Some people call them “flying rats,” but as a city girl growing up in Manhattan, pigeons were among my first animal friends. Sitting out on the fire escape during the hot summer months was not uncommon in my neighborhood. It was a perfect “skybox” for watching the pigeons circle and fly through the air. They lived in a rooftop coop directly across the street and followed the dance of the wooden rod held by the coop master as it cut though the heavy, humid air. Now, of course, I am well aware of the cruelty of confining birds—but back then, I saw only the beauty and grace of the pigeons as they floated across the sky like dark, iridescent ribbons and heard only their gentle cooing that lulled me to sleep each night.
In relaying these heartfelt memories as an adult, I am always stunned by the incredulous looks and comments that I receive. Recently, after receiving a flier on my car on the topic of “Pigeon and Other Pest Management,” I called the number, feigning disdain at a new pigeon family who’d taken up residence in the rafters of my home. I was mortified upon hearing that this purportedly humane company’s management method started with “a spray wash to pry ‘em loose.” I won’t relay the rest of the conversation other than to state, unequivocally, that “humane pigeon removal” was among the most horrific of oxymorons when it came to this company’s approach.
Fortunately, pigeons do have some allies. In fact, in my old hometown, there are a number of groups that support pigeons—not only by engaging in rescue but also by actively promoting the extraordinary history of this much-maligned bird. One group in particular is campaigning for the acknowledgment of a National Pigeon Day—a campaign that began in honor of the legendary Cher Ami, a U.S. Army Signal Corps carrier pigeon who saved 200 lives in World War I by carrying messages across enemy lines. His last message was delivered after being shot through the breast, being blinded in one eye, and suffering an injury that left his leg barely attached. Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre for heroic service.
This sentiment, however, seems lost of late as we continue to see pigeons treated less than honorably. Live pigeon shoots are still common occurrences in Pennsylvania, the one state that openly allows them and continues to redefine levels of cruelty perpetrated against these majestic and intelligent creatures. For weeks prior to the shoots, pigeons are baited and captured by those involved in the events and kept in trap boxes without food or water. When released, usually in close proximity to waiting shooters, their deteriorated condition makes them easy prey. Sadly, the pigeons are also denied a swift death. According to People for Pigeons, “A typical 3-day shoot contest can kill and injure up to 15,000 birds.” The group goes on to say that “70% of the birds are injured when shot and either left to suffer slow deaths or collected and killed by pigeon shoot ‘trapper boys’ or ‘wringers’, traditionally children, who break their necks, step on them, tear off wings, suffocate them, or cut off their heads with garden shears, among other abuses.”
Legislation to ban live pigeon shoots in Pennsylvania has been longstanding and slow moving. SB 626, Pennsylvania’s most recent submission, looked promising, but as of May, it had been removed from the table even after an 11-3 affirmative vote by the state Senate’s judiciary committee.
Perhaps it is about perspective. Did I mention that pigeons mate for life? Another great example from which we could glean a few pointers! And while we marvel over the image of the white dove of peace, how soon many of us forget that pigeons and doves are in the same taxonomic family; pigeons are just larger than doves. Also, some say that in the biblical story of the great flood, it was a pigeon—not a dove—who returned to Noah with an olive branch. Based on the cruelty that these amazing animals continue to endure, perhaps it is time to reacquaint ourselves with their rich history. And perhaps move a bit more swiftly toward a day when it is we who extend the olive branch of peace to them. For the pigeons of Pennsylvania, that day cannot come a moment too soon.