The New York Pigeon: Behind the Feathers

Reviewed by Leslie Day

The New York Pigeon: Behind the Feathers  By Andrew Garn powerHouse Books 2018 143 pages

The New York Pigeon: Behind the Feathers
By Andrew Garn
powerHouse Books
143 pages

As a long-time student of birds — starting thirty-five years ago when a female cardinal living in Riverside Park, next to the 79th Street Boat Basin where I lived on our houseboat, became my muse — and as a New Yorker — eternally grateful to Rita McMahon and her Wild Bird Fund for healing, saving, and rehabilitating thousands of hurt and abandoned city birds and other wildlife — it was a great honor to receive this beautiful book to review.

Though only 143 pages long and divided into six chapters, this coffee table size-book, an ode to Columba livia (Columba- Latin for dove; livia- Latinfor lead-colored), covers everything that is essential to appreciate these amazing birds. We learn about the pigeon’s beginnings hundreds of thousands of years ago as one of early humankind’s first domesticated animals. Well aware that it is one of our most acrobatic flyers, careening through canyons of skyscrapers and streaming cars and taxis, we discover the pigeon’s amazing anatomy and physiology. Through gorgeous photos and x-rays we see its development from egg to juvenile. And we get to gaze at the stunning portraits of individual pigeons that have been helped by the Wild Bird Fund showing their different color morphs, and to learn about many of the birds’ stories of rescue, recovery, and release. For all of this history, science, and photographic beauty, tales of New York’s serious “pigeon people,” and wonderful scenes of pigeons in our city, this book is a treasure.

With his stunning photographs, Garn will help even the most rabid pigeon-hater start to see these important birds through the lens of his love and appreciation. For those humans with a bias against these ubiquitous urban neighbors of ours, Andrew teaches us their fascinating historical and cultural connections to humanity. How we have relied on them for tens of thousands of years for food, for communication, and to aid our soldiers during wars. With the finding of skeletal remains of pigeons in settlements in present-day Israel, it is now known that pigeons were domesticated 300,000 years ago. Pigeons were revered by the ancient Egyptians, who understood their intelligence, their amazing honing abilities, and their loyalty to flock. The Egyptians built thousands of homes for their pigeons- dovecotes, so that they would fly home after scavenging the fields. Their nutrient-rich droppings were used to fertilize crops up and down the Nile valley. As far back as 2500 BC, the rulers of Sumeria were using pigeons to send messages filled with news. Genghis Khan and his sons created a pigeon post system to send messages throughout their far-flung empire, which covered a sixth of the earth.

In his chapter “Feather and Bone,” x-rays of the pigeon’s front and back show not only the major bones and some of the major organs, but a fractured radius, one of the bones of the wings. Wild Bird Fund x-rays its patients to see what is broken and needs mending. The opening paragraph of this chapter is a stunner: “If the worlds’ top engineers were challenged to design a perfectly efficient one pound flying machine, which could run a full day on only an ounce of energy and a few drops of water, they might invent a pigeon.” This incredible flying machine can fly up to 500 miles, sometimes at speeds of 50 mph without stopping for food or water, propelled by heartbeats of up to 600 beats per minute.

In “Beginnings,” Garn shows photographically the care that both male and female parents give their young. Pigeons bond with their mates for life, and both mother and father raise their young. If you’ve ever seen a baby pigeon — and many people have not — you will recognize the funny looking, gawky kids in these images.

All of Garn’s photographs and text lie against a black background, which I love. The rich colors of their feathers, eyes, and feet stand out as almost three-dimensional images. In the “Portraits” chapter, close-up photos, accompanied by the stories of how these birds came to be at the Wild Bird Fund (WBF), help you bond with these wonderful characters. You can feel what Garn feels when he says in his introduction that these birds are his muse. They have touched him and inspired him to help others see them as he does. In this book he transforms the misunderstood, ordinary city pigeon into beings worthy of respect and objects of beauty.

I loved the little bios of NYC pigeon people. So often we think of them, stereotypically, as old and batty. In fact, we learn they can be young and gorgeous opera singers, hard-working IT guys, or, for that matter, the brilliant Rita MacMahon, founder of WBF.

This book is a beautiful blend of science, art, and humanity, featuring an animal too many fear and loathe. The reality of this amazing creature has been turned into a nightmare. I remember years ago being interviewed on Brian Lehrer’s radio show along with a politician trying to pass a bill to control pigeons. The councilman told a story of walking down the street with his little girl when pigeons came flying toward them, prompting her to scream and cry. Her father commented that no child should have to experience such a thing. Yet, I said to him, that this should have been a teachable moment. As the adult, he could have said the pigeons wouldn’t hurt her and explained their value. I wish he had had a book like The New York Pigeon to read and share with his child.

Garn does his best to remedy this situation. It is a heart-warming book that is worth reading and sharing with those who already love our city’s most common avian species. But it is also a good book for those who might be afraid to walk the streets because of an irrational fear of these sweet, tame and historically important birds.

Leslie Day is the author of Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City, Field Guide to the Street Trees of New York City, Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City, and Honeybee Hotel: The Waldorf Astoria's Roof Garden and the Heart of New York City.