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Flying Rat or Friendly Dove?

September 13th, 2010 by Bianca Seidman

What would New York’s city life be without huge flocks of pigeons roaming parks and sidewalks and flying overhead? A lot of people would like to imagine it would be quieter, cleaner and free from built-up pigeon droppings and bird noises.  But some advocates say pigeons are actually rock doves;  intelligent wildlife that add to the city’s character and serve mankind.  The debate between pigeons as nuisance vs. pigeons as beneficial is almost a tradition in  New York City.

The biggest complaints about pigeons include excessive droppings, noise and nesting in annoying places.  Many residents, like Louise Dreier who wrote this essay for The New York Times, view the pigeon as essentially a flying rat whose invasive behavior and constant propagation has to be stopped. Some city officials have tried to take on the pigeon using legislation, citing property damage, as well as harm and nuisance to people from defecation and crash landings.  Even the New York Department of Mental Health and Hygiene mentions diseases that pigeons can transmit to people.  If all that isn’t enough to certify the pigeon as a pest, even the MTA, considered a New York nuisance of a different kind, has special pigeon alarms to keep the birds away.

Defenders of city pigeons say the flocks are romantic and iconic of New York City or that pigeons have a history of helping people.  There’s National Pigeon Day in June, with celebrations in Central Park.  Rheingold Beer, a brand long associated with the city, recently named the pigeon as its mascot because the bird is so New York.  The Village Voice’s Rosie Gray answered Louise Dreier’s complaints and added that pigeon-related diseases are pretty rare.  An old superstition says it’s actually good luck be “blessed” by pigeon stool (though Kings of Leon didn’t get that memo).  Pigeons have a long history as wartime messengers and homing birds, including being the Reuters New Service’s first team of reporters.

The debate about pigeons is so passionate that Andrew Blechman wrote a whole book about them, chronicling stories from pigeon fanciers and pigeon haters.

Maybe the question isn’t whether pigeons are good to have around, but, with some estimates showing 7 million pigeons in New York, whether the pigeon population needs to be managed–or not.