Thursday, December 14, 2006

Book Review: "Pigeons"

Journalist Andrew Blechman's Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird (released recently from Grove Press) provides an interesting cross-section of "pigeon culture" around the world today. From the racing and breeding clubs of New York, Europe, and China to the shooting clubs of rural Pennsylvania, to a "squab factory" in South Carolina and the "bird control" outfits of, well, every major city, Blechman surveys the great variety of relationships humans have had and continue to have with pigeons.

As with most books of this type, some "characters" are expected to make appearances. There's "Dr. Pigeon," an enthusiast who lives in a one-room cabin with no electricity or running water, and also Kee Bubbenmoyer (an unapologetic pigeon shooter). The mysterious "Bob" who organizes "underground pigeon protection groups". And Anna Dove and Sally Bananas, who walk around New York dumping ten-pound bags of birdseed because the pigeons "need them." The one that perhaps takes the cake, however, was Dave Roth, a Phoenix man who lives in a house Blechman depicts as absolutely covered in pigeon dung from the various birds he's rescued. Blechman even spends a chapter discussing his unsuccessful attempt to get an interview with Mike Tyson, who has a flock of pigeons and apparently enjoys them more than anything else in the world.

While it's true that pigeons often get a bad rap, and there are certainly many population control methods in use that are at best ineffective and at worst causing an even bigger problem, Blechman's enthusiasm was at times slightly excessive to the point of getting obnoxious. The fact that he profiled the women who spend their days providing food to wild pigeons in the middle of Manhattan (and thereby increasing their dependence on human action and keeping them concentrated in urban centers where they cause the most problems) without so much as a caution against this sort of irresponsible behavior was very troubling. In some sense, it is not the pigeons we should blame for just "doing what they do," but the people who go out of their way to permit and aid the pigeons in finding the perfect habitat in our cities. Blechman's discussion of how Basel, Switzerland dealt with its pigeon problem was instructive, and is certainly a lesson worth learning.

Pigeons do have many interesting features, including their ability to home (return to their roost), which is still not completely understood by scientists. The sections on this in the book as well as a historical look at the use of pigeons by the military, were among the most interesting and least objectionable to me.

Some minor quibbles: Blechman writes (p. 6) "the name 'rock pigeon' is becoming increasingly popular among ornithologists"). "Rock pigeon actually became the official name of the bird (Columba livia) in 2003 (hence its growing use). Darwin's voyage on the Beagle lasted nearly five years, not two (p. 51), and Blechman seems to attribute more to Darwin's early conclusions about the Galapagos finches than there was (ironic, since Darwin put pigeons to great use in formulating his ideas about evolution). Bat dung is guano, not guana (p. 131). A very minor thing, but I thought the paragraphs were indented too far onto the page.

More substantively, it's curious that this book has no pictures. Blechman works at describing in great detail some of the various decorative pigeon breeds, but provides no images of them at all. Nor are photographs of any of his "characters" included. Perhaps this was seen as an unnecessary expense, but it would have been rather helpful.

Certainly a quick book to breeze through with some very intriguing anecdotes and characters. But sadly, nothing particularly special.