The Politics of Pigeons in New York

A New York City Council resolution on whether and how to feed the city's pigeons has engendered debate, recrimination, protest — and now, possibly, pre-approved feeding areas for the birds, whom defenders laud as noble, and detractors deride as "rats with wings."

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There's an old saying that unless you want an argument, don't talk about politics or religion. But maybe in New York, where argument is a kind of local religion, the aphorism should go: don't talk about politics or pigeons. A bill before the city council proposes $1,000 fine for feeding pigeons. A taskforce has suggested a few strategies to control the pigeon population, and these proposals have several defenders of winged New Yorkers up in arms.

From New York, NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA: They are brazen, some would say, confrontational urban dwellers, whose families have been in the city for years. They remain street-smart even the face of prejudice, just for the way they strut down the boulevard. All of those words apply to both pigeons and the New Yorkers who hate them.

But when a city councilman, Simcha Felder, recently proposed the anti-pigeon legislation, he wasn't ready for the resulting flap - mostly from the left wing of the bird rights groups who say the proposals will not fly. Even so, Councilman Felder's spokesman Eric Kuo characterized his boss' position this way.

Mr. ERIC KUO (Staff, Councilman Simcha Felder): Not a hawk, not a dove.

PESCA: Felder in a must-read municipal report of the season, curbing the pigeon conundrum explores sterilization, fines for over-feeders and in the latest idea to take flight, specify pigeon feeding zones. Kuo sits in Felder's office underneath a piece of hate mail, which compares in pounds the amount of excrement generated annually by a pigeon to the amount generated by Councilman Felder.

Kuo says his boss just wants to clean up the places that are the most befouled.

Mr. KUO: In the perfect world, we would see less mess where a lot of people congregate. In addition to that, have the people who enjoy the company of pigeons still be able to enjoy the company of pigeons.

PESCA: That sounds like a euphemism - people who enjoy the company of pigeons.

Mr. KUO: People do enjoy the company of pigeons. You know, they - a lot of people like feeding the pigeons.

PESCA: People like Al Streit, president of Pigeon People.

Mr. AL STREIT (President, Pigeon People): They want to push their head into your hand. They'll say when a cat pushes its forehead into your hand. They play with toys. They love musical toys especially. My Bobby has made up so many games that he plays, put all kinds of musical toys. Right now, its favorite is chimes.

PESCA: Bobby is named after Bobby Simone, an "NYPD Blue" character who raised pigeons. And "On the Waterfront," raising pigeons was the very thing which softened Marlon Brando's lug of a longshoreman in the eyes of Eva Marie Saint.

(Soundbite of movie, "On the Waterfront")

Ms. EVA MARIE SAINT (Actress): (As Edie Doyle) Joey used to raise pigeons.

(Soundbite of ship)

Mr. MARLON BRANDO (Actor): (Terry Malloy) You know, he had a few birds.

PESCA: But it was another quintessential New York movie, Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories," which gave rise to the slur which has become blood libel to the pigeon proponents.

(Soundbite of movie, "Stardust Memories")

Mr. WOODY ALLEN (Actor): (As Sandy Bates) No, it's not pretty at all. They're rats with wings.

Ms. CHARLOTTE RAMPLING (Actress): (As Dorrie) No. It's probably good omen.

PESCA: Rats with wings. It drives the Pigeon People crazy. Also, the People for Pigeons, another group totally against pigeon population control. Both groups accuse the ASPCA and the Humane Society of compromising with the enemy because, as Al Streit says, all the proposals add up to fewer pigeons.

Mr. STREIT: Remember the pigeons are homing pigeons. Every one of them is a born homer. That means they love their homes. They love their neighborhoods and they only go about two to four blocks to look for food. If we have feeding in designated areas, how many are they going to be? Getting rid of pigeons is exactly what's going to happen.

PESCA: Which would be either a coup or a calamity depending on where you stand in a squab squabble.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of movie, "On the Waterfront")

Ms. SAINT: (As Edie Doyle) I wouldn't have thought you'd be so interested in pigeons.

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