Explicit Trespassers: Colin Jerolmack on New York’s Pigeons

The activities and relationships that thrive in outdoor spaces — whether a Manhattan square, Brooklyn roof, or Bronx street — shape our experience of the entire city. Yet we often fail to realize that those relationships and activities aren’t necessarily limited to human interaction.

Pigeons are a pervasive component of the urban landscape that inspire a uniquely visceral reaction from residents and tourists alike. Their ubiquity defies our consistent desire to control the natural world, represented by the range of physical interventions we’ve inserted into the built environment to repel them. A closer look at human-pigeon relationships reveals a surprising cultural ecosystem as well: from the casual interactions these birds provoke in small parks to the time-honored practice of breeding and flying domesticated pigeons from outer borough rooftops.

Colin Jerolmack, assistant professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at New York University, has spent several years investigating how our relationships with animals shape our experience of city life. His recent book, The Global Pigeon, uses this inescapable bird as a lens on this phenomenon. He sat down with us to discuss how pigeons can help us understand the broader systems — natural, physical, and cultural — that build our experience of the urban environment.

-D.R.

Photo by Chris Arnade

UO: How did you come to be interested in pigeons?
Colin Jerolmack: As a graduate student in sociology, I was thinking about interactions in public space. That’s when I started looking at Father Demo Square in Greenwich Village. It’s less than a tenth of an acre, but hundreds of pigeons dominate the space. People would come and feed them every day, and the pigeons actually train people to feed them: they walk close, they cock their heads sideways when somebody’s eating a pizza crust, coaxing food from passersby. I realized that the pigeons were actually a major part of the experience of this space.

It’s almost impossible to have a sandwich there and not interact with the birds. Kids chase them so that they all scatter, and then everybody else stops and watches. At one moment, someone might strike up a conversation with the stranger sitting next to him in the park and in the next moment would get lost in feeding pigeons. The pigeons wind up shaping both the way you experience that space and your behavior. It’s more than just humans who get to be a part of what Jane Jacobs famously called “the intricate sidewalk ballet of the city.”

Pigeons in Father Demo Square, Greenwich Village

At the dog run or the corner store, you might see the same people every day, enjoy a quick conversation, and then leave and become an anonymous person again. Casual associations don’t necessarily imply obligations beyond a certain space. It’s a similar dynamic between people and pigeons. Over time, the birds get to know the people who regularly feed them — they recognize them and follow them into the park. Parks offer spaces for bounded forms of pleasurable co-presence, and some of the satisfaction of those associations can be found in interactions with animals.

Biologists call animals that adapt and thrive in the built environment “synanthropes,” a word that in essence means “together with man.” But as an urban sociologist, I see them as pedestrians: literally walking on the sidewalk and sitting on benches with us. And they’re pedestrian in the other sense of being common and mundane. They use public space just like people do, and they affect how we interact in public space.

Pigeons in Piazza San Marco, Venice | Photo via Midnightglory

Beyond affecting our interactions, you argue that pigeons help to define how we think about the city and its public spaces. How so?
The tradition of feeding pigeons in Piazza San Marco in Venice makes this really apparent. I would hear people say to each other, “Pigeons are so disgusting, I would never let them land on me,” and ten minutes later they would be buying feed and dumping it all over their bodies. It’s a way for people to form a personal connection to Venice’s history, part of how you connect with the space. Cultural framing can socialize a person in the span of minutes to get over their “instinctual loathing” for something. There’s nothing inherent about pigeons or our instinctual reaction to animals that would make us predisposed to dislike them.

The way that people talk about pigeons in the small parks that I studied was in the same breath as the homeless, panhandlers, and litter. In people’s minds, they lump all these things together as disorder. I think the origin of the general loathing towards pigeons is spatial. If you look at the continuous march of urbanization, and urbanization as the mark of civilization, the dichotomy between town and country is firmly embedded in our collective consciousness: the idea that the ordered, sanitized city is the place where nature is not. But then there are these wild animals that actually do better in the built environment than they ever did in their natural habitat. We tend to see them as representative of the fact that we never completely conquered nature.

For these animals, the built environment is now their natural habitat. Because their native habitat was largely cliffs, pigeons actually prefer concrete cornices, ledges, and statues to grass and shrubs. They’re the most explicit trespassers on spaces we’ve decided are supposed to be for humans only.

(L) Cross with anti-pigeon metal spikes in Morningside Heights (photo by Bergeycm ); (R) an unaffected pigeon flies by a plastic owl attached to a signpost in the West Village (photo by Matt Carman)

How are we currently trying to control pigeons in the built environment?
You can see pigeon controls ensconced throughout urban architecture. The arch over Washington Square has netting so pigeons can’t land. There are plastic and metal spikes everywhere to prevent pigeons from occupying surfaces. There are plastic owls that allegedly scare pigeons away. A few places like the Army Recruitment Center in Times Square and the Delta Terminal at JFK have speakers playing recordings of birds of prey that are supposed to scare the pigeons away. But the owl never moves and the hawk never comes, so the pigeons figure it out and none of these devices really work. I recently saw a store that had installed metal spikes and a plastic owl, and there was a pigeon nest jammed right in between. These interventions don’t solve the problem from an ecosystem perspective. These devices may keep pigeons off of your building but they just go next door.

We do a terrible job of containing our waste in the city, and pigeons breed up to the food supply: if there’s a lot of food around, they might have five, six, seven clutches of eggs per year. If we really wanted to reduce the numbers of pigeons, we would need a totally different system to control our organic waste. And then there are the people who feed pigeons, and their effect cannot be underestimated. If one person regularly feeds pigeons two or three times a day on one block, then in a couple of months hundreds of pigeons will call that block their home while two blocks away there may be no pigeons. It’s amazing: there are miniature ecosystems almost block by block.

A regular pigeon feeder in Father Demo Square

Your book also examines New York’s pigeon keeper communities. What is the history of these groups?
I spent over three years, mostly in Brooklyn but also in the Bronx and in Queens, with men who breed and fly domesticated pigeons from their rooftops. Pigeon flying has a long history in New York City, as well as in Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and elsewhere. People have bred pigeons across Europe and the Middle East for thousands of years and immigrants brought the practice to the United States. In On The Waterfront, it wasn’t just Marlon Brando’s character who had pigeons on his rooftop; all the mobsters had pigeons. From my rooftop in Brooklyn, I could see six or seven “stocks” at once, with hundreds and hundreds of pigeons.

For these men, much of their life is outdoors, on the roof, engaging with nature. They are vessels of knowledge about the city as an ecosystem and they actively insert themselves into that urban ecology. What they do changes with the seasons. They have to be aware of the patterns of predatory animals like hawks, falcons, and even sometimes seagulls, and they have to be wary of street pigeons who can transfer diseases to their birds. They have to have an understanding of genetics and breeding.

When I was first writing about these guys, I had this romantic idea that this was their way of connecting with nature, that through their birds they could escape the concrete jungle. That wasn’t the case at all. It’s a social thing, an informal competition. The idea is to train hundreds of pigeons to fly together as a tightly knit bundle above your roof into the clouds. The men wave 15- to 20-foot bamboo poles with flags on the end, which frighten the birds into flying higher. To bring them back, they simply put down the pole and toss feed on the rooftop. The hope is that when your birds are circling, they will mingle with someone else’s birds. And when you bring your flock home, you might bring back someone else’s pigeons along with yours; usually you don’t give them back. There’s a lot of masculine bravado going on; it’s not cool to admit that you want your bird back.

Pigeon Keepers of NYC | Photos by Chris Arnade

Flying pigeons is an involved process: taking care of many birds, hauling heavy sacks of feed, cleaning the coops. Historically, a pigeon keeper would either make his son help out or hire a kid from the neighborhood. And, in a lot of neighborhoods where people keep and fly pigeons, a major ethnic inversion took place over the span of several decades. Bushwick, for example, went from almost 100% white in 1950 to 3% white by 2000, with large numbers of African Americans and Hispanics moving in. As the neighborhood changed, the pigeon keepers, who were primarily ethnic Italians, had a very practical problem. A lot of them weren’t excited about minorities moving in, but they still needed their coops cleaned, so they started recruiting young Puerto Rican and black kids to help them on the roof, and those kids wound up taking up the practice of pigeon flying as they grew up.

When you look at the group today, the men in their 80s are mostly ethnic Italians, and those in their 40s and 50s are mostly Puerto Rican and black. So you have an interesting story of cultural transmission in neighborhoods that often experience ethnic tension and sometimes conflict. In other spheres of their lives — the bars they go to, their places of work, what corner they hang out on — these men tend to stick to their own ethnic groups. So they have not entirely transcended ethnocentrism. But race and ethnicity become irrelevant when they fly pigeons; they care about their status as a pigeon flyer. Pigeon-keepers, it turns out, are a very cross-generational, cross-racial group of people.

One person I got to know for the book was Carmine, who was one of the last two remaining Italians on his block. He remembered a different neighborhood than the one he sees today, a time when fresh Italian rolls were available at the corner store and all the kids were baptized at the same local church. But when Carmine goes to his roof, he can still breed and fly his birds like he has since he was six years old and some of the neighboring rooftops still have coops. He built his coop in the 1940s, and it provides him with a tangible connection to the past while also giving him an opportunity to connect to the future in a selective way. He befriends other pigeon flyers, many of whom are Hispanic and black, and forms a connection to the people who live in his neighborhood now.

Carmine with one of his pigeons

Where do the pigeon flyers fit into a city increasingly reutilizing its rooftop spaces?
Back before anybody had air conditioning and people were living in overcrowded tenements, the roof was an escape. It was common to sleep or eat on the roof. It was out of this era that pigeon coops arose. As air conditioning was becoming standard, safety concerns made rooftops off limits. Pigeon flyers were reclaiming that as their territory. Now the rights to that airspace are being challenged with this wave of “rooftop amenities.” If so-called “white flight” is what first led to a decline in pigeon flying, these days it’s gentrification that is really pushing it out.

Recently, I went to a film screening on a rooftop in Gowanus. One of the films being shown was Above Brooklyn, which is about how rooftop pigeon coops are vanishing. A lot of the pigeon flyers came out to see the movie, but most of the people attending were in their 20s or early 30s, and there was wine downstairs in art galleries with perfect sheet-rocked walls. Looking out from the roof, the guys that I was with pointed to condos where they remember there used to be pigeon coops, and another building that used to be a factory where workers installed a coop on the roof. Every time a building is converted, there is less room for pigeon flying. There we were, watching a movie on a rooftop that could have once been a space for a pigeon coop, but no longer.

A lot of the pigeon flyers used to have handshake agreements with their buildings’ owners: if you let me have this pigeon coop, I’ll tar the roof every couple years. But now, as buildings are being sold, the new owners don’t have an interest in that. It’s legal to keep pigeons, but a lot of the coops aren’t up to fire code, or they house too many birds, so the flyers can get in trouble when new people in the neighborhood call the City to complain.

In some of these very same neighborhoods where pigeons are getting kicked out, there is a lot of excitement around sustainability and local foods, reclaiming rooftops for gardens and beehives and even chicken coops. But unfortunately, the pigeon flyers can’t wrap their activity in this moral language of sustainability. Other groups of people that are more explicitly using the language of “green” could try to bring them into the fold, but they don’t. At a time when urban ecologies are being celebrated, there seems to be no room for the pigeon flyers.

Pigeons over Bushwick, Brooklyn | Photo by Chris Arnade

Colin Jerolmack is an assistant professor of sociology and environmental studies at NYU. His research and teaching interests include urban and rural sociology, the environment, community, and human-animal relations.

Unless otherwise noted, photos by Colin Jerolmack.

 



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