In the 1964 movie Mary Poppins, “the little old bird woman” played by actress Jane Darwell sits on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London feeding pigeons as Mary Poppins sings, “Come feed the little birds. Show them you care.” The compelling message is sincere and beautiful, the movie imbuing city pigeons with importance beyond value. In the 1954 classic On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando’s pigeons were beloved innocents.
One of my first real-life memories is of standing on the sofa in our Chicago apartment, watching pigeons out the window. My grandpa told me that some were descendants of heroic birds that had saved lives in wartime. My big brother raced pigeons, starting with Rocky, a railroad-yard pigeon he’d enticed into a paper bag with a bit of bird seed. Rocky won many races and worked his way into the hearts of my whole family.
When I became a birder, I read that we could mistake flying pigeons for Merlins, so my first spring of birding, I spent a day studying pigeons. I watched males strut as females evaluated them, and listened to pairs cooing and the birds’ wings clapping on takeoff. I have always felt a surge of pride whenever I discover a pigeon nest.
They are fellow travelers on our little planet. I understand the gratification that comes from feeding them. But our simple sweet rituals are entwined with responsibilities I didn’t understand as a child. The London pigeons in Mary Poppins are feral, as is every “wild” pigeon in America. Entwined with urban and agricultural habitats rather than natural ones, pigeons provide food for raptors and don’t pose ecological problems in America. But wherever they concentrate, they are associated with human health risks and property damage. In cities where large numbers of pigeons cause sanitation problems, poisoning programs can lead to secondary poisoning of other species. Many cities, such as Duluth, Minnesota, where I live, have enacted ordinances against feeding pigeons because it subsidizes them, keeping their numbers high.
Feeding pigeons is a straightforward enforcement issue on city streets, but keeping pigeons from feeding stations is trickier. Some expensive feeders are designed to exclude large birds, and many feeders are too small for pigeons to perch on. But even where pigeons don’t have access to feeders, the birds may still be drawn to spilled seed. If it’s impossible to keep the ground clear, it may be necessary to close down feeding stations altogether for a few weeks to encourage pigeons to develop new feeding patterns.
For those of us who love all birds or have a specific love for pigeons, it can be difficult not just logistically but emotionally to send pigeons on their way, but in just about all situations outside of the movies, it’s the right thing to do.
This article from Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of BirdWatching.
Read additional columns by Laura Erickson