The greatest love story ever told: humans and rats with wings.
Surprisingly Awesome’s theme music is “How We Do” by Nicholas Britell.
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Our credits theme was composed by Cobey Bienert and Jacob Boll, featuring Kevin Sparks, and produced by Matthew Boll.
This episode was edited by Alex Blumberg, Caitlin Kenney, and Annie-Rose Strasser. It was produced by Kalila Holt and Rachel Ward. It was mixed by Andrew Dunn.
Jacob Cruz, Christine Driscoll and Emile Klein provided production assistance.
Special thanks to Courtney Humphries, Andrew Blechman and Sarah Lohman.
JON MOOALLEM: It is a little bloody…
SARAH LOHMAN: It is a little…
ADAM DAVIDSON: I’m gonna start with the peas. Is that lame?
JON: Bon appetit. Oh really? I’m going right in. Oh god, that’s not at all what I thought it was gonna be like. I did not expect to feel the least bit squeamish about eating this and like, if I’m being honest, I’m a little grossed out right now.
SARAH: There’s often reasons why we don’t eat certain foods anymore. You know? It’s a small bird without a lot of meat and a very, very distinct taste and texture, that’s not going to appeal to everybody.
ADAM: That small bird: THE PIGEON.
ADAM: From Gimlet Media, this is Surprisingly Awesome, I’m Adam Davidson. This week are very excited to be joined by Jon Mooallem. He’s a colleague of mine at the New York Times Magazine, he’s known for writing these beautiful, essayistic long-form stories about, I guess your big topic is the relationship between animals and human beings. Is that fair, Jon?
JON: I think that’s fair.
ADAM: You wrote a beautiful book, “Wild Ones.” You’ve reported for Radiolab, This American Life, and Jon, when we called you and said hey, we want you to find something that’s surprisingly awesome, you instantly, it’s like the answer was just sitting there, waiting for us to call.
JON: That’s right, I said, “Thank God someone is finally gonna let me talk about pigeons.”
ADAM: Pigeons. They are the perfect Surprisingly Awesome topic. They’re all around us all the time, and we barely notice them at all, except to be annoyed by them. But today we’re going to talk about how pigeons are surprisingly awesome.
JON: And what you heard at the very beginning of the show, that was us eating a pigeon. Or a squab, as it’s called when it’s served in fancy restaurants. And our guide, Sarah Lohman, she’s a cook and a historian, she told us…
SARAH: Today we are doing a recipe from actually THE French restaurant, Delmonico’s. This recipe, or this menu item, pigeon with green peas is what it was called, was on their very first menu which was published in the 1830s. They’re, like, the original French restaurant in New York City. To me, yeah, it’s got this particular coloring that I associate with game.
ADAM: I like it. I really like it. You hate it?
JON: I’m going to swallow it. I’m going to swallow it.
SARAH: I know, that’s why I put the napkins there just in case.
ADAM: So, how did this bird go from being a dish served at the some of the fanciest restaurants, to something Americans pretty much never eat? To find out, we went to where you’re much more likely to find a dead pigeon now. Not on the table, but on a dirty street corner.
JON: We went there to meet a pigeon expert named Colin Jerolmack.
COLIN JEROLMACK: I’m an associate professor of sociology and environmental studies at NYU.
ADAM: And as I understand it, we are literally standing in the place that changed your life.
COLIN: It did.
ADAM: Colin was a young sociology grad student with a dream. He wanted to be just like his hero: Jane Jacobs. He wanted to do exactly what she had done, sit around the streets of Greenwich Village in New York, and just count people. Watch people. See how they interact with the urban environment. But he didn’t really know WHERE to go. And he kind of randomly came upon this spot, Father Demo Square.
COLIN: And although I had been here many times I was now officially a field worker, I was doing this for a class, I had a camera around my neck, and I had a notepad, but it’s February right? And there’s not actually that many people to observe.
JON: So what does he do? He starts taking notes on whatever he can find. Like this concrete slab—it’s not even an actual statue, it’s just a concrete slab, in the middle of the park, with a dedication to Father Demo on it.
COLIN: I leaned in and said let me write down the inscription here and as I leaned in, this green-white fecal matter you know, didn’t land right on my head, but glanced off my forehead and you know I thought, ah sh**.
JON: Literally. A pigeon pooped on him. And just like when that apple fell on Newton, Colin suddenly saw the world for what it was: This block that he had chosen, didn’t actually have any PEOPLE to watch. But it did have…
COLIN: Probably like three to four hundred pigeons, just in this tiny little park where there was no people and I was like, Jesus, that’s a lot of pigeons here. And in the course of that day and the next day and the day after, the only people who came in, came in to feed the pigeons.
ADAM: You know, Jon, I grew up just a few blocks from Father Demo Square, and I spent all of high school working right across the street at the Minetta Lane Theater. And I don’t remember, other than going with you and Colin, ever actually walking in on purpose to Father Demo Square. My whole childhood, it was such a nasty place. And so right at the time that Colin started this project, there was this movement to spruce up Father Demo Square, maybe put in some new benches, put in a fountain, make it a place that people actually want to enter.
COLIN: And then I started going to these public comment periods and the community board meetings and everybody was talking about the pigeons. It was really surprising. They hated them. And so they would say, “What are we gonna do about the pigeons and what are we gonna do about the homeless people?” And they talked about pigeons and homeless people in the same way.
JON: This made Colin realize that pigeons completely influenced the feel of a place. Everyone dealt with them in New York, but never really gave them any serious thought. So he decided he was gonna Jane Jacobs the crap out of them.
ADAM: He spent years observing the pigeons in Father Demo Square, and in other cities around the world. He wrote a book, The Global Pigeon. And he discovered that how pigeons were treated right here in New York—as this kind of flying trash that gets in our way—that is NOT how we always thought about pigeons. In fact, for most of human history, we LOVED them.
COLIN: They were domesticated we think as long as 5000 years ago, the first bird to be domesticated, one of the first five animals to be domesticated. And so they were bred as a food source, and also of course because can find their way home from somewhere they’ve never been up to a thousand miles away, so they were the first messengers before, you know, telegraphs what have you, and so that’s what brought them everywhere. Pigeons delivered the news of the first Olympic games—you know, the original ones, like in ancient Greece. Genghis Khan used them to send messages throughout his empire.
ADAM: Since the time of the pharaohs, pigeons played a role in sending messages, especially when there was a war. They were the internet, the telegram, the telephone of their day. In fact, we know that if we don’t tell you the story of one very famous wartime pigeon, we are going to get letters.
JON: Right, Cher Ami. Cher Ami was a pigeon enlisted in the Army in World War I, this is like the Rambo of pigeons. A lot of people credit this bird with saving 194 American lives after a unit was separated from its division behind enemy lines. Cher Ami brought a message and while it was doing so it was actually shot in the chest, and when it arrived back at its coop, its leg was dangling off its body.
ADAM: And I think this kind of demonstrates the degree to which pigeons were exalted: Legend has it that Cher Ami’s handlers made him a little peg leg to replace the leg that was shot off. And he was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French for his service. You can actually see Cher Ami’s little taxidermied body in the Smithsonian. And it wasn’t just that one pigeon, or that we thought of pigeons as useful: we thought they were beautiful! In the late 19th century, pigeon fancying—breeding and admiring the birds, like we do today with the Westminster dog show—it became this fashionable, upper-class hobby.
JON: Rich, dignified ladies from the Upper East Side would go to the park with their maids lugging bags of seed for them, just to feed the pigeons. Bankers on Wall Street would go out on their lunch breaks and buy seed from vendors just to feed the pigeons.
ADAM: And we ate them. A LOT. They were like chicken is today. People in cities kept coops full of pigeons on their roofs. They were small, so if you had to feed a whole family maybe you’d go up and grab three or four to cook dinner.
JON: Pigeons were so useful, they were so versatile, they were like the Swiss-army knives of birds. For millennia, humans really loved pigeons. Millennia! And seriously, Adam, we’re a pretty fickle species. I think the list of things that humans have consistently loved for millennia is not very long. It’s, like: sex, fire, maybe flowers… refreshing summer breezes… Here’s our pigeon guy, Colin again:
COLIN: And actually if you read the Origin of Species you will notice that the first 70-85 pages is all about pigeon breeds. Darwin used pigeons not only because they were strategic as far as explaining natural selection through artificial selection, but because pigeons were so popular at the time, breeding pigeons was so popular, and when he first wrote up the book, his editors sent it off to some prominent people and they were like, “You know, you should just keep that part about pigeons. Because everybody loves pigeons and it’ll make a great coffee table book.” And that was the actual suggestion… Just scrap the whole evolution…
ADAM: So up until recently, that was our relationship with pigeons. Everyone, including Darwin’s editors, wanted more of them. So what happened?
JON: Basically, technology happened. We didn’t need pigeons for communication anymore because we invented the telegraph. And we figured out how to breed chickens really well, so they’d produce much more meat faster, so we didn’t need to eat pigeons anymore either. With the rise of industrial agriculture, we didn’t really need their poop as fertilizer anymore either.
ADAM: And so that’s when the love affair between our two species ended. Somewhere in the middle of the 20th century.
JON: And what happened is kind of what happens at the end of a lot of love affairs. You get your needs met some other way. And you push the person away. Pretty soon, you’re like ugh: not only do I not NEED you anymore, actually now that I think about it, you’re kind of gross. Like—in this case, anyway—you literally walk around eating garbage, making lots of poop.
ADAM: And then it’s not just indifference: there’s an actual pigeon backlash. And it happens fast. Colin told us about this episode in the 1960s, where two New Yorkers died within a week of each other of meningitis. Everyone was desperately trying to pinpoint the cause, and a commissioner from the Department of Health used some pretty shaky evidence to say oh, those two people died because of pigeon poop. He whipped up a whole lot of pigeon panic about meningitis.
COLIN: It grows in pigeon feces, and so he said, “I think they got it from being exposed to pigeon feces and over five million people are at risk in all five boroughs.” And he even gave this outrageous quote that like, “There’s no doubt people are at threat of dying so that others can have the pleasure of feeding pigeons.”
ADAM: And in the wake of this, a New York City parks commissioner held a press conference in Bryant Park. His name was Thomas Hoving—you may have heard of him, he later went on to run the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This guy’s basically an embodiment of respectable New York society. He’s the kind of guy who in the olden days might have been a high class pigeon fancier. But he gave pigeons a label that to this day they have been unable to shake.
COLIN: He held a press conference in Bryant Park, because Bryant Park at the time was seen to be very derelict and full of deviant people and behaviors.
JON: Well, he said explicitly his targets were winos, homosexuals, and pigeons.
COLIN: And so he lumped them together, and he said, The winos, as soon as they’re dried out, they out they make a beeline from Bellevue. The homos make faces at people, and then there’s the pigeons. I call them rats with wings.” If you actually analyze newspaper articles for this phrase, you just see it spread like wildfire, and then of course “Stardust Memories,” and it’s this one scene a pigeon flies into Woody Allen’s apartment when he’s with his girlfriend and she says, “Oh, it’s beautiful,” and he says, “No it’s not, they’re rats with wings.”
ADAM: That’s Woody Allen’s film Stardust Memories from 1980. And from that point on, it’s codified as common sense: that’s what pigeons are. Rats with wings.
JON: This is the point of no return. It’s an act of aggression there’s no recovering from. It’s game over. It’s like human Carlton Fisk hitting a homerun to defeat pigeon Cincinnati Reds in the World Series.
COLIN: The amazing thing to me is that actually people will say it to me as if they invented this idea, or thought of it themselves. Like, “You know what I call pigeons, I call them rats with wings!” Like, really do you? Huh! Wow, I hadn’t heard that one before!
JON: The problem is, just because we hate them, it doesn’t mean that the pigeons go away. It’s too late: the pigeon’s out of the bag. And because they’re super adaptive birds, they just keep thriving and spreading. They’re everywhere now, except Antarctica.
ADAM: And remember, these birds are not native to America, they’re not native to Paris or London—they’re from the Middle East and the Mediterranean region. We brought them wherever we went, we bred them to be completely dependent on us, to be used to taking food from us. And now that the love affair is over, they’ve become feral. Jon, I did not actually know what the word “feral” meant. I just thought it meant like a nasty wild animal. But I learned that it means an animal that LIVES in the wild, but which is descended from domesticated animals. I did not know that.
JON: I knew that. But, I mean don’t sweat it Adam, there’s lots of credit default swap terminology that you know that I don’t know. But anyway, what it means that pigeons are feral, it means that every pigeon you see on the street is descended from a pigeon that was once domesticated. So every pigeon’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, going all of the way back, all those greats, was basically a farm animal.
ADAM: So the pigeon over my apartment right now might be descended from some great racer who saved my great-great-great-great-grandfather in the Civil War.
JON: I feel like there’s some newspaper column to be written where someone tracks down the descendant of Cher Ami living on the streets destitute in New York. I feel like that might win a Pulitzer.
ADAM: And the pigeons, they’re just like, around, like, “Wait, people, we’re just trying to live the life that you set up for us.” Of course, we don’t see it that way.
COLIN: Pigeons don’t even have the decency for instance to live in a tree, right? Because of their natural inclination for, they’re originally from these rocky ledges and cliffs, they spend more of their time mating, defecating, living, and dying on the spaces we’ve determined to be only for us. Literally the sidewalks, they sit on benches. They’re on the cornice of your apartment window. And so it’s by virtue of being out of place, right, of not being where they’re supposed to be. Why are these homeless people sleeping on the bench?
ADAM: And you might not be able to tell, but Colin’s actually really angry about this. He has this righteous indignation, that I’m starting to share, that we have a responsibility to pigeons.
JON: I have to say, standing there talking to Colin, we were learning more about pigeons and my respect and affection for those birds, it kept increasing, but sort of as a corollary, my respect of human beings, it just kept decreasing. Plunging, really. It got kind of dark, just thinking about, what kind of creatures are we, that we just kind of trundled around the earth, dragging all these things with us, and then just forgetting about them and letting them fend for themselves? And then calling them gross, and hating them, and resenting them for it?
ADAM: Let’s help redeem your sense of humanity, and to do so, we talked to a guy who has not lost that beautiful relationship with pigeons that we all once had. Coming up, after the break, we talk to a man who spends time with pigeons every day. A man who has a stack of pigeon magazines next to his easy chair. A man who built a pigeon coop in his backyard.
STEVE RODGERS: Easy, you rat bastards.
NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: This episode of Surprisingly Awesome is brought to you by Ford Motor Company…
PETER KEUCHLER: My name is Peter Keuchler, I am the global driveability technical leader at Ford Motor Company.
NAZANIN: Peter and his team take millisecond-by-millisecond measurements of the way stepping on the gas feels on your entire body… and as it turns out, the first place you feel that acceleration is right on the seat of the car… which is how Peter has earned a sort of unofficial title at Ford…
NAZANIN: You are the person who, um, everyone has described to us as the butt feel guy? What does that mean?
PETER: So the thing we’re trying to deliver to the driver is acceleration, and acceleration is really what you feel when the seat pushes you forward. We actually put an accelerometer—it’s a small device that can measure that acceleration—we put it right on the seat track because that is what’s connected to the car for you. You’re sitting in the car, you’re sitting in the seat… So that’s where the term butt-feel has come from.
NAZANIN: And even though Peter’s team doesn’t really use the term at all, he indulged me when I asked about it again and again and again…
NAZANIN: Are you tired of talking about buttfeel today?
PETER: I am tired of talking about buttfeel.
NAZANIN: I’m sorry.
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ADAM: Actually, her mom started the business and of course she’s exaggerating when she says she got into it at birth. As she explained to our producer Rachel, she didn’t get into the family business until way later…
LEEZA: I was at my first antique show when I was two years old.
RACHEL: Did you get anything at that antique show?
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ADAM: Welcome back to Surprisingly Awesome, I’m Adam Davidson, and this week we’ve got animal journalist Jon Mooallem helping us out.
JON: Now we’re at the part of the show where we need to go inside the lion’s den… into the coop!
[PIGEON WINGS FLAPPING]
ADAM: Wait, I just want to explain what just happened, cuz to me it was amazing. You grabbed a flying bird out of the air with your hands, then you were like checking its wings…
ADAM: You were like opening and closing its wings…
STEVE: How the body feels, yeah.
JON: How’d it feel?
STEVE: Good. That’s—that’s a daughter, right there, out of a bird that won $30,000.
JON: This is Steve Rodgers. He’s a retired pipe welder, born and raised on Staten Island, still living there. And his whole life centers around racing pigeons.
ADAM: So I want to set you up with a visual for this next piece of tape. We’re entering what basically looks like a double-wide garden shed—but a pretty fancy one. It’s about a full story tall and it has vinyl siding that matches the main house. There’s a lot of people in Manhattan who would KILL to live in something this big. It’s divided into these smaller compartments to keep the babies away from the grownups. It’s well lit, and surprisingly clean—there’s not too much poop there, considering the first thing you see when you walk in is a wall full of pigeons.
JON: And you know like at a carnival when you throw a ring around a bottle and you win a stuffed animal and all the stuffed animals are just on that giant wall on shelves behind you? That’s what the pigeons were like.
[PIGEON WINGS FLAPPING]
ADAM: Until we show up.
STEVE: Come on, get down. It’s gonna land on your head? Let’s get out of this section because they’re gonna go freakin’ nuts.
JON: But when you come in here alone they don’t fly around this?
STEVE: No, no, no, I got that little chair, I hand feed them. Easy, ya rat bastards.
JON: And the crazy thing was, Steve just kind of kept casually chatting with us, like birds would whiz past his head, he literally snatched a couple out of the air as they were just flying around, all around us, and he would just kind of turn it over and be like, “As you can see on this bird.” He was so calm, and meanwhile, I was literally like cowered behind your big puffy jacket, trying to stay low so I didn’t get hit in the head by a pigeon.
ADAM: I gotta say, however scared I was, I was not as scared as you. Which made me feel slightly less ashamed.
JON: No, I’m glad to be able to provide that service for you.
ADAM: I appreciate it. And you pointed out it’s like someone being on one of those game shows, where they put a contestant in a glass booth, and there’s a blower and all of this money swirling around them.
JON: Except yeah, instead of money, it’s pigeons, and you don’t want to touch them at all.
ADAM: Although to Steve, to be fair, those pigeons are money. It costs A LOT to take care of the birds. Steve’s coop alone cost about $30,000 to build. Then there’s feeding them really well, he has a very special mix, and giving them medicine. The pigeons in Steve’s coop are the same kind of pigeons as street pigeons. Same species, same genus, same genetics. But they’re not FROM the street, and you can tell that instantly when you see them. They’re just cleaner, healthier. A street pigeon might live for two years. Steve’s birds can live for a decade or more.
JON: And because these birds are specially bred, they’re really expensive.
STEVE: But these are the breeders over here, these are the mothers and fathers, that hen down there, I just paid a grand for her. 15, actually, $1,500.
ADAM: Steve points out it’s the same as horse racing. You get a bird that’s a winner, its babies are worth a lot. Even its grandkids. The most expensive racing pigeon in the world sold for $310,000 back in 2013. It was named Bolt, as in, Usain Bolt. A Chinese businessman bought it.
JON: Pigeon racing in the US has been on the decline since World War Two, there’s about half as many people racing pigeons now as there were back then. But internationally there’s a lot of money in pigeon racing in the Middle East and China. But just because these birds cost a lot, doesn’t mean they’re worth anything.
STEVE: Same as horses, I mean you can’t, you buy a horse for four million dollars, you don’t know if it can run four feet. They could die on you in the friggin stall.
ADAM: And how’d you get into this?
STEVE: I think it’s a friggin’ birth defect, I swear to God. I had em what, I got a friend of mine’s father had them, and he found an old coop in the woods, we took it apart and brought it into a lot by his house, and that’s how we started. Yeah, and I’m still doing it.
ADAM: How old were you?
STEVE: That was… 12.
JON: Do you uh, do you name them at all?
STEVE: (laughing) No, I don’t wanna be friends with ‘em. I gotta train the sh** out of them and race em.
ADAM: It’s helpful to understand how pigeon racing actually works. So, he’s training his pigeons all the time to come back to their coop. The coop they live in.
JON: Right, and then when it’s time for a race, he, and a bunch of other guys in his region who also race pigeons, they’ll load their birds onto a truck. And the truck drives them hundreds of miles away to a place like Cadiz, Ohio or Greenfield, Indiana, these towns with race stations in them.
ADAM: Then, all at once, all the pigeons are let go, and they start flying really fast, as fast as they can, back to their home coop. And this is how it’s different from horse racing—they all have the same starting line, but each pigeon’s finish line is a little different. Each pigeon is racing to its coop.
JON: And Steve, like all pigeon races, has had the EXACT distance measured from the racing stations to his particular coop, outside his house.
ADAM: And each pigeon has a band around its leg that checks it in as it finishes the race.
STEVE: It’s all computerized now, it’s like a friggin EasyPass.
ADAM: So have you won?
STEVE: Yeah, I do alright. Yeah.
ADAM: And what do you win?
STEVE: Money, what do you… Heh, heh.
JON: What’s the best you’ve done?
STEVE: Uh, I don’t want to say.
ADAM: Okay, tens of thousands?
STEVE: Oh yeah, yeah.
ADAM: Are you ahead in pigeons?
STEVE: You‘re never ahead in pigeons. You’re never ahead, it’s like playing cards, you kind of stay even you hope.
JON: And it was clear when we were in the coop with Steve: it’s not like these are his pets. They’re just his hobby. They serve a purpose. It’s more like they were like cars he was fixing up, or model trains he likes to build. He really didn’t seem attached to them as like, living beings.
ADAM: And hey, parents and animal lovers, you might want to dip the volume just for a few seconds for the next piece of information: Steve told us that when a bird from some else’s coop, or a street pigeon wanders into his coop, he just wrings its neck. He doesn’t know where those birds have been. They could get HIS birds sick. And what Steve does, by the way, is just ONE type of pigeon competition. There’s also performance pigeons. The same pigeons but bred for a whole other set of skills. There are tumblers, which are pigeons that compete based on their ability to do back flips while they’re flying. There’s rollers, which are pigeons that are better at forward flips.
JON: There’s tipplers, these guys are my favorite. These are endurance pigeons. So you’ve got Steve’s pigeons which might race for 8 or 9 hours, to go from Ohio back to his coop in Staten Island, but tipplers can fly nonstop for almost a full day.
ADAM: And uh, what, why do you think you’re into it? What do you get out of it?
STEVE: I just love it, I love to race, I love the action. How do you say it? It’s like, if you’re—if you really like, you wanna play cards for money, or you wanna chase women, or whatever, or whatever you wanna do, you do, and you enjoy it.
ADAM: You know Jon, it was right about this trip to Staten Island that I really felt my feelings about pigeons changing. When we started this, you were already pretty strongly on the pigeon train, right, you were liking pigeons, and I started out pretty grossed out by them.
JON: I would say I felt solidarity with pigeons. And I held them in high esteem.
ADAM: And that only got stronger, but for me, I started seeing them as this noble thing, and I started buying the argument that human beings owe them some responsibility. So I got in my head how excited I was to go back home, see the pigeons in my neighborhood in a whole new way. I got this really specific idea. I went to a pet store, I got some bird seed because we were told along the way, don’t feed pigeons bread, that’s not good for them – was gonna pick up my son Ash, and go to the park with him. And we’d sit on a bench, and just feed the pigeons, and watch them. People told me, if you watch pigeons long enough you’ll realize each one has its own personality: there are funny ones, and stupid ones, and aggressive ones, and really shy ones, and nervous ones, and nice ones. I thought oh, it’ll be just like in Mary Poppins, we’re gonna have this glorious pigeon adventure together.
[MUSIC – “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins]
ADAM: And then, we talked to a man who told me to CUT IT OUT.
ADAM: How do I pronounce your name?
DANIEL HAAG-WACKERNAGEL: Daniel Haag-Wackernagel.
JON: The whole time I was in New York with you guys, I kept saying, “We have to call Daniel Haag-Wackernagel.” And I think maybe you guys thought I was making him up or something? Or you’d sort of patronize me and say his name one way or another way… But this guy, this is a real guy. Daniel Haag-Wackernagel. He’s sort of the dean of urban pigeon science. And he is the dream crusher for you Adam, when it comes to your fantasy of feeding pigeons in the park. He’s got a really LONG history with pigeons, and it goes back all the way to when he was in something called “the pigeon service” in the Swiss Army, where they would train pigeons to send messages, just like Cher Ami.
ADAM: Wait, you just said that the Swiss Army still had a pigeon service? When you were starting out?
DANIEL: It was about 15 years ago they stopped it.
ADAM: In the 1980s, Daniel Haag-Wackernagel was a newly minted PhD in biology in Basel, Switzerland. And the city was experiencing this huge problem. A pigeon problem.
JON: Like in a lot of cities, there was a core group of elderly folks who were feeding pigeons all the time—and not just casually, like at lunch a few crumbs, but in a dedicated, routine way: they would have bags and bags of seeds, and they’d be tending entire flocks. And this really kind of disrupted the entire pigeon ecosystem. Because pigeons can recognize a regular feeder, recognize the person’s face from BLOCKS away, and the bird will just follow that person to wherever they normally get fed.
ADAM: These people thought they were doing a great thing. But this new food source meant that Basel’s pigeon population was exploding. It reached 25 THOUSAND birds. There were so many birds, they were living in slum-like conditions, all crowded up, getting diseases.
ADAM: did you solve the pigeon problem of Basel, the overpopulation?
DANIEL: of course it’s not possible to solve it definitively, but we could cause a reduction of the population for more than half.
ADAM: Daniel started trying to explain to people — when you feed the pigeons, they have way too much time on their hands, because they’re barely spending any time looking for food. And when pigeons have too much time on their hands… you wind up with A LOT MORE PIGEONS. Because if you don’t control the food source, pigeons just keep breeding—they don’t have a breeding season, they just do it all the time. And it only takes like 3 or 4 weeks for a pigeon to go from being a baby to being able to have babies themselves. And this by the way, is something that we bred into them. Because we used to love pigeons so much, we wanted them to reproduce as fast as possible. And as another aside, you know how you never see baby pigeons? Actually until I went into Steve Rodgers’s coop I’d never seen a baby pigeon. They’re kind of weird looking. That’s because while they grow really quickly, they don’t actually leave their nests until they’re fully formed adults.
JON: Yeah, so if you go into a pigeon coop, you can actually see what looks like an adult pigeon sitting on top of what looks like another adult pigeon. It’s messed up.
ADAM: And that adult pigeon sitting on that almost-an-adult pigeon could be male or female—moms and dads take turn keeping their babies warm. And moms and dads mate for life!
JON: Incredibly heartwarming, I think.
ADAM: But not to the city of Basel. They were really worried that these birds could transmit diseases to humans. They were pooping on all the public buildings, all the public statues and fountains.
JON: So Daniel launched what he called a “Pigeon Action.” It was basically an education campaign to tell everyone, PLEASE stop feeding the pigeons. You think that you’re helping, but actually this isn’t good for us OR for the birds. It was actually kind of cruel.
DANIEL: You do not do anything good for a pigeon if you feed them. Because they become lazy and if you are a couch potato, then you have less good health condition than a person who works for food. If they are fed every day at the same point, they don’t fly out and they don’t have good body condition, and they have a lot of time for reproduction. That’s a problem. It’s not good for the birds.
ADAM: We live near a big park and there’s some people who feed the pigeons. And my son is 4 years old, and like all 4-year-old kids he loves running through the pigeons and making them fly away. I would discourage him from running into the pigeons, I felt like it wasn’t nice. but you’re actually saying that my son is doing the right thing for the pigeons and the person feeding them is doing the wrong thing.
DANIEL: Yeah. All over the world, children run through pigeon flocks.
ADAM: And that’s good for them, that’s like taking them to the gym. It gives ‘em exercise.
JON: So where does that leave us? We spent this whole episode, Adam, learning how to appreciate pigeons. What do we do with that appreciation?
ADAM: Yeah, that was my question, and Daniel Haag-Wackernagel basically said, if you learn to love them, let them go. You can admire them from a distance, but they are at their best now if we let them lead lives as wild as possible.
JON: What Daniel’s arguing is, we have to fully break up with pigeons. We have to get to the point where if we show up at a park, and they’re there, we both just do our own thing.
ADAM: No one’s weird about it, there are no hard feelings
JON: A respectful break up. Real mature. Don’t throw them a pizza crust, just let them go back to being independent animals. I think it was probably the pigeon scientist Dionne Warwick who explained this best. She said, if you see me walking down the street, and I start to cry each time we meet, walk on by, just walk on by.
ADAM: Surprisingly Awesome’s theme music is by the lovely Nicholas Britell, but what you’re hearing right now was composed by Cobey Bienert and Jacob Boll, produced by Matthew Boll. Our ad music is by Build Buildings. We were edited this week by Caitlin Kenney, Annie-Rose Strasser, and Alex Blumberg, and produced by Kalila Holt and Rachel Ward. We were mixed by Andrew Dunn.
JON: Special thanks to Andrew Garn. You can see his magnificent pigeon photography at AndrewGarn-dot-net. Click the “B” for bird. Thanks also to Courtney Humphries, author of the book “Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan,” and Andrew Blechman, author of the book “Pigeons.”
ADAM: And thanks to Sarah Lohman, author of the upcoming Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. You can tweet us at @surprisingshow, email us, please, at email@example.com. We’re on Facebook, and at gimletprod.staging.wpengine.com/awesome.
JON: Surprisingly Awesome is a production of Gimlet Media. They have a really cool coffee maker in their office.
ADAM: Thanks to our sponsor Squarespace, the easiest way to create a beautiful website, portfolio, or online store. When you decide to sign up for Squarespace, make sure to use the offer code AWESOME to get 10-percent off your first purchase, and to show your support for our show. Squarespace… build it beautiful.
ADAM: Thanks to our sponsor Ford Motor Company, where Ford engineers bring new and innovative ideas to life every day. Go to Ford-dot-com to learn more. EcoBoost is available on select vehicles.
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KALILA HOLT: Um, Adam and Jon, would you mind just each doing your best impression of a pigeon?
ADAM: [pigeon noises] I can’t… Jon? [pigeon noises]
ADAM: It’s like deeper in the chest.
JON: Oooooh… That’s a ghost. That’s a ghost of a pigeon. That came back from 1844 to remind us when he was delicious eating.
ADAM: All the accents I do are Israeli, so I’ll just go I’m a pigeon, believe me, don’t worry.
JON: That’s our new show, animal sounds with Jon and Adam.