Pigeons

The Fascinating Saga of  the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird

By Andrew D. Blechman

Grove Press. 239 pp. $24

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They're everywhere. Just the other day, four strutted purposefully along Broad Street, oblivious of the vehicles whizzing by, pausing to peck at some foody detritus on the pavement.

That's what humans are to pigeons: providers of food.

And what are pigeons - said to be the world's oldest domesticated bird - to humans?

Andrew D. Blechman thought you'd never ask.

His book, Pigeons, an all-encompassing and often surprising natural history of the bird and our relationship with it, gives a wealth of answers.

The bird that flew a branch back to Noah was a kind of pigeon.

In 776 B.C., a pigeon delivered the results of the first Olympics.

Centuries later, it was a pigeon that brought the news of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.

Pigeons are credited with saving lives during both world wars. Gustav crossed the channel to deliver the news of D-Day, Winkie escaped from a downed bomber, and Lucia di Lammermoor was captured, but sent back with a message from the Germans to the Allies: "We have enough to eat."

Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre for making the flight, despite massive injuries, that saved an American battalion. Gen. Pershing sent the bird back to the United States in an officer's berth after it died from its war wounds. It was sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where its "stuffed but tattered body" is still on display.

The Smithsonian also has the world's last passenger pigeon, which died at the Cincinnati Zoo on Sept. 1, 1914 - "the only instance in history when the moment of a species extinction is known," Blechman writes.

There's so much more to pigeon-land than you could ever imagine. Charles Darwin studied them, Pablo Picasso painted them, and B.F. Skinner taught them to play ping-pong.

Orlando Martinez races them, pacing nervously on his Bronx rooftop as he watches for a distant speck that he knows to be one of his birds, headed home.

Blechman takes his readers on a fascinating global tour of what he calls "the pigeon universe and its shaggy patchwork of obsessive subcultures."

He stops at a pigeon breeders' show near Harrisburg, picks up a gun at a Lehigh Valley pigeon shoot and swoops in on the multimillion-dollar bird control industry.

Along the way, we meet Belgian Louie Janssen, who nurtures a pedigreed line of extra-speedy racing birds. And the "royal loft manager" at Sandringham for Queen Elizabeth's pigeons.

Then there's the decidedly wacky duo of New York women who compulsively lug around bird feed for the "poor darlings . . . imagine if you had to hunt for a seed to survive."

Therein lies the problem, and one of the many reasons humans revile pigeons, referring to them as "rats with wings."

More food, Blechman learns, leads to more pigeons. And more pigeons leads to more droppings - the average pigeon produces more than 25 pounds a year.

It's more than a public health issue. It puts our monuments and buildings in peril.

So cities all over the planet have been banning the feeding of pigeons - if not employing more immediate remedies such as poison - as a means of control.

But humans, it seems, are a tough lot to train. The mayor of London had to resort to $100 fines to enforce a ban on pigeon-feeding in that nexus of pigeonhood, Trafalgar Square.

One of the miscreants brought to justice was Paris Hilton, who declared she loved feeding the pigeons so much that "I even prefer it to going shopping."

This is all incredibly fascinating, if also frustrating from time to time.

Sometimes, Blechman flat out misses the mark. Why, to explain why pigeon is also a popular gourmet entree - lauded as "veal of the sky" - did he visit a processing plant instead of the kitchen of a great chef?

Blechman seems to cover every aspect of pigeons, achieving ample breadth, but he sometimes fails to provide depth.

After meeting marginally sane characters like the compulsive feeders and an even wackier "Pigeon People" underground that springs into action whenever there's a a pigeon in distress - with an injured wing, perhaps - I yearned for him to probe a little more, not just let them yammer on.

Take Kee Bubbenmoyer, founding member of a Lehigh Valley pigeon shoot, who expounds aplenty on what's wrong with the "animalists" who picket the hunts, protesting what they see as an inhuman practice.

Bubbenmoyer complains that they "want to let nature take care of itself, and they want us all to be vegetarians. . . ."

But what I wanted Blechman to ask Bubbenmoyer is why shooting pigeons is, to his way of thinking, OK. Why is it so important?

He merely insists that it's his legal right, and that pigeons don't feel pain the way we do.

But maybe Blechman didn't get a chance. Suddenly, in mid-interview, it's Bubbenmoyer's turn to shoot.

Then Blechman shoots.

He wounds a bird, then leaves. "On my way back to my car, I pass several pigeons that have crashed haphazardly into the parking lot. Their heads are twisted, their wings and legs skewed in unnatural poses. Blood pools beside their beaks and stains the gravel. By day's end, more than a thousand birds will be targeted in the name of sport and tradition."

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com

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