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The Persistence of Pigeons

P-p-pigeons, you gasp, what can be learned from pigeons?  Awkward, head-bobbing, guano-showering flying rats, just above discarded chow in the food chain.  What indeed.

I must confess I have always harbored a grudging respect for pigeons—fearless, friendly, and sociable; not beautiful, as most birds go, but downright gorgeous next to buzzards. And name one other wild creature so willing to live so close to us humans and tolerate our derision and disrespect—not to mention kicking, poisoning, neck-wringing, and sport shooting (hastening extinction, in the case of the passenger pigeon).

I must also confess that my grudging respect has, on occasion wavered. I once worked in a towering office building on East 42nd Street with windows that faced an air-shaft in perpetual twilight. Upon the window ledges grew abstract sculptures, some well over three feet in height, composed entirely of pigeon droppings. I have seldom experienced such revulsion and never before or since been so happy to have a desk in a windowless part of an office. Bad, very bad pigeons.

But how does one stay mad at a pigeon for behaving like any other bird? I read, somewhere, that being pooped on by a pigeon is good luck, most likely an ironic spin, but it got me thinking. What exactly did I know about our closest wild feathered friends? Aside from what I’ve noticed in passing and from their very loud and negative press, not much.

In pursuit of enlightenment, I discovered: Pigeons: the Fascinating Saga of the Worlds Most Revered and Reviled Bird by Andrew D. Blechman, and learned that there was much more to the pesky, brazen little bird than I had imagined. The interesting factoids are many: pigeons were once worshiped as fertility gods; they live on every continent except Antarctica; they were the first domesticated bird; they are built for speed and endurance; they mate for life; make for tasty eating; have been used to carry messages since ancient times; and were and are war heroes.

How did gods and war heroes get marked down to common pests, pests that municipalities worldwide have tried to eradicate—most often in horrifyingly inhumane ways? Add to that pigeon racing; breeding to create such bizarre traits beaks too small to allow for normal eating and ankle feathers so long as to make trip-free walking impossible; and the mostly, but shockingly not entirely, illegal pigeon shoots that kill and wound thousands. So how have pigeons survived, nay thrived, in this inhospitable atmosphere?

My dear friend Paul homed in on an answer—persistence—and I think he’s right. Pigeons are not easily dissuaded. Think of how they keep coming back—to a perch, a sidewalk snack, home—no matter how many times they’re shooed away. They fly off or walk about, biding their time, and then back they come. Without an innate persistence, how could Cher Ami, the World War I hero, have kept flying despite grievous bullet wounds, resulting in 200 saved American lives? How is it that pigeons are still around today— too loved by some, too hated by others, mistreated by far too many? It has to be persistence. To quote Paul, “I can think of nothing more persistent than a pigeon. Persistence = success. All else is necessary but not sufficient.” Something to consider the next time any of us thinks of giving up.

By the way, as I finished writing this, it suddenly got very dark outside. I walked over to the window to investigate when my attention was diverted by a very large, fresh pigeon dropping on the outside of the pane. Bad, very bad pigeon. So much for good intentions and good press.

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