Pigeons on the Grass, Alas, Alas

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Many thanks to the crew here for inviting me to join. I’ll still be blogging on law & technology at the Jurisdynamics Network, and, of course, at Madisonian.net. But it’s nice to branch out to a blog on “law, the universe, and everything” in order to address a compelling topic like law and. . . pigeons.

Yesterday’s NYT Magazine had a fascinating story on cutting edge tactics in pigeon control. Their population explosion raises interesting questions about the relation between law, norms, and civil disobedience because it’s largely fueled by loners and outsiders who defy local ordinances against feeding them:

[W]hen someone feeds pigeons in the park every day at noon, the birds are able to organize their day around that appointment. There, pecking 145 times a minute, a pigeon can rapidly eat its fill for the day, about one ounce. Cobbling that sustenance together from trash might require thousands of pecks at numerous locations, many of them far apart. [T]he resulting free time and excess energy allows pigeons to breed more rapidly and successfully. “In a city like New York or like Melbourne,” [one expert] argues, “the pigeon population is sustained solely by little old ladies and little old men that go out every single day and feed top-quality foods to the birds.”

One would think that a Singapore-style crackdown on the feeders would get some results. But urbanites seem to favor norms as regulators, eschewing criminal penalties for shaming campaigns. Although protests stopped Melbourne from fining a feeder about $8000, a citizen patrol managed to hound the “bird lady of Los Angeles” out of her routine. The famously efficient Swiss managed to cut down the Basel bird population from 100,000 to 10,000 largely via shaming:

Basel Pigeon Action worked exclusively via “a change of public opinions” — a euphemism, it seemed, for an almost belligerent offensive against pigeon feeders. . . . Citizens began ratting out feeders, . . . accosting [them] on the street, shaming them. . . . One elderly man, perhaps finding no safe place left to feed pigeons outside, began luring them in through his apartment window. He was evicted.

Like the article’s author, I’m torn about the success of such initiatives. As someone who had to scrape a pound or so of guano off the balcony of my apartment when I moved in a few years ago, I know full well of the pigeon’s noxiousness. I’ve also tried (in vain) to reason with a thoroughly deranged pigeon feeder in my urban neighborhood. (She just started throwing seeds at my feet, effectively driving me off with a flock of her friends.)

But there is something to an empathy that “keeps us from tormenting those who, for whatever pitiable reasons, compulsively feed the pigeons — and who are, by feeding, extending what they can’t help seeing as the most basic form of compassion.” In an ever more regulated world, pigeons may well be the avian avatars of civil disobedience. Perhaps that’s why artists ranging from Gertrude Stein to Cyndi Lauper have celebrated them. Of course, all bets are off if the pigeons start spreading disease!

Photo Credit: Flickr/Grendelkhan

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