Pigeons Droppings

Pigeons navigate better than any pilot, they're more sociable than any debutante, they've adapted to the urban landscape better than any human. But they poop. So we're poisoning them.

"onetwothreefourfive pigeons justlikethat"
-- e.e. cummings

On Sunday, Nov. 15, Paula Goldman was enjoying a family brunch at Patrick's at West Port, idly watching her nieces and nephews play around the plaza fountain. Through the big glass windows, she noticed a pigeon standing rigidly still, unresponsive to the prodding of curious children. Her 7-year-old niece ran in to say there was something wrong with the bird, please come. Just then a maintenance man appeared with a net and a long stick. Goodman rushed outside. "He said the pigeon was dying, and he was going to put it in the parking lot," she recalls. "Then I saw five or six birds fluttering into the windows. They would fly up into the air and just fall back down. Some were convulsing. Two young teenage girls had wrapped one of the pigeons in a towel to try to warm him, and they were crying. The head maintenance guy came up and said, 'Put the pigeons down, they are dying, we have poisoned them.'"

Stomach muscles involuntarily kneading her ample brunch, Goodman left the restaurant -- and came on more dead pigeons in the parking lot. "I saw corn-shaped pellets on the ground," she adds worriedly, and starts thinking aloud. "If that's what was poisoned, couldn't children and other animals get hold of it?"

Before leaving town, Goodman hotlined the incident to the St. Louis Animal Rights Team. But their vice president, Brenda Shoss, says West Port Plaza's property managers, Colliers Turley Martin Tucker, sounded a little ... squirrelly when asked about the pigeon drop. "At first, they acted like they didn't even know what we were talking about," says Shoss, who'd already learned that West Port was using the controversial pesticide Avitrol. "They acted like it never even happened."

By now, they probably wish it hadn't. Pigeons are Rodney Dangerfield birds, birds everybody loves to hate. They thrive in crowded cities; their droppings are acidic and messy; they've been tagged a health risk. Yet the minute somebody starts poisoning the pigeons, the public rises up to protest. It's like hiring a thug to machine-gun an annoying college roommate.

Pigeons have a far nobler provenance than the roommate, though. They're actually European rock doves, their lineage tracing straight back to the biblical symbol of love, peace and Holy Spirit. Believed to be the first domesticated animal, pigeons have carried everything from Noah's olive branch to word of the coronation of Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III. (Not to mention transporting life-saving medicines and messages during World War II, and performing spy missions with aerial cameras strapped to their plump breasts.) Over the centuries, they've grown progressively more comfortable with humans, eating our litter and baptizing our statues and turning the ledges of our skyscrapers into a modern version of a rocky-cliff habitat.

Darwin studied pigeons to formulate his evolutionary theory and came to love these birds so dearly he refused to dissect them ever again. Breeders fancy them and coop them eagerly. World religions borrow them to symbolize love, spirit and afterlife, and in folklore a pigeon's entrance means someone is about to die. (In modern cities, a human's entrance bodes the same for the birds.)

Watching a pigeon strut and bob his tiny head, you might think him stupid. But these birds are said to possess the symbolic-reasoning capacity of a grade-school child. (Pigeons in labs have not only learned the alphabet but have made the same kinds of mistakes kids make along the way.) When it comes to navigation, and some kinds of memory, pigeons outshine us by hundreds of watts. Kelly Swindle, president of the Tulsa-based Avitrol Corp., calls them "dumb as dirt." But even he admits "their behavior's intriguing."

Pigeons mate for life, feed their babies milk and welcome strangers into their flocks without suspicion. Sociable and adaptable, they bring life to our gray concrete cities, and their good-natured opportunism wards off depression in many an elderly parkgoer. Pigeons are urban survivors, their adaptability enhanced by centuries of selective breeding and release. Today, we call unowned pigeons feral and fear them as "rats with wings" or cockroaches-after-a-nuclear-war. After all, as nature writer David Quammen points out, they now fly faster, eat a more diverse diet, breed earlier and more abundantly, and "succeed at living at high population densities in close proximity to people who despise them.... They are genetically designed for survival in the severe urban landscapes of the late twentieth century."

In many ways, they've adapted better than we have.
Maybe we resent it.

The poison used at West Port Plaza is called Avitrol; to a scientist, it's 4-aminopyridine, originally developed by Phillips Petroleum Co. and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a "chemical scarecrow" to deter songbirds from damaging crops. As soon as the first few birds are intoxicated, they issue loud warning cries and the rest of the songbirds fly away.

"Songbirds," emphasizes Barry Kent Mac-Kay, a Canadian naturalist who directs international programs for the Animal Protection Institute of America. "In other words, it was developed for birds who have a physiological ability to utter a distress call. Pigeons don't. They cannot utter these loud alarm notes."

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