The Global Pigeon

The Global Pigeon

by Colin Jerolmack

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The pigeon is the quintessential city bird. Domesticated thousands of years ago as a messenger and a source of food, its presence on our sidewalks is so common that people consider the bird a nuisance—if they notice it at all. Yet pigeons are also kept for pleasure, sport, and profit by people all over the world, from the “pigeon wars” waged by breeding enthusiasts in the skies over Brooklyn to the Million Dollar Pigeon Race held every year in South Africa.
Drawing on more than three years of fieldwork across three continents, Colin Jerolmack traces our complex and often contradictory relationship with these versatile animals in public spaces such as Venice’s Piazza San Marco and London’s Trafalgar Square and in working-class and immigrant communities of pigeon breeders in New York and Berlin. By exploring what he calls “the social experience of animals,” Jerolmack shows how our interactions with pigeons offer surprising insights into city life, community, culture, and politics. Theoretically understated and accessible to interested readers of all stripes, The Global Pigeon is one of the best and most original ethnographies to be published in decades.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226001920
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/20/2013
Series: Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 15 MB
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About the Author

Colin Jerolmack is assistant professor of sociology and environmental studies at New York University.

Read an Excerpt


By Colin Jerolmack


Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-00189-0

Chapter One

Feeding the Pigeons

Sidewalk Sociability in Greenwich Village

FATHER DEMO SQUARE sits in the heart of Greenwich Village, a triangular brick plot hemmed in by Carmine Street, Bleecker Street, and Sixth Avenue. The plaza, created as a leftover when Sixth Avenue was expanded south in 1925, is named in honor of an Italian pastor who raised money to build the church located just west of the park. As part of a study on interactions in public space, I documented the social life of this park—along with five others—from the spring of 2004 until the fall of 2005. The interactions and setting depicted below were all recorded before extensive renovations, which rendered Father Demo Square inaccessible from 2006 to 2007.

Though only 0.072 acres, the plaza's location in a busy commercial and pedestrian crossroads means that it nourishes the kind of vibrant sidewalk life that urbanist Jane Jacobs, who lived in and wrote about the area, claimed was crucial for fostering a sense of social connectedness in the city. Visitors to the park included many who grabbed a slice from Joe's Pizza or a bagel from Bagels on the Square, delivery-truck drivers and city workers, employees of nearby businesses, tourists poring over their maps, students from New York University, club goers and pub crawlers, and the homeless, among others. The most frequent users of the park during the day were the old, mostly white, lifelong Villagers. Some told me that the few hours they spent there each day served as their primary form of social interaction.

The presence of many park visitors who ate takeout food there, as well as people who specifically came to the park to deposit birdseed and bread, meant that Father Demo Square was also a place that attracted pigeons. Despite the "Do Not Feed the Pigeons" sign, visitors provided the birds with meals all day long. When I spoke with the head of a block association whose jurisdiction included the park, he complained about such visitors: "There are some people who come and leave bags of food for these pigeons, and they don't even live in the community." He also complained about homeless people, who he said often slept in the space and could be found passed out drunk in the morning, but he had hopes that the renovated park, which would be fenced and locked at night, would control the homeless population. The block captain was having a harder time trying to figure out how to curb the pigeon population. In a view echoed by the Parks Department and the local councilperson's office, he called the pigeons a nuisance and a health hazard. He explained the pigeons' presence as the product of a few zealous pigeon-lovers that ruined it for everybody else: "It's only a few people that feed the pigeons; 99.999% of people want to see no pigeons in the park. Everybody complains about it."

My observations of everyday park life painted a different picture. I saw that pigeon feeding was a daily routine for at least a half dozen people who came with seed for the birds, and over twice as many who brought bread. Dozens more park users engaged in more casual and spontaneous pigeon feeding every day, preferring to toss their pizza crust or bagel remains to the birds instead of in the trash. At many moments of the day, pigeons dominated the scene, and many people in the park were engaged with them in some form or another—if not feeding them, then perhaps chasing them (common among children) or photographing them. In fact, human interactions with pigeons seemed to be among the most common "face-to-face" encounters that took place in Father Demo Square.

I was particularly struck by the capacity of pigeons to recognize regular feeders and coax unwitting park visitors into feeding them, behaviors that refl ected the birds' adaptation to the demands and opportunities of city living. Biologists have found that pigeons are "able to learn quickly from their interactions with human feeders" on the street and "use this knowledge to maximize the profitability of the urban environment," discriminating between friendly feeders and hostile pedestrians and adopting begging strategies that elicit food from strangers.

While it is obvious what pigeons gain from this synanthropic relationship, this chapter examines the social significance of pigeon feeding. Though the block captain and some municipal authorities framed pigeons as nuisances that impeded people's enjoyment of sidewalk life, I found that pigeon-feeding routines could become part of what Jane Jacobs called the "intricate sidewalk ballet" that enriched pedestrians' experience of the street and satisfied their desire for casual and delimited forms of copresence. It was not uncommon for park visitors to strike up a conversation with a stranger at one moment and then become absorbed in tossing pieces of their meal to pigeons at the next moment. While most sociologists would ignore the human-animal encounter or view it as incommensurable with the social encounter, I saw how both forms of sidewalk interaction offered the solitary pedestrian the simple pleasure of playful, noncommittal association—what classical sociologist Georg Simmel called sociability. Pigeons could also instigate spontaneous associations among human strangers by becoming a topic of conversation and a focus of attention. Such interactions reveal how animals can become part of the urban "interaction order," shaping routine sidewalk life. These cross-species encounters also trouble the social psychological axiom that sustained interaction is possible only if participants share a definition of the situation.

Pigeon Feeding

On a mild, sunny November afternoon, I arrived in Father Demo Square around 2:00 p.m. Thirty-two people sat on the benches: some young and some old, some tourists and some locals, some working class in appearance and some in suits. An old white man shuffled through the park, dropping bread as he went but continuing out of the space while looking back to watch 30–35 pigeons swarm the food. This seemed to inspire a Hispanic woman and her daughter, who tossed chips at the pigeons gathered nearby. A middle-aged, disheveled black male shifted his gaze toward about 20 cooing pigeons that gathered expectantly around him. He then tossed some pieces of a bagel to the pigeons and intently watched them consume it, while a young white couple laughed as they watched the birds fight over the food. Two middle-aged white women tossed pieces of bread from their sandwiches to a few pigeons and nonchalantly watched the birds as they continued their conversation. Another older, seemingly homeless black man rummaged through all of the garbage cans and then consumed what he found while breaking off pieces for a dozen pigeons. Two young Hispanic men watched the frenzied activity of the pigeons and laughed, and then began to toss some of their meal to the birds. A second old white man walked through the park and dropped some bread on his way out, and an old white woman on a bench decided to join in the feeding by tossing some bread from her sandwich.

Then Anna, an old white woman who fed the pigeons every day and whom regulars called the "pigeon lady," took a bag of birdseed out of her purse and dumped some of it on the ground. Well over 50 pigeons flew over to her from surrounding rooftops, cooing loudly and shoving each other as they competed for the food. Anna continued to toss the seed about her, and held some in her hands, which encouraged some of the birds to climb on her body to obtain it. She smiled as a pigeon sat on her knee and another on her shoulder. A white woman stopped to take photos of the spectacle and chatted with Anna. At that point, passersby had stopped to observe, laugh, and take pictures of the event. A black boy, likely in middle school, got up from his bench and raced through the middle of the park, laughing and chasing the birds until they took off in a bunch and circled the plaza. Their simultaneous taking of flight let off loud claps of over 100 wings, and spectators pointed and ducked as the pigeons flew barely over their heads.

I was sitting with a young white woman, Carey, and two old white men, Frank and Jerry, who were regulars at the park. Carey remarked, 'It looks like they get fed all day.' They laughed as we watched the pigeons try to carry off large pieces of bagels while others attempted to rip it out of their beaks. Frank commented that the pigeons are here to stay because of all the food, and we focused our attention on them as the birds fought it out. In this not unusual five-minute snapshot from an afternoon in the park, out of the 32 people present inside the boundaries of the space, 18 people were directly involved with the pigeons through feeding, chasing, or taking photographs. More people, both those sitting and passersby, were indirectly involved in the action through taking time out from their other activities to watch the interactions.

Though feeding pigeons in New York (and elsewhere) can result in a nuisance citation, it was a routine activity for many visitors to Father Demo Square and other parks I observed around the city. Feeding pigeons also seemed common in the public spaces of many other cities I have visited, from Notre Dame in Paris to the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. People engage in pigeon feeding with various levels of intensity. Some people feed pigeons while paying little attention to them, or feed them for short durations. Sociologist Erving Goffman would call these "unfocused interactions." But other people achieve "focused interactions" while feeding pigeons, in which they become absorbed in the activity and engage in feeding for an extended period of time. Though there is no absolute boundary between the two, "focused feeding" looks different than "unfocused feeding," and it seems that these two interactive forms tend to function differently as well. Unfocused feeding often helps facilitate associations among people, in which pigeons become a resource for conversations and interactions among acquaintances and even strangers. But focused feeding facilitates human associations with pigeons. In focused feeding, humans appear to seek these associations as ends in themselves. As a result of sustained attention to the pigeons, humans are rewarded with increasingly complex interactions. In both forms, pigeons—if only for the moment—help satisfy pedestrians' desire for copresence.

* * *

Unfocused feeding, in which humans paid little or sporadic attention to the pigeons, often occurred when two or more people were together. On one occasion, a middle-aged black woman and her middle-aged white female companion entered the park with sandwiches and sat down, while a nearby white family of four was feeding about twenty pigeons. After the women had been eating and talking for about two minutes, occasionally looking in the direction of the family, six pigeons slowly approached to within about eight feet of the women, stretching out and cocking their heads sideways. They seemed to expect food. The black woman appeared to notice them first. She ripped several pieces of bread from her sandwich while she returned eye contact to her friend. She then tossed some crumbs one at a time. One pigeon walked ahead of the others, craning its neck just enough to quickly snatch the crumb while maintaining a distance of about three feet from the women. The black woman noticed this from the corner of her eye, and two of the other pigeons advanced and pecked at the crumbs that were closer to the women. Soon, all six pigeons had moved within four feet of the women, and the black woman ripped off and tossed more pieces of bread, appearing to nonchalantly watch them eat with quick glances while she focused most of her eye contact on her friend. However, her friend had noticed the pigeons and also began to tear off and toss portions of her sandwich bread at them.

The women continued their conversation, laughing and discussing a variety of topics such as work and family life. Yet now both women took regular glances over at the pigeons they were feeding. Their actions brought over 5 more pigeons, and a mass of about 30–35 birds began to slowly make their way toward the women and the 11 pigeons already eating there. At this point, the women trained their eyes on the 11 pigeons longer, and they ceased talking to each other but smiled and laughed as they jointly tossed more and more crumbs. They talked about the pigeons to each other, pointing out ones that appeared quite eager or somehow comical in their actions (e.g., cooing loudly). Yet when the larger group of pigeons came within six feet of them, the white woman, and then the black woman, ceased tossing crumbs.

Only when about 25–30 pigeons had left to seek food from other visitors did the women begin the routine again, going back and forth between eye contact with each other and glances at the birds, making small talk that was sprinkled with references to the pigeons, and taking time-outs to focus their eyes on the pigeons. Six or seven minutes had passed, and the pigeons were now coming quite close to the women (less than one foot) to get some food. Yet, when the white woman moved her foot, the pigeons took a short flight away. The birds appeared to stay cautious despite their desire for more food. Again, they returned slowly. From here on out the women maintained an on and off feeding schedule that alternately attracted and then pushed back the pigeons. The women appeared to work to keep a small number of the pigeons interested, and seemed to enjoy their presence, but they also worked to prevent their association from being overwhelmed by the 40–50 pigeons that were currently in the park. After about 15 minutes, the women finished their sandwiches and soon after exited the park.

It appeared that the mere presence of the birds encouraged some people to feed them. It was not quite as simple, however, as copresence. Pigeons worked to bring about this result by "begging." If on statues or lampposts, they swooped to the ground when food appeared. They were often on the ground already, because pigeons, like chickens, are naturally inclined to scavenge for food by pecking the ground—not flowers, trees, and shrubs (which is why they walk rather than hop). Pigeons would move in close, within a range of one to six feet, to the person(s) with food. Moreover, they stretched their necks out and turned their heads sideways so that one of their eyes was clearly directed at the food supply. If people ignored the birds, they often approached even closer, sometimes within inches of one's feet. If no food was forthcoming, they might move away, but often they did so only to double back and try again. In the end, they were remarkably adept at getting the average park visitor to donate scraps from their meal. Once the food had disappeared, the pigeons backed away.

Feeding episodes often seemed unplanned, and they were also "contagious." There were often lulls where no one was feeding the pigeons, and then as soon as one started, others joined in. Such feeding usually occurred among families and groups. In fact, the women in the episode described above had already observed a family feeding some pigeons before the black woman began to toss her own crumbs. The white family of four, eating pizza, was tossing pieces of crust to the pigeons. The father began the activity, and as a group of about 20 pigeons gathered around, he verbally encouraged his young son and daughter to toss food. He helped them break off the crumbs and throw them, while saying, 'Look at the birdies. Feed the birdies.' The mother showed her approval, smiling and then grabbing some crust herself to toss to the birds. The children began to laugh, looking back to their parents who reinforced for them (through smiles and continual feeding) that the family as a whole framed this activity as an enjoyable event. All four family members tossed crust and laughed, with the children seemingly delighted to draw the pigeons into their company. The birds became the main involvement of the family, channeling their attention into a communal activity.


Excerpted from THE GLOBAL PIGEON by Colin Jerolmack Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Experiencing the City through the Quintessential Urban Bird
Part 1: The Pedestrian Pigeon
1 Feeding the Pigeons: Sidewalk Sociability in Greenwich Village
2 “Do Not Feed the Pigeons”: Cultural Heritage and the Politics of Place in Venice and London
Part 2: The Totemic Pigeon
3 New York’s Rooftop Pigeon Flyers: Crafting Nature and Anchoring the Self
4 The Turkish Pigeon Caretakers of Berlin: Primordial Ties in a Migrant Community
5 Joey’s Brooklyn Pet Shop: Cosmopolitan Ties in a Changing Urban Landscape
Part 3: Deep Play
6 The Bronx Homing Pigeon Club: Nature, Nurture, and the Enchantment of “the Poor Man’s Horse Racing”
7 South Africa’s Million Dollar Pigeon Race: Rationalizing and Globalizing “the Pigeon Game”
8 Conclusion: Changing Ecologies

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The Global Pigeon 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
james-gangone More than 1 year ago
i have just started reading this book and it has brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my face.................carmine gangone is my grandfather.......thank you, colin jerolmack