Pigeon Paranoia

  SOPHIA - 18

(Synopsis:  Are pigeons friends or foes?  G-Ma learns a big lesson in "pigeon prejudice."   Attacked by pigeon droppings, G-Ma turns to the web to find out how to stop the Terrorist attacks on her head and window sill.   Grandchildren Matt and Sarah also suffer from "pigeon prejudice," disliking the 40 million pesky birds that wait in trees throughout New York City to drop their "bombs" on G-Ma's head, eyes and glasses.   But when G-Ma starts to learn about pigeons, she finds a fascinating story of Vigilance--one that turns the Terrorism of pigeons into unfolding pages of Courage, Conviction and Right Action.   She shares her knowledge with Matt and Sarah and teaches them that "pigeon prejudice" is about ignorance, and provides a lesson for herself and the kids on how to respect the Pigeons of Vigilance.)


      “The pigeons are coming, G-Ma.  They’re sitting in the trees and are so-o-o-o-o-o-o ready to poop right on your head.” Matt, my 5-and-7/8th-year-old grandson ran ahead of me bellowing out the warning.”
      We were approaching a not-so-well-disguised pigeon ambush.  Encrusted, efflorescent, offensive pigeon-poop littered the sidewalk on our way to Matt’s and his 3 and 7/8-year-old sister Sarah’s apartment. Several of the older human male inhabitants were seated on the courtyard benches in the yard of the building where a mini forest of limbed perches provided the pigeons a hiding place to wait for unsuspecting passersby.  I wasn’t one of them.

       Several days previous I had been targeted by two “poop bombers.” As I yelled, surprised by the “sneak attack,” the delighted cackles of my little birds, Matt and Sarah, rang down the street.   The old coots sitting on the benches laughed so hard they almost fell off their cement perches.  I wasn’t about to get ‘slimed’ again.  This time I was readied myself to ‘fly’ through the avian excretion jungle.

      Sarah offered her protection.  She issued her warning:  “Pigeons, I command you to go away.  Leave my G-Ma alone.  Do not poop on her head.  Do not.  I am Princess Sarah and I am in charge of the world. I am making a magic spell on you birds.”   She thundered into the flock of feathered nuisances on the sidewalk, her arms flapping wildly.  The birds’ wings whirred as she scattered noisily about.  Some, unfortunately, flew up into the overhanging branches we were about to walk (or run) under.
      “ At last, someone has come to my rescue. Thank you, Sarah.   We girls have to stick together.” She presented me with a huge Sarah apple-face grin.

      “Yes, we are partner, buddies and pals.  I know.”  Sarah trilled like a lovely bluebird as she gracefully twittered back to my side. I patted her head appreciatively.
      Many years ago I had laughed myself silly watching a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis movie in which they sang to each other “You and me.   We’re gonna be partners.  You and me.  We’re gonna be pals.  Forever and always.  Partners, buddies and Pals.”
      My younger daughter and I sang the inane ditty as she grew up and often referred to one another as a Partner, Buddy and Pal.  I continued the tradition by teaching Sarah the song and how she was a member of an exclusive club with myself and her Auntie E.   It was our version of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

        I noted Matt’s scrunched up face and blue eyes glowering at the antics of his unsupportive sister.  He was hoping for a “sneak attack” and didn’t like the fact his sister had acted to foil it.  The old codgers sitting on the concrete benches waited eagerly, knowing I still had to make a dash for it despite Sarah’s interference and spell she had cast.   
         I set my jaw determinedly and barked: “Let’s Roll, Sarah”.  I used Todd Beamer’s last words heard by the ground operator before he and the 37 fellow passengers 37 on Flight  93 charged the terrorists to prevent the destruction of the White House or the nation’s Capitol building.  I don’t think his wife Lisa would mind.  I was not relishing being bombarded with pigeon poop and considered them my feathered terrorists.
      “Hip hip hooray, G-Ma.  We made it.”  Sarah whooped as we zig-zagged safely through the combat zone.

      “Gr-r-r-r-r-o-o-o-o-o-o-ow-ow-ll!” Matt blustered out the word—his favorite form of emitting frustration.  “Oh, G-Ma.  That’s not fair.  I demanded the pigeons poop right on your head.  Sarah didn’t really cast a magic spell on you.”  Matt crossed his arms and pouted, refusing to hold my free hand until we reached the corner where he had to abide by the ‘always-hold-a-grownup’s-hand-when-crossing-the-street’ rule.

      Matt was justified in his consternation.  I had an extended history of being a target for New York City pigeon poop.  I was, as insurance companies like to say, “Poop Prone!”
       I’ve been plopped on in upper west side neighborhoods all the way down to South Street Seaport. I’ve even had a warm slithery glob of excrement manage to land right in my eye even though I had on glasses. The perpetrator, obviously, was a member of the elite “Pigeon Poop SWAT Team.” 

       As a “Poop Prone” person, if anyone is going to get zapped by the winged terrorists-of-the-sky, it’s I, G-Ma.  Matt fumed, for he laughed so hard when I got hit by pigeon poop one time he almost wet his pants.  Sarah had turned his glee into gloom.

      “They’ll surely get me next time, Matt. You can count on it.”  I tried to cheer him up.  I had cost him a great belly laugh.   “What can you tell me about pigeons, anyway?”  Diversion was key to erase his sulks.  I didn’t want them to join us in the apartment and ruin the rest of our day.

      “I know there are too many, G-Ma.”  Matt had this obsession since I could recall that he knew “everything,” and all it took was a little prod to his ego to set him off in his encyclopedic mood.   It worked.  He took a deep breath and started telling me everything I needed to know about pigeons. 

      “Mommy was watching the TV news and the man told us there was too much pigeon poop in our city this summer because of too many poopy-pigeons.  He said the poop might make us sick if we are not careful.”  Matt had snapped completely out of his pouting mood.  His mouth formed a tell-tale “0”-shape, indicating he was more interested in learning than pouting--especially when the topic of conversation was about an animal or a bird. I thanked Discovery Channel and Nigel’s Wild World for his transition.

      “What kinds of germs are in pigeon poop, G-Ma?” Matt glued himself to my side, giving up the usual dash to be the first to reach the ‘buzzard’ to his and Sarah’s apartment. Sarah skipped on ahead to buzz the door open, leaving Matt and I to enjoy pigeon patter.

      “Let’s go inside first, Matt, and I’ll tell you what might be in that white or green or brown slimy gunk.”  I inwardly shuddered recalling the many times I had been successfully bombarded and wore the goop home sometimes not even aware it was decorating my head or back or……

       We Three Amigos deposited our backpacks and I fixed the usual juice refreshment for the kids.  Matt, currently in one of those normal ‘boy stages’ finds anything to do with pooping or farting hilarious and dear to his ear.  He was  eager to hear about pigeon-poop and hopped onto the couch. 
      “Let’s go, G-Ma.  Tell me about the pigeon-poopoo-poop.”  Matt held his belly and attempted a hearty laugh. “Ho Ho, Hoop Hoop, G-Ma, tell me about the pigeon-poop.”

      “Matt, you are so-so-so-so funny. G-Ma, I want to hear what germs are in pigeon doodoo, too.” Sarah also bounded onto the couch. I joyously found myself with two precious nestlings on either side, eager to hear what G-Ma Bird chirped to them.

        Matt and Sarah’s mom had mentioned TV news announcement warning about the piling up of pigeon excrement.  She new I had a medical laboratory background and knew how to research potential “disease dangers.”  
      Until a few years ago I worked full-time as a microbiologist and was somewhat familiar with diseases caused by birds and their causative agents. I had a special interest in pigeon waste.  It was invading my home.

     The window sills of my six-story apartment complex had an overwhelming pileup on the ledges.  Whenever I looked out the kitchen window I could see the pile-up grow.   It seemed to me pigeons were everywhere and their poop was accumulating at a rapid rate this year.  In preparation for the kids’ pigeon lesson I researched the web using my favorite search engine: www.google.com.

      Several references poo-poo’d the health hazards of pigeon poop—my primary concern.  I knew there was some health danger, but to what extent was my question.  I kept searching despite the general brush off given by the sites I visited.
       Pigeon Watch’s Karen Purcell reassured my suspicions were correct. I contacted her by phone.  She said caution must be employed when noticeable piles of excrement accumulate since the feral (wild) pigeons in cities (NYC) do carry Psittacosis (also known as Ornithosis) caused by the Chlamydia organism.  Also, the fungus Cryptococcus is harbored by pigeons and when excrement piles up and dries, spores of the fungi are disseminated by the wind.  The diseases are especially dangerous for those who are immunosuppressed and the very young or very old.  I decided to impart that and other information from Pigeon Watch (a program of Cornell University’s Ornithology Department) to Matt and Sarah.  But, of course, in non-technical terms.

      “Kids, the last time you were over at G-Ma’s, when you were climbing up the stairs, what did G-Ma tell you to be careful not to touch or get close to?”

  “The yucky windowsills, G-Ma.  Oh, I get it.  All that white gunk is pigeon poop.    Y-Y-U-U-CCKKKKK!” Matt wrinkled up his lightly freckled nose and looked as though he was going to throw up.

        “But, G-Ma, you got the snakes to make your pigeons go away so they won’t poop anymore on your windows, right?”  Sarah nodded her head, affirming her desire that G-Ma and G-Pa wouldn’t have to worry about pigeon poop or be in pigeon-poop-pileup jeopardy   

     “Yes, you are right, little one.  You both were with me to help me pick out the rubber snakes to glue on my outside window-sill.  It’s an old trick to scare those pesty birds so they would land elsewhere. I’m hoping they’ll be fooled.  But because snakes aren’t usual inhabitants of New York City, the pigeons might realize the snakes aren’t real before too long. But, it was fun to put them out and right now they seem to be working.”

        “I like the colorful one, G-Ma.  If they don’t scare the pigeons can I have it and Sarah can have the black and white one?” Matt was always planning ahead especially when it involved the possibility of acquiring an animal toy.

      “You have a deal, little man. But, I’ll have to clean them very well first.  Anyway, it’s important to not be around places where you notice a lot of the dried white gunk piled up.  If the wind blows, the dried bird poop gets soft like powder and can be carried through the air.  There are germs in the poop so it’s also important that you two always remember to….”

      “….WASH OUR HANDS, G-MA!”  Both Matt and Sarah screeched together. “We know, G-Ma, we know.”  Matt re-emphasized.  “You’re forever telling us that, G-Ma. 

      “Maybe, G-Ma.  I don’t like pigeons.  You don’t like pigeons.  Why would I want to count them. They might poop on me?”  Matt laughed at the very idea.

      “I always said I hate pigeons, little birds, but in reading about pigeons I found out while a lot of people like your G-Ma detest their mess and believe them to be nuisances, they are very intelligent and interesting.  Pigeons are descendants of the Rock Doves brought to the United States through Nova Scotia from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe in the early 1600’s – that’s more than 400 years ago.”

      “G-Ma, G-Ma why were they brought here?  Who would want them and their mess here?”
       Matt was busy thinking ahead again.  His avid interest in animals and birds was fed by Discovery Channel, the family membership to the Natural History Museum, library books, his own personal books and his continual questions in search of reasons behind animal behaviors.  And, I can’t forget the dinosaurs.  He has a limitless collection of all kinds, and books galore on their history.

      “Pigeons have very special sense organs.”  I touched the kids’ noses.  They giggled.  “They are similar to a magnet and help them fly from one place to another.  You little birds know about North, South, East and West—the points of the compass, right?”
       “Yes, G-ma.  We have the computer game where Tigger goes on a buried treasure hunt…you have to hop-hop north…or hop hop hop south.”
        “Well, pigeons can tell compass directions from the sun.  They learn to set up their own sun compasses. They also have inbuilt maps consisting of a mosaic—kind of like a quilt—it’s a pattern of familiar landmarks that helps them recognize locations through familiar smells and sights. These special inside maps, keen vision and the pigeon’s great memory for recognizing land details make a pigeon able to find its way just about anywhere.  People tamed pigeons and used them in races and to bring messages.   Pigeons

who carry messages are called carrier pigeons.”

        “What did they carry, G-Ma?  Did they carry stuff to their home?  Is that what you mean?” Sarah, eyes bright as a bird’s looking for a worm, tugged at my arm.

“Well, little one, they were used a lot by soldiers in England.  Some were even trained to fly at night and landed with paratroopers – the soldiers who parachuted from airplanes.  The birds were fitted with cameras and pictures were taken of the enemy’s fleet, troops and targets.  British and a few American museums have memories of our flying heroes.  Pigeons were given medals and buried with military honor.”

        Pigeon War Memorial in Brussels

      “What’s that mean, G-Ma? I saw a picture of one of city firemen with a flag on the box he was in after he was dead.  Are the pigeons in boxes with flags?” Matt as usual was assimilating old and new information like a homing pigeon flapping its wings wildly at takeoff, getting its bearings and reading and assaying new information to add to and compare with the already stored information.

      “Matt, I knew I would be talking to you about pigeons since you helped me put my anti-bird-poop snakes on my window sill.  So I did a little research on the Internet.  I learned there were 54,000 military pigeons in the United States Pigeon Service. You are right about them being buried in a flag decorated casket.  A casket is what the burial box is called. 

 One of the most well-known military pigeons was called GI Joe.  He flew in Italy and was honored in London by the Lord Mayor.  He was one of 31 pigeons to receive the Dickin Medal of Gallantry.  Snow White flew in Berlin during heavy bombings and she was honored with the “Military Cross.”  Mary was wounded 22 times yet flew 5 years for the Allied Powers—that was America, Britain and Canada.  Poor Mary was killed in action.”

      “Oh, G-Ma, was Snow White named for the Snow White in the story? I’m so sad. I feel bad for the birds.  They must be different pigeons than the ones who always poop on you.”  Sarah squeezed my arm and snuggled closer.

       “It seems the military pigeons of those days were stronger than our modern race pigeons. And, yes, the carrier and racing pigeons are more muscular than our everyday pesky pals.  They had to accomplish their duty in the most difficult circumstances:  Bad weather, flying at night, showers of bullets and different home lofts, and strange perches where they would land to deliver their important messages.  Back then we didn’t have telephones like we do today, so the pigeon was how people talked.   Some of the airplanes and war-ships were even accompanied by military pigeons.  Military pigeons brought news of 717 crashed airplanes at sea.  Ninety-five percent—that’s more than one out of nine-- of the military pigeons returned from their missions. A bird named “Cher Ami”  trained by the U.S. Army Signal Corps delivered a message from a New-York battalion.  He was credited with saving 194 lives of the “Lost Battalion" - part of New York's 77th Division of the U.S. Army.”

      “G-Ma what happened to ‘Shar-amy’.  Did he die, too.”  Sarah was most upset hearing about some of the casualties of war, even pigeon casualties. Her tear-brimmed chocolate eyes were as enormous as a mother robin searching for one of her lost babies.

        “Cher Ami was taken to America along with 40 other military pigeons.  He became the mascot, that is the special pet, of the State Department. I'm sure he had a wonderful, happy life from then on.  His preserved body can be seen at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. 
        Don’t cry my little sparrow.”  Since Sarah was visibly upset with the pigeon casualties, I decided to move on to another story I found on the web.

      “I’m not a spa-a-a-r-r-r-ow, G-Ma.  I’m a girl!”  Sarah’s tears were quelled before they rolled down her bright pink cheeks.  She now was a little magpie or bluejay squawking and cawing at me.  She didn’t like it when I became solicitous to her.  She prized her emotional independence, a trait similar to both her mother and aunt.

      “Calm down, little girl.  G-Ma was just trying to comfort you.  Let’s hear some more positive stories about the pigeons.”  I gently hugged my now calm and quiet little ‘bird’ whom I would try and not refer to as a little “sparrow.”   I smiled to myself and wondered if she would have preferred me calling her an “eagle” or “hawk.”

     “Oh, brother, G-Ma.  Sarah is s-o-o-o-o-o sensitive.  Let’s go with your stories.”  Matt rolled his eyes, then crossed them making certain I noticed his eye antics.

     Coast Guard Spotter Pigeon

           “Let me tell you about how pigeons save people lost at sea.  One of your Daddy’s girl cousins is in the Coast Guard Service.  That’s the military branch that is known as ‘America’s Lifesaver and the Guardian of the Seas’.   The Coast Guard trains pigeons to peck a key when they spot the bright orange color floating in the water.  Orange is the color used for life vests.  The birds are suspended in a transparent--that is a see-through—box from a helicopter hovering over the water.  The pigeons use their keen eyes to spot vests floating in the open ocean.  When they see one they peck at the key.  The pilot knows someone is down in the water.  The pigeons help save lives.”

      “I wonder if Daddy’s cousin works with pigeons, G-Ma?” Matt would very likely remember to ask the question of his dad later in the day. He flew on to another question. “Do pigeons carry messages anymore, G-Ma?”

      “Carrier pigeons are still used for emergency flights in London to carry blood samples from hospitals to laboratories, but we have more stringent laws here so our tame pigeons are mostly racing or homing pigeons.  But, if something happened and we couldn’t use the phones, the pigeons could be used to carry messages.   So they are kind of like Sentinels of Vigilance, always there if you need them.”

       “Some people have pigeons on their roof, GMa.  I heard someone talking about it at school.”   Sarah offered the comment eagerly.  I smiled.

        “Pigeons are a hobby for a lot of people especially here in NYC.  I remember watching movies and seeing a few TV programs with pigeon coops on the roofs of apartment buildings.  The pigeons have bands on one leg for identification and the owners let them out to fly or race.  New York City has special coop plans enforced by the Buildings Department so there aren’t too many birds in one coop and the birds don’t become a problem for the other people living in the apartments.”

      “What about the racers, G-Ma? Do people race their pigeons from rooftops here in our city?” Matt’s eyes sparked.  Racing pigeons apparently were in another class for Matt—not like the feral ones who seemed to eat and poop for a living.

      “Pigeon races are from 100 to 600 miles long with the 300 mile race the most popular.  There are thousands of racing clubs throughout the world. There is even one in Staten Island. Maybe you could talk to Grampa Joe and get him interested.  He has a balcony overlooking the Hudson River.”

      “G-Ma, no way.  Grampa and Nana bought a big owl to put out on their porch so pigeons will stay away from their table and chairs so Grampa won’t be pooped on when he’s outside.  No racers for him.” Matt laughed at the very idea.

      “Maybe if you reminded him that racing pigeons were owned by kings, princes and nobles he might think about it.  Years ago it was not legal for a common man to own pigeons.  Another plus to interest him further is that today birds might be the only way to ensure the secrecy of messages.  The Internet and telephones can be tapped. Pigeons could replace high technology – Internet and telephones!  He’d get a chuckle out of that, Matt.  We’d call them Low Technology Pigeons!”

      “G-Ma, I could help him with his pigeons.  I can feed them and play with them. Look at me, G-Ma.  I’m a racing pigeon.  Look at me go.  I can race Matt and I will run faster and W-W-I-I-N-N!!!!”    Little Sarah did not like being left out of any conversation and demanded to be heard and seen.  She flew off the couch, raised her arms and started to flap about.  Finally, she plopped atop her agitated brother.

      “S – A – R – A – H-H-H.  Stop it.  Now.  G-Ma.  Make her sit down – and not on top of me.  She drives me crazy.   RRRRRRRRRRUGGHHHHHH!!”  Matt’s face was inflamed with ‘Sarah – tosis’.   Both grandkids had fallen off the couch and onto the floor with Sarah atop her bellowing brother.

      “Okay, Okay, you wild, feral Sarah-bird.  Get over here on your perch next to your G-Ma.  Matt, you sit on the other side and I’ll be the roost referee.”  I patted either side of the couch and waited until my agitated and noisy homing pigeons to fly back to their learning roost.

      I thought a little diversion was in order.  The kids were getting restless.  Juice and Spider Man cookies to the rescue, I decided.  The kids reached out their arms like the bobbing beaks of hungry baby birds and swiftly pecked at their snacks.

      I rejoined them on the couch.  “Matt and Sarah, you know how I love the wolf.  Remember, I told you one of the laudable characteristics of the wolf is that the daddy wolf helps to raise the kits, the little ones.  Well, the daddy pigeon takes his turn sitting on the eggs just like the daddy wolf helps out watching his children.  The daddy pigeon takes the day shift.  He sits on the eggs during the day and the mommy does the night duty.  When the eggs hatch, the nestlings--the name for pigeon babies--are fed pigeon milk from the crop of both  pigeon mommies and daddies.”

     I reached up and pinched some skin around my neck.  “A crop is a food storage bag, kind of like a refrigerator, in both parents.  Regurgitated food is food chewed by the parents, then spit back up so the babies can eat it.”  I braced myself, knowing the kids would react to this part of the story.

      “I-C-C-K-K!” yelled Matt and Sarah.   “That’s so gross, G-Ma.  I’m glad I’m not a pigeon.” Matt’s nose wrinkled and he put his pointer finger in his mouth.

      “So, after what G-Ma has hold you, what do you think of pigeons, my little ones?” I gave them each a gentle hug.

      “G-Ma, I did learn about new kinds of pigeons and what neat things they did years ago, but do you know what?”  Matt innocently looked up at me his innocent blue eyes agleam.

      “What, little man.” I answered expecting a usual brilliant response to his hearing interesting animal/bird/nature lore.

      “They all still poop on you, G-Ma.  Haaaaaaa Haaaaaaaa Haaaaaaa.” Matt grabbed Sarah’s hand and they danced around the room singing a pigeon-poop-on G-Ma song.

      “I give up, you little stinkers.  Do you want to hear how to really get rid of pigeon poop?” I hoped they would settle down to listen to the rest of the information I had prepared for them.

Terror Eyes Deterrent

      “We know already, G-Ma.  You and G-Pa put out the snakes and Grampa Joe and Nana are putting out an owl.”  Matt and Sarah resettled on the couch.


       “I’m afraid devices like ours will not work very long. Pigeons are very smart. Lots of people have tried a lot of different deterrents – ways to keep pigeons away.   In my web-search I found information on a company named ‘Bird-X’.  Their policy is to provide non-lethal, non-harmful, environmentally safe and ecologically sound products.  It has received referrals form the Audubon Society and the Animal Damage Control division of the USDA.  It supplies more than fifteen different products.  A product called BirdXPeller PRO, an electronic device is a programmable species-specific sonic deterrent that operates on standard 110v electricity or vibrator.  It replicates birds’ distress calls.  The choices include predator sounds to help scare all the birds. Kind of like an Adam growl. 

 Bird-Lite Pigeon Deterrent

      Unfortunately it’s very expensive although some cities in New Jersey have used it with great success.”   My long and complex explanation had sent the kids reeling.  I decided a simple question would bring their interest back.

      “Sarah, what might be another way to help prevent the increase in the numbers of pigeons?”  I had done a little preprogramming of Sarah a few days ago and hoped she remembered.

       “G-Ma, peoples are not ‘sposed to give the pigeons food.  You said the more the kids and parents throw out bread and stuff for them the ‘pesky varmints’ will keep on making messes in our neighborhood and in the parks and on the streets and the more poop they’ll plop on us.”   Sarah wrinkled her pert nose simulating my disgust with the pigeon population.  She had definitely remembered almost verbatim my comments.

      “You got the point, Sarah.  If we make our neighborhood inviting to the pigeons, they’ll remain.  Remember, too, the pigeons like New York City and other big cities with big buildings because they are cliff dwellers.”

      “Wow, G-Ma, the pigeons think the ledges of our buildings are cliffs.  No wonder there are so many. Maybe you and G-Pa can put something hard or sharp on your window sill besides the snakes to keep the birds from landing there.” Matt was using his super noggin’ now (a nickname because of the large size of his head when he was born—a sign its volume needed to be filled constantly.)

      “That does work somewhat, little bird man.  Open areas, such as vents or eaves can be sealed up to prevent pigeons from nesting in the holes.  Bird barriers like a ‘slinky’ toy can be fastened to a ledge to prevent the pigeons from landing there. I’ve even read about conditioning pigeons with lights or balloons or even spraying them with water. Some residents who dislike pigeons even more than G-Ma used to use a poison called Avitrol.  It’s a chemical put on rooftops but was used in public places where birds feed.  The birds die from a heart attack or breathing problems.   Our New York governor signed a bill a year and a half ago outlawing its use.  The Peregrine Falcons and Red Tailed Hawks that G-Ma really likes were being poisoned by accident.  So the wild bird activists and environmentalists helped pass the law.”

        Pigeon Activist

      “That’s good, G-Ma.  I learned about poison from Discovery.  There’s a tiny blue octopus that can poison ten people at one time.” Sarah startled Matt and me with her booming outburst. I was relieved she was still attentive.  Her attention span isn’t as refined and protracted as her big brother’s.

      “Sarah, the ‘blue octopus’ shoots out as much poison to kill ten people that’s what Nigel told us.”  Matt was quick to correct his sister.

      “G-Ma how many pigeons are there in New York City?  Hundreds I’ll bet. Or, even thousands?  Or, how about zillions?”  Matt tried to count a flock of them a few days ago when I was about to make a ‘pigeon-dash’ across a potential poop dropping area.  He gave up when Sarah scattered the flighty flock with her shrieking assault.

      I knew eventually Matt or Sarah would ask me that question.  I tried to have my answer ready but found no person, or facility, or organization or even web site had even an approximate number.  I called the Audubon society, the New York City Health Department; I sought the assistance of several librarians; I leafed through books at Barnes and Noble; I contacted Pigeon Watch out of Cornell University’s Ornithology Department; I spent hours researching ‘pigeon population,’ ‘pigeon statistics,’ ‘number of pigeons,’ and ‘pigeon this and pigeon that’ on the Internet.  I couldn’t retrieve a number or an estimate.  At my husband’s suggestion I performed a ‘street survey’ asking different ages, different nationalities, different sexes from different economic backgrounds. My question was “How many pigeons do you think there are per person in New York City?” Those participating were not surprised at my question and promptly spit out their replies.  The range was from 1 to 2 per person to 20 per person and the average number was 5 (interestingly, this was the number my husband had originally suggested). 

      “Well, my little ones, after G-Ma surveyed people living in New York City, I believe there are close to 40 million pigeons.  That’s five pigeons for every person.  And there are eight million people in New York City.”

      “Wow, G-Ma.  That’s a lot.  You told Sarah and me some neat things about the pigeons. I think they’re kind of cool.  Helping to send messages, being pets and friends for people, some even were heroes and got medals.  Maybe they aren’t all pests like we thought.” Matt had thought the bird issue all the way through.  He was his parents’ child.  He cares about people and animals, and now birds, and is willing to put up with some distasteful and unlikable qualities if it means the general public is served.

      “I like pigeons, too, G-Ma”.  Sarah nodded her head much like a pigeon bobs its when it tries to better its eye focus.  “I think they are here to stay.  They are tough just like me and Auntie E and Wonder Woman. I just don’t like the pigeons that poop on your head, G-Ma.  Maybe if you say nice things to them and about them they won’t come after you or make a mess on your window sill.”

      I was amazed at what I had learned about past and present day domesticated pigeons and even the tenacity and survival prowess of the feral pigeons. Sarah’s and Matt’s mild lectures reminded me I needed to get them committed to help with Pigeon Watch. 
       “Okay, Okay.  I know you know.  You both are such wise owls.  Would you like to be involved in Project Pigeon Watch?  Project Pigeon Watch is a grant from the National Science Foundation's Informal Science Education Program.  It's a program to encourage kids like you to look at local environments in their own neighborhoods and want to learn more. It involves people of all ages and backgrounds in important scientific research.

      You learn the different pigeon color types, called "morphs" : blue-bar, red-bar, spread, red, checker, pied white, pied splash and white are the different colors. If you really become interested you can learn the different pigeon courtship behaviors of the pigeons on your block.  You receive a Research Kit, with an Instruction Booklet, a Reference Guide, pigeon posters.  You also receive four issues of the Cornell Lab or Ornithology newsletter, Birdscope."
"Will the magazine come to me, with S-A-R-A-H on the front, G-Ma?  Matt already has the Natural History Museum 'magzine' with his name on the front".  Sarah sounded like a wounded bird with her trembling little peep.
        "If you two are really interested the newsletters will be in both of your names.  I'll make sure of it.  Each year you continue to take part in the program you get several issues of Pigeonscope, the PigeonWatch newsletter with photos, comments, stories and other submissions from other PigeonWatchers.  And the best part is  you can even send a story or pictures in for the newsletter. What do you think?”
        "G-Ma, what do we do."  "Yes, G-Ma, how do we watch the birds. Do we draw pictures of them?"  Matt and Sarah were chattering like little magpies locating a new pile of fresh bird seed.
        "I found out all you need to start is a clipboard, pencils, and special sheets called Tally Sheets, a PigeonWatch mini-poster showing the various colors and some easy instructions. To join the program we need to have your mommy or daddy call  (800) 843-2473 (BIRD) or visit the web site at http://birds.cornell.edu/ppw/ to register the two of three.  Let's check with your mom and dad.  Is it a 'go', kids?"
           "But, G-Ma what are we proving.  Doesn't science prove something.  Are we just counting the pigeons and the different colors?  Why?"  Matt's was a smart little bird, that's for sure.  He just didn't want to stand out on the sidewalk of his block and count pigeons.  He wanted to know the 'why and what for'.

        "I asked that same question, Matt.  I was told you will help people learn abut the coloration and courtship behaviors of pigeons and it might help us understand why pigeons exist in so many colors.  I printed the following material off so in case you were interested, I can read it to you.  Do you want me to share the information with you?"
       "Okay, pigeon-poopy, G-Ma.  G-Pa courted you, right? You are both pigeons.  Soooooper Doooooper Pigeon Pooper, G-Pa.  You better watch out for him, G-Ma. He will drop doo-doo on your head. Yikes!"  Matt was resorting to his silliness again so I started right in.


       "The puffed-up, strutting bird is a male pigeon courting and showing off for a female.  Males fluff their iridescent neck feathers, reflecting shimmering green, bronze, and purple; they spread their tail feathers; they parade or dance in a circle around the female; they coo loudly.  This courtship behavior may lead to mating or it might serve to strengthen the lifelong bonds of an already-mated pair. We can see pigeon courtship all year long but it peaks, is greater, in the springtime. I took a breath as I finished my 'homework'. "I am getting excited about getting involved myself in the project and doing it with you two.  How about it?"


       Matt was intently rummaging around in his toy bins and didn’t respond.  Secretively, he put something behind his back and grabbed Sarah’s hand with his free one.  Grinning, they stood in front of me.

     “Well, G-ma, we’d love to count pigeons, with YOU, but only if you wear this on your head.” 

      Matt pulled out his slinky from behind his back and slapped it atop my head. “There, G-Ma.”  He triumphed, “You are protected from the pigeon poop and won’t need to be mad at the pigeons any more. We need to tape it on your head.” 
       Sarah danced around the room.  “G-Ma’s got a ‘slinky so she won’t be stinky’ on her head.”

       I laughed accompanied by my Vigilant grandson and his fun-loving sister.  Matt took Right Action to help his G-Ma not continually get bombarded with pigeon excrement.  He was tired of my complacency but not tired of laughing at the results of the bombing. 
      I thought how other grandparents and parents could learn from Matt’s awareness and his convictions that there are peaceful solutions to any problem in order to live more happily. He taught me to walk through pigeon poop and get to the other side by using my head (with a slinky on it).
       Both Matt and Sarah also showed me how important it is to be open-minded especially if it’s about something I detest (pigeons) and to assimilate knowledge and learn to respect the other side of any issue.  I started out anti-pigeons and ended up honoring them.
        I can use this lesson in all other aspects of my life.  If I wanted to keep walking in it – pigeon poop), I could.  But, I could also take Right Action (and put on a slinky) and continue to move forward with my life – and not remain in the rut of dropping or piling up excrement.  I could work to resolve the pigeon issue, not just complain about it.

        A Grandparent or Parent of Vigilance has special navigational skills much like the pigeon.  We have inbuilt maps of Courage and patterns of Conviction to lead us to fly with Right Action to keep our flock of children and our children’s children flying/living safely in our world.  Matt, Sarah and I, we three avian amigos, learned from each other that there is more to a pigeon than meets the eye (more than pigeon poop) if we are vigilant—that is, if we have the Courage, Conviction and take the Right Action to learn how to understand our world better.
       I decided pigeons were just another Sentinel of Vigilance, one I had overlooked.   I was glad I saw them with new respect, but I wasn’t quite willing yet to look up in limb to see how many were there—just in case an Osama bin Laden pigeon had slipped into the flock to Terrorize me with his poop!



Go To Sophia 19: "Three's A Crowd"

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