times when food is short and you get the sense you are in a scene from Hitchcock’s “The Birds”). You will have a distinct sense that you have done something worthwhile, that fulfills your human self. You will have a distinct sense of having given happiness to a creature that has a very tough life. Very sound moral philosophy. Right out of Kant.

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