The Global Pigeon by Colin Jerolmack

Tim Birkhead on bird fanciers’ engagement with nature

June 20, 2013

People engage with wildlife in different ways. At one extreme, senior citizens tread carefully constructed boardwalks to enter heated hides to observe birds in man-made nature reserves. At the other, unpleasant men use dogs to bait badgers to death in suburban woodlands. The first is socially acceptable, the second is not. In between, people engage with nature – and birds in particular – in ways that may or may not be acceptable. In the past every other house in Europe had a caged songbird, a nightingale, canary or goldfinch, cheering the household with its vibrant song. Today this type of bird keeping – most frequent among the working class – perches perilously close to unacceptability. An easy target for the authorities, bird keeping is in decline and even the keeping of domesticated pigeons is seen as a socially dubious way of engaging with nature.

Colin Jerolmack’s book is a wonderful celebration of the ways some people interact with pigeons. The story starts in Father Demo Square in New York, where members of the public routinely feed the street pigeons despite the authorities’ notices forbidding it. The main feeders are old, homeless, lonely people whose daily routine of providing grain or carefully cut cubes of bread for “their” pigeons gives meaning to their lives. The authorities hate both the pigeons and the feeders. The birds’ faeces are said to constitute a health risk and to damage buildings in every major city. In Piazza San Marco, Venice, vendors defiantly continue to sell bird seed illegally because tourists love the experience of being sat upon (and shat upon) by vast numbers of pigeons.

In Venice, vendors continue to sell bird seed illegally because tourists love the experience of being sat upon (and shat upon) by pigeons

A second tier of pigeon engagement involves a diminishing band of hobbyists whose rooftop lofts provide a window on to an extraordinary community. Jerolmack introduces us to some of these blue-collar characters, mainly immigrants and members of ethnic minorities whose lives revolve around breeding, feeding and cleaning up after their pigeons. A vegetarian sociologist with dreadlocks, Jerolmack presents an intriguing image of himself conducting fieldwork. “Jesus!” says one man, looking at his hair. “How did you let this happen?” Another fancier intervenes. “He’s writing about birds,” he says – implying that they should allow him to get on with his research. And what Jerolmack’s research reveals is not a community of competitive pigeon racers, but a community of flyers: men who selectively breed and train their pigeons simply for the pleasure of watching them fly. It is, of course, competitive – the men argue about who has the best birds. And they love it, if – as the birds fly across the New York skyline – their pigeons “capture” individuals from other flyers’ flocks, which they can then sell at the local pet shop.

The South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race, held annually at the Sun City Resort, takes pigeon engagement to a new level and forms the finale of this intriguing book. Conceived in the 1990s, this remarkable phenomenon – which some consider the avian equivalent of the Tour de France – allows pigeon racers from around the world to compete on a virtually level playing field. In most pigeon races there are simply too many variables, including the use of homemade elixirs and drugs, to objectively assess a pigeon’s speed, endurance and navigational abilities. But at this event, fanciers submit their birds anonymously to be trained by professionals in South Africa. The event’s success, Jerolmack observes, rests partly on the “sanguine meritocratic and neoliberal ideals of equal opportunity, free and fair competition, and inclusiveness”, and has brought “new respect” for the sport of racing pigeons. This book similarly brings renewed respect for the different ways people engage with nature.

The Global Pigeon

By Colin Jerolmack
University of Chicago Press, 288pp, £56.00 and £19.50
ISBN 9780226001890, 02088 and 01920 (e-book)
Published 15 May 2013

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