November 2007

Arts & Letters

‘Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird’ by Andrew D Blechman

By Sean Dooley

With an author name straight out of Mad magazine an almost Pythonesque subtitle, this paean to pigeons may at first seem the stuff of some elaborate joke: as if somebody could seriously devote over 200 pages to those ‘rats with wings’! But this is no dry treatise for the spotty anorak-wearer. In the tradition of histories of salt, cod and the sextant, Blechman’s book takes a commonplace and seemingly unremarkable thing and provides an insight into the effects it has had on our lives.

The placid nature, prolific breeding capacity and innate homing instincts of the pigeon, one of the first animals to be domesticated, have led to one of the most symbiotic of all our relationships with the natural world. But despite its valiant attempts to lionise the bird - pigeon as peace symbol, as war hero, as reliable source of protein - where this book really comes alive is in its portrayal of the human side of the relationship.

Blechman manages to infiltrate the obsessive world of those who still revere the pigeon. And what a kooky bunch they are: foul-mouthed working-class pigeon racers from Brooklyn who live with their mothers; English pigeon fanciers pulled from an Allan Bennett play who would rather clean the shit from a pigeon loft than spend a minute with their neglected families; crazy bag-ladies blowing their social-security cheques on birdseed to feed already overstuffed New York pigeons. Even the infamous pugilist, rapist and ear-biter Mike Tyson turns out to have a very soft spot for the birds.

But such folk are definitely in the minority. If familiarity breeds contempt, then in the case of the pigeon ubiquity clearly engenders outright revulsion. This is where the book transcends mere quirkiness, as Blechman suggests that we despise the pigeon because of its very success - a success that has arisen due to the profligate waste of modern society. Perhaps we project our self-loathing at our own excesses onto these birds. Perhaps when all is said and done, we just don’t like to share anything with anyone, pigeons included.

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