Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness

Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness

by Nathanael Johnson
Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness

Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness

by Nathanael Johnson


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It all started with Nathanael Johnson’s decision to teach his daughter the name of every tree they passed on their walk to day care in San Francisco. This project turned into a quest to discover the secrets of the neighborhood’s flora and fauna, and yielded more than names and trivia: Johnson developed a relationship with his nonhuman neighbors.

Johnson argues that learning to see the world afresh, like a child, shifts the way we think about nature: Instead of something distant and abstract, nature becomes real—all at once comical, annoying, and beautiful. This shift can add tremendous value to our lives, and it might just be the first step in saving the world.

No matter where we live—city, country, oceanside, or mountains—there are wonders that we walk past every day. Unseen City widens the pinhole of our perspective by allowing us to view the world from the high-altitude eyes of a turkey vulture and the distinctly low-altitude eyes of a snail. The narrative allows us to eavesdrop on the comically frenetic life of a squirrel and peer deep into the past with a ginkgo biloba tree. Each of these organisms has something unique to tell us about our neighborhoods and, chapter by chapter, Unseen City takes us on a journey that is part nature lesson and part love letter to the world’s urban jungles. With the right perspective, a walk to the subway can be every bit as entrancing as a walk through a national park.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781623363857
Publisher: Harmony/Rodale
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 410,650
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 5.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Nathanael Johnson is the food writer for Grist and author of All Natural. He lives in Berkeley, California.

Read an Excerpt


DISGUST COMPELLED ME TO PIGEONS. For most of my life I hadn't thought much about the birds. They were always there, invisible in their omnipresence. I suppose I must have regarded them with curiosity at some point in my childhood, but there's something fundamentally uninteresting about pigeons, perhaps by design. It's almost as if they evolved a form of camouflage that helps humans accept their presence. This isn't a camouflage against sight— they are plainly visible and not the least bit furtive—it's a kind of psychological camouflage, like a Jedi mind trick. Their bearing tells humans that these aren't the birds we're looking for, that they are not a threat, not indicative of anything in particular, but instead are unremarkable, as easily forgotten as the air, everywhere and unseen.

It makes some sense, then, that I started thinking about pigeons only once I had been shat upon. This, I would learn, is a common initiation (a baptism of sorts) into pigeon research. I found one writer after another who reported having begun paying attention to the birds after a—presumably learned, scholarly—pigeon anointed them from above.

The pigeon that elected me was an Argentinian pigeon. I was spending a few months in Buenos Aires, where pigeons are everywhere. Another thing they have everywhere in Buenos Aires is a type of cookie, the alfajor, made with the whitest of flours and dulce de leche (which is basically caramel, cubed). I ate one made with chocolate dulce de leche one evening as I was hurrying to a friend's apartment for dinner. I was brushing the last crumbs off my fingers as I trotted down the subway stairs. It was dusk, so I didn't see the white and brown globule on my sweater until I walked under the subway lights. It was about the size of my fingernail—a cookie crumb, right? Oh no, Nate. No. Not right.

Without thinking, I scooped up what in reality was a pigeon turd and popped it in my mouth. I spent the next several minutes on the platform flinging my hands in the air, spitting onto the tracks, turning in tight circles, and silently screaming. The other riders waiting must have wondered what they were witnessing.

Perhaps it was just coincidence, but a few hours later I grew ill. The nausea hit me just as my host served the second course—awkward timing. I reclined on the floor, broke into a cold sweat, and then settled in for a serious fever.

After that, things weren't so cool between the pigeons and me for a while. In fact, it's only recently, as I've begun to understand their capacities (beyond spreading filth), that I've gained respect for them. In the beginning, my interest in pigeons sprang purely from loathing and a potent desire to maintain distance between us. When they flew too close, I thrashed spastically at the air. I yelled and kicked at the ones that came begging near my feet. My eye sought signs of mange and disease to confirm that these were utterly revolting beasts. As I watched them, however, I also began to notice things. I noticed, for instance, that as many as half the birds in some flocks had only one good leg. They hopped around, many holding a leg gingerly off the ground. Sometimes the leg ended in a misshapen bulb. It was totally gross, but also interesting: Disgust led me to observe pigeons closely for the first time, and I then noticed something I had previously been blind to. Of course, it was something that validated my revulsion, but it also drew me in. What the heck, I wanted to know, was wrong with pigeon feet?

I should pause to say a word about disgust, because, before gathering the information that eventually endeared pigeons to me, I spent a lot of time accumulating evidence that affirmed my fears—in other words, what you learn here is going to get worse before it gets better. But it does get better. The more time people spend studying pigeons, it seems, the fonder they grow of them. For instance, here's what two of the foremost pigeon researchers, Richard Johnston and Marian Janiga, write in their book Feral Pigeons:

Our chief concern in the pages to follow is to describe and analyze the biology of the feral pigeon, which we consider to be one of the masterpieces of nature. Some readers will wonder at the idea of "masterpiece" being applied to what they think of as a pest, but we hope they ultimately will join us in our opinion.

I haven't gotten all the way to "masterpiece," but what I learned about pigeons turned my revulsion into curiosity, and then, gradually, admiration. Disgust is not such a bad place to begin an inquiry. It's a good, honest emotion. It's one of those primitive reactions that simply calls a threat into focus—Heads up, you've been shat upon by yonder fleabag. If my interest instead began with awe, then I'd be in real trouble, because the thing that prompted me to begin digging up information would also prompt me to ignore or distort any unpleasantness I might find.

I wasn't the only one who had noticed the gross pigeon feet. A Seattle weekly newspaper, The Stranger, ran an article on the subject, but the experts the writer consulted had contradictory theories. One blamed predators—cats and falcons—but what predator is going to be sated by a toe? Why do they so consistently injure pigeons' feet? Another suggested that the problem was infection (with staphylococcus, perhaps). Maybe, but then, why are pigeons more commonly infected than sparrows? Another theory: Hair and string get knotted around pigeons' feet, and they have no way to untangle themselves. Again, why don't we see the same problem with other city birds? The mystery was unsolved, as far as I was concerned.

I spent my next few days in dusty library stacks looking for information about pigeon feet. As I paged through these books, I found a lot of fascinating stuff I hadn't been looking for. It was a revelation, for example, to read the simple description of a pigeon's appearance, because it made it clear that I'd actually never seen the birds—not really, in any meaningful way. If you'd have asked me to describe them, I couldn't have told you much more than: gray and gross. But reading the descriptions in these books was like seeing the grubby neighbor girl in a designer gown at the Oscars. I glimpsed them anew, dressed up in formal prose. The rock pigeon is not just gray, but "dove gray," "with deep purple iridescence at the neck that varies with the angle of the light," a "bold black median bar," and "axillaries and underwing coverts of brilliant white."

This is a description of a thing of noble beauty, the sort of creature you might find on a family crest, a bird to inspire religious metaphors. And in fact it has: For most of history there was no distinction between (scruffy) pigeons and (iconic) doves. That bird that brought Noah, while on the ark, the first sign of dry land? If you go back to the Hebrew, the word for that bird actually translates to "of the pigeon type." But at some point people began thinking of doves and pigeons differently. They are all in the same family—it's just that somewhere along the line certain species arbitrarily acquired the common name "dove," while others got called "pigeon." Some got both: Columba palumbus has been called both a "ring dove" and a "wood pigeon." In her book Superdove, Courtney Humphries suggests that it was Shakespeare that solidified the division between pigeons and doves. In Shakespeare's work, pigeons always play a functional role, while the parts for doves are consistently symbolic. The dove is "equated with peace, modesty, patience, love and other noble ideals." The pigeon usually just shows up on a dinner plate. The dove is metaphoric, the pigeon is mundane. And this division has stuck, Humphries writes: "We never talk of pigeons of peace or dove droppings on statues. 'Dove' is a pleasant enough title to grace chocolate bars and soap, while 'pigeon' has no marketing appeal." Imagine if John the Baptist had said he saw the Holy Spirit descending to Jesus "like a pigeon."

But if you are interested in getting past the marketing appeal, past the flash and dazzle of meanings we've imposed upon nature, and instead simply seeing nature, the pigeon is a great place to start. Has any other creature lived so closely with us, while so successfully avoiding the romantic varnish of human imagination?

As I read on, still seeking the solution to the mystery of the ugly feet but pleasantly diverted, I saw what I always see when confronted with the reality of the living world: Unvarnished nature is far more wondrous than our romantic artifice.


If you start watching pigeons, one of the first things you'll notice is that you never see a chick. Like some mythical beast, these birds reveal themselves to humans only after reaching maturity. There are two good reasons for this: First, pigeons are good at hiding their nests; and second, the young birds—called squabs—stay in the nest until they lose the obvious indicators of youth.

They are able to do this because mother and father pigeon work together to provide for their young. This equality in parenting extends to milk production: Both males and females secrete a cheesy yellow milk into the crop, a food-storage pouch partway down the throat. I had thought that milk belonged exclusively to mammals; it's our defining characteristic, so important that we are named for it—"mammal" comes from the Latin mamma, meaning breast. Pigeons are more closely related to dinosaurs than mammals. Like breast milk, pigeon milk contains antibodies and immune-system regulators. Like breast milk, it is stimulated by the hormone prolactin; in fact, scientists discovered prolactin while studying pigeons. Despite the similarities, mammal milk isn't a relative of pigeon milk. Instead, it is an example of convergent evolution: a strikingly similar trait that arose independently in different branches of the tree of life.

As milk scientist Katie Hinde has written on her blog, Mammels Suck: "The production of milk independently arose after the divergence of avian and mammalian lineages over 300 million years ago. However, these milks seemingly serve the same function: body-nourishing, bacteria-inoculating, immune-programming substances produced by parents specifically to support offspring development."

Milk, in other words, is so useful that evolution created it twice.

Pigeon milk has much more protein, and much less sugar and fat, than human milk. On this diet, young pigeons often double their weight in a single day. The squabs stick their heads into their parents' mouths, thrust vigorously, and suck up a regurgitated meal. They do this for two months, after which they are relatively mature. Many other bird species leave the nest after just two or three weeks.

There are a few characteristics that distinguish a juvenile pigeon. You can look for an oversized beak—it takes them a while to grow into it—or for a pinkish-gray blob of skin where the beak meets the head; this cere turns white as they mature. But the most salient clue is the color of the eyes: Juveniles have brown eyes, whereas adult pigeons have shockingly bright, reddish-orange eyes, another of those extraordinary details I'd never noticed until I started looking for it.

The other reason you're unlikely to see young pigeons is that the nests are hidden. Pigeons were originally cliff-dwelling birds, seeking out caves in rock faces. In cities, they do much the same: The perfect pigeon-nesting location might be an abandoned apartment halfway up an old building, or a new one; workers often find pigeon nests in partially completed towers. They like to squeeze into cavelike sanctuaries protected from the weather and predators, with a flat floor to keep eggs from rolling away.

Though pigeons masterfully hide their homes, they are terrible at building them. Often, a nest consists of no more than a few twigs haphazardly arranged on a flat surface. "Most pigeons surely do not qualify as master architects," Johnston wrote. Unlike the birds that do qualify for this title—the swallows and Baya weavers, which suspend their nests from undersurfaces—pigeons that nest on narrow ledges sometimes send eggs plummeting to the pavement below.

Pigeon nests build up over time, because the birds return to the same spot. With each laying, the parents add a few twigs, but the bulk of each nest seems to consist mostly of the birds themselves. And this, if crop milk hasn't already induced nausea, is where it gets gross. The young back up to the edge of the nest and poop off the side, building up a rim of guano. A healthy pair of pigeons can lay six times a year—two eggs each time—and after few years, all those pooping pigeons can solidify a nest into a heavy plinth. Johnston found one nest that weighed four and a half £ds and contained several crushed eggs and two "mummified young." He characterized such structures as "monumental in size and longevity." We humans have the pyramids, the Arc de Triomphe, and Mount Rushmore; pigeons have piles of sticks and dead babies encased in poop. These pigeon monuments may harbor mite and insect populations, but also discourage the worst ectoparasites, like fleas, Johnston wrote. My notes on Johnston's nest findings end with an editorial annotation: "glahaahg."


It's counterintuitive, but the more repellant tidbits I gathered about pigeons, the more closely I wanted to look. For one thing, I wanted to examine their feet. I'd found so little on mangled feet in the scientific literature that I began to wonder if I was exaggerating the problem. I also wanted to inspect the birds afresh, so that I might see the colors and patterns and behaviors that I had been so astonished to discover. And so, on an Easter Sunday, while many kids were dyeing eggs and eating chocolate, I took my two-year-old daughter on a pigeon expedition. When I had told my plan to my wife, Beth, she blanched. Where exactly, she wanted to know, did I plan on going? "Will you please be sure to keep our daughter away from human feces and needles?" she asked.

It was a reasonable request: Pigeons prefer dense urban settings, and they congregate in open spaces. It's exactly the same environment favored by the mentally ill, drug addicts, and homeless people. I suspect that some of the disgust we feel for pigeons is associative. We've grafted our feelings about human outcasts onto these birds because they share the same spaces and hang around waiting for handouts. Perhaps we'd feel differently about pigeons if we were better at dealing with our own species.

Josephine, however, was delighted to be setting out on the expedition. As we waited for the morning train, I plumbed her knowledge of pigeons.

They are, she told me, "white."

Okay, any other colors? "Black."

"What do they do?"

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