Why Pigeons Can’t Be Pigeonholed

a row of pigeons sitting on a telephone wire photographed from below

From war-hero to contaminant, pigeons have a long history of cultural mutability. The birds were domesticated approximately 10,000 years ago and in the following millennia have come to occupy more roles in human society than perhaps any other bird. They have been carriers, athletes, meals, pets, pests, soldiers, and trophies. Regularly shifting between habitats, populations, and perceptions, pigeons are a liminal constant in human history.

While culture is always dynamic, pigeons remain especially slippery. It is difficult to pin down any consistent relationship with the birds or the perceptions that condense around them. Neither wild nor domestic, the contemporary pigeon is as ubiquitous as it is out of place. Pigeons are barely too pristine to be angry, urban, anti-heroes and just too disfigured to have sprung from the unspoiled and vulnerable nature that foils the terror of Anthropogenic climate change. They confuse the normal archetypes used to reinforce dichotomies between human and nonhuman spaces.

Because of this classificatory trouble, pigeons are and have been one of the few commuters between the once disparate camps of nature and culture. With their protean histories and mutable ontologies, pigeons are in and of themselves a complication of these binaries. To lend intention to the way these birds are noticed is to begin a renegotiation of our relationship with, and implication in, nature.

Commuting along the Nature–Culture Chasm

Pigeons commute across the nature–culture binary in cultural, political, and literal terms. Such a commute flies in the face of popular beliefs about the distinction between urban and rural spaces. In the collective American imagination, transitioning between the two requires an ontological acrobatics that is doomed to fail. The country mouse can’t hack it in the city because no matter where it goes, it’s still a country mouse. Life is just different.

A photo of a pigeon sitting on the ledge of a building set against a cloudy background.

The silhouette of a pigeon roosting on the rock face of an apartment building. Photo by Emery Jenson, 2019.

The pigeon’s commute overturns this familiar fable. Urban pigeons have been observed practicing a foraging strategy in which they leave their roosts on the concrete cliff faces of the city to find food in distant agricultural zones. As they advance outwards from urban centers, they undergo a gradual ontological mutation. It is as unsurprising to see a pigeon in a city as it is to see a rock dove in nature. Their mutation occurs as they remain in their “natural” milieu despite the rapidly changing ground beneath them—they are ontological chameleons. A pigeon might transition from city sentinel to rural wildlife several times a day. The pigeon’s commute stands opposed to the migrations of similar animals such as Aesop’s fabled mice, but also seagulls and rats, whose populations respectively signal the ocean and the sewer regardless of their immediate surroundings. Roosting on the ever-advancing edge of their cultural and environmental histories, the pigeon looks down and affirms: this is cliff, building; this is nature, culture; this is here, there.

Affinities in Flux and Flight

Pigeons are habitual in their affirmation of the shared materiality between human and nonhuman spaces. However, they do not occupy this middle space gracefully—it is as often to their detriment as it is to their benefit. Pigeons have mangled feet precisely because they inhabit a middle ground between cliff ledge and skyscraper. When looking to build nests, urban pigeons go about it the same way a rock-dove would. However, where rock-doves find twigs and grass, urban pigeons find nylon, wire, and human hair. Attempting to nest “normally” in the city has its consequences. Nylon, wire, and hair tangles around pigeons’ toes and prevents circulation, eventually causing tissue death.

It would be a mistake to assume that this material dissonance calls the feral pigeon back to a pristine idea of nature that is corrupted by human culture. Our own cyborg existence—just as often to our detriment as the pigeon’s—does not call us away from the cities we’ve built. Rather, the epidemic of “string-foot” pulls the choreography of pigeon homemaking out from behind nature’s green curtain and into its material reality. A nest can be made of bits of anything, but there are trade offs. Pigeon toes highlight the frailty of our imagined cities, those identical yet immaterial overlays of civilization that would separate us and our modes of existence from the natural world.

A photo of a pigeon with mangled feet.

A pigeon affected by string foot—a result of nesting with urban materials. Photo by Emery Jenson, 2017.

Pigeons also merge city and non-city in ways completely unrelated to toes. A recent study found that pigeons homed faster through polluted air. The authors of the study initially expected that—as observed in research regarding other species—pigeons would home more slowly due to negative effects on visibility and health. Indeed, common sense would also lead with this hypothesis. Yet, the data were clear: the pigeons were consistently shaving down their homing times.

The study concluded that this difference in speed was likely due to one of two factors. The first, that it was less pleasant an experience to fly through polluted air and that pigeons were therefore less likely to dawdle. The second, that the olfactory cues fundamental to pigeon navigation were heightened within a polluted atmosphere. While nature–culture binaries have been somewhat deconstructed in the positive sense (in instances and depictions of our harmony with nature), they are rarely dissolved in view of humanity’s more destructive tendencies. Despite the uncertainty as to the underlying mechanism, the unlikely consonance between pigeon homing and pollution is a particular reminder that a dissolution of nature–culture binaries is not contingent on our communion with wilderness, as exemplified by John Muir and his ilk. The biological mechanisms that make possible the pigeon’s commute are themselves implicated in the disruption of biology’s supposed unity with nature on one end of the nature–culture binary.

Ratifying the Pigeon

Reactions to the commuter status of pigeons—to their simultaneous existence within and beyond the bounds of nature—have been largely negative. Pigeons are decried as pests of the worst kind, public enemy number one: rats with wings. Perhaps the most common referent for the birds, this pigeon pejorative lumps them in with the quintessential city dweller. Importantly, rats are positioned as the gold standard for the flight of nature from biology. They, like the American city-dweller, are without recourse in their dissociation from nature and have found their material and cultural homes beneath the city streets. This makes them a useful cultural modifier—a brand of non-nature. To call pigeons “rats with wings” is to participate in a collective effort to ratify the pigeon as a city animal, to curb the pigeon’s commute.

In a society that depends on binaries to fuel the logic of capitalism, the pigeon is a threat.

The motion to ratify is a move to sort and validate specific parts of nature as non-nature. It is evidence and application of the belief that the nature–culture binary can be controlled. Immobilizing the pigeon in this way helps to uphold the status quo. In a society that depends on binaries to fuel the logic of capitalism, the pigeon is a threat. As the pigeon commutes, the distance between nature and culture is collapsed and with it the logic of differentiation that underlies exploitative relationships with the environment. A central binary, one that has long enabled notions of the “other,” begins to vanish.

This binary destruction includes notions of separation that are supposedly benevolent. The pigeon does not add to the mourning cries of conservationists. Rather, its commute warns that the logics of environmental stewardship sometimes rely on the same binary system—the same distance—that upholds environmental exploitation. Nature is volatile and should not be reanimated as an effigy to pre-pollution nostalgia. As the pigeon observes: where certain habitats erode, others arise; this is cliff, building; this is nature, culture; this is here, there.

A photo of pigeons taking flight from the roof of an old building.

Pigeons have been observed to home more efficiently in polluted skies. A flock of pigeons flies over rooftops in Paris, one of many metropolitan cities forced to institute measures to combat smog. Photo by Emery Jenson, 2019.

The nature–culture binary is often conflated with other pernicious binary logics; in dissolving one, the pigeon menaces many. On June 22, 1966, The New York Times ran an article regarding concerns over the “deterioration” of Bryant Park in New York City. Then Park Supervisor, Andrew Petrochko, was quoted saying that one of the “main objectives for restoring this park [was] getting rid of the undesirables.” Petrochko goes on to detail the undesirables as being the “homosexuals,” “winos,” and “pigeons.” The Parks Commissioner, Thomas Hoving, was also quoted, calling the pigeon “a rat with wings.” This would mark one of the first usages of the pigeon pejorative in mainstream American culture. The unification of the pigeon, queer folks, poor folks, and addicts under the umbrella of “undesirables” is an all-too-common example of malign binary structures being used in tandem. Each of these populations is held at length from the straight, wealthy, and civilized perception of the park and its supervisors. The dichotomies that enforce this distance are at the heart of the status quo. They are weapons of sense-making, allowing for differential treatments, perceptions, and realities to arise from one pole to another. To ratify the pigeon is to uphold systems that depend on practices of othering.

The Pigeon’s Refrain

Pigeons, despite efforts to cloister them within a binary pole, are fixed in their mutability—consistently inconsistent. Vacillating throughout history, habitat, and culture, the pigeon’s commute is both a process and a state. It provides a way to recontextualize past, current, and future notions of nature and non-nature. As the nature–culture binary is reproduced and bolstered by aesthetic objects, political projects, and quotidian behavior, the ubiquity of the pigeon is akin to a glitch in the code. Noticing the pigeon is catalytic to questioning the systems around us, to taking less for granted the validity of the binaries that define and sequester Western relationships with nature. The pigeon’s commute outlines paths towards political and environmental justice. Wobbling on the edge of climate catastrophe, our survival depends on our being brought into nature as a part of nature. It is essential that we recognize the power of the pigeon’s commute to rework the architecture of our political and environmental relationships—that we carry the pigeon’s refrain: this is cliff, building; this is nature, culture; this is here, there.

Featured image: A flock of pigeons roost openly on a metal post. Photo by Emery Jenson, 2019.

Emery Jenson is a Ph.D. student in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Since graduating from Duke University, where he worked primarily in the health humanities, his research has shifted to focus on the philosophy of biology, scale and affect within the Anthropocene, and animal studies. Twitter. Contact.