For more than three years, Jerolmack observed the ways in which people interact with pigeons in cities. His forthcoming book, The Global Pigeon, which, as he put it, seeks to examine “our social experience of animals,” draws from that research. Yesterday evening he spoke about our own city’s rather vexed relationship to the birds.
In the 1960s, for instance, Thomas P.F. Hoving, the former city parks commissioner and longtime director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (not to mention the subject of a famed John McPhee New Yorker profile from 1967), called pigeons “rats with wings,” an epithet—often wrongly attributed to Woody Allen—that really stuck. Hoving cited the species, along with litterers and vandals, as a plague on Bryant Park. The park’s supervisor at the time, Andrew Petrochko, told the New York Times that “the homosexuals … make faces at people [and] once the winos are dried out at Bellevue, they make a beeline for Bryant Park.”…
Despite their bad reputation, though, Jerolmack noted that our urban encounters with pigeons “are profoundly social.”
“The impulse to feed pigeons is not so different from wanting to chat with strangers,” Jerolmack said, speaking about one of the subjects for his book, Anna, the elderly pigeon lady who regularly feeds the birds at Father Demo Square, the tiny enclave in the West Village where Jerolmack’s research began.
This sounds like it could be a testable hypothesis: do city dwellers have more positive, social relationships with wildlife (not including pets or animals connected to a household) than people who live in suburbs or rural areas? Cities aren’t typically known for their wildlife but perhaps this could be tied to Simmel’s arguments in his piece “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” He suggested there were too many people for individuals to interact with in big cities so they would have to develop blase attitudes to protect themselves. But what if they could interact safely with pigeons (and even ducks and squirrels)? Or perhaps this is tied to romanticized (or real?) notions residents have about needing to connect with nature in the middle of the “concrete jungle.”