With so many of us jostling for limited space, New Yorkers can be a fractious bunch. In the interest of promoting a more cooperative approach to city living, the Lady suggested I set aside my vicious impulses and try to learn something about one of my frequent combatants: the New York City pigeon.
Lester, seen above, belongs to a
pack flock of pigeons who frequent downtown Manhattan. I interviewed him at his favorite haunt in Union Square. His manners are a little rough around the edges, but not without a certain streetwise panache. Lester had some understandable trepidation at the start of our conversation, but by the end, we reached a point of mutual respect, if not actual friendship.
First of all, I would like to thank you for consenting to meet with me. You were the seventeenth pigeon I contacted. Everyone else said no.
Yeah, well considering the last time I ran into you, you tried to throttle me by the neck, I don’t know if this was such a smart idea. Just stay over there, okay, Al?
Please don’t call me Al.
If you say so, Al.
I’m going to ignore that. So, Lester, you’re a native New Yorker. Tell me about that.
That’s right, my family goes way back in this city. We’ve been here forever, starting out in Brooklyn and spreading out from there. I got family in all five boroughs.
Do you live here in Union Square most of the time?
I’m here a good amount of the time. What with the greenmarket four days a week and the Whole Foods across the street and all the tourists and students and whatnot, it’s pretty sweet pickings for a pigeon.
Do these tourists give you food?
To the pigeons? No, not so much. They like to give food to the squirrels. Then they try to take pictures, like they’re at the zoo. I don’t know, maybe they don’t have squirrels over in Europe, like they’re some kind of exotic species or something.
But there are humans who feed pigeons.
That’s right, there’s quite a few of them, the pro-pigeonists. They leave bread crusts or birdseed or sometimes popcorn. There’s an old lady in the Village who one time left out whole bagels, with cream cheese and everything. I have to say, that was not the most convenient thing, but the thought was nice.
It seems to me that there is enough garbage on the street already without humans having to scatter extra food for you.
What’s it to you? Why should I have to scavenge through garbage picking out crumbs if some nice old lady wants to leave me some blueberry muffin tops? You dogs have it made, sitting there in your cushy apartments with your organic meals and fancy toys. You have no idea how hard it is on the street.
It doesn’t really seem that hard, to be honest with you. You just said you have plenty of food.
Yeah, but meanwhile, I got to watch out for dogs—most of them bigger and faster than you, no offense. And there’s hawks out there, too. And feral cats.
I guess I hadn’t thought about that. Speaking of hawks, humans seem to revere them. There’s even a Hawk Cam run by The New York Times and New York City Audubon. But as far as I know, there’s no such thing as a New York pigeon cam. Do you feel that pigeons get enough respect, compared to other birds?
No, I most definitely do not. And after all we’ve done for people. Try to get a hawk to deliver a message for you, and let me know how that goes.
Some humans see pigeons as pests. Woody Allen famously referred to you as “rats with wings.”
Woody Allen! Who’s he to criticize? Just because there’s a lot of us, now we’re like rats? I tell you, it’s like we’re so—what’s the word, youbeakyou—
Yeah, like we’re everywhere, and so people take us for granted. Maybe if pigeons were really rare in New York, humans would actually appreciate us. Like that dumb bird who got lost in the West Village on his way to Guatemala, and suddenly he’s a celebrity. If pigeons were like that, just imagine: People would stalk us with their binoculars and write down in their little notebooks, “Hey, I saw a pigeon today in Central Park!”
Maybe the answer is for you to move to Guatemala. Maybe pigeons are rare there.
Hmm…that’s a thought. I’d have to look into it. That could be a long flight.
I’ve always wondered about flying. It seems like that would just be an amazing ability to possess. If I could fly, I’m not sure I would ever do anything else. Yet you and your fellow pigeons seem to spend a lot of time just standing around and walking.
Well, it takes a lot of energy to fly, you know. It would be like if you spent all your time running. Eventually, you have to take a break and rest.
Is that why some pigeons ride the subway?
I think that’s more about finding food than saving energy. My cousin Dizzy out in Flushing likes to hop on the 7 train for a few stops in Queens. I haven’t tried it myself, but I hear there’s good eats on that train—lots of Chinese bakery crumbs, and then during baseball season you get hot dog bun crusts at the next stop. One of these days, I’ll have to give it a try.
You live downtown. Do you know Paul, the Birdman of Washington Square Park? I’ve seen him a few times there, and I have to admit that I tried to chase all his pigeon friends, and they flew away. But after learning a little more about him, I feel kind of guilty about that.
I know of Paul, but I don’t know him personally. But he seems like a human who’s had some hard times, and if hanging out with us pigeons gave him a little brightness in his life when things were bad, then that’s fine by me. Sometimes humans who don’t know how to deal with the human world and all its nuttiness need animals to help them feel a little less lost.
It’s funny, Lester, before talking with you, I’d see a pigeon and all I wanted to do was catch it and wring it by the neck. But now I think we actually have some things in common, pigeons and dogs. We’ve both adapted to live with, or at least, around humans. And we’ve both served them in some capacity over the years. You’ve given me a new appreciation for your perspective. Thanks so much for speaking with me.
But you still kinda want to wring my neck a little bit, right?
Kind of. I mean, just a little.
No pigeons were harmed during this interview.