The Tale of a Pigeon City
A pigeon approached me while I was snacking on an Albert Heijn börek, attacking any crumbling flakes that were once a wheat seedling and will soon be transformed into bird droppings. With a nod of the head and a flap of the wing, the pigeon flew away, disappearing into the concrete canopy of Amsterdam without a trace.
The pigeon is perhaps one of the biggest menaces for bikers in Amsterdam. I recall once cycling on a busy bike lane in Javastraat;dodging other bikers, scooters, and potholes—for a brief moment, I felt as though I had mastered the intricate skill of cycling like a true Amsterdammer. This short sensation of pride and certainty faded as quickly as it had come the moment I spotted a couple of pigeons up ahead, nibbling on some breadcrumbs. With little space to maneuver, I slowed down as much as I could thinking that they would notice me and fly off. But these two were on a roll, fervently picking at the breadcrumbs until the very last second, flapping their wings and flying off right in front of me with the turbulent air pushed off by their plumes still lingering so that I could feel it on my cheek. I was one of the lucky ones.
Anecdotes told to me by friends of their pigeon encounters often end with spilled groceries, broken bicycle chains, scraped knees, and embarrassment. Curiously, when brought up in conversation, it is almost always the case that the plural ‘pigeons’ is used. “I hate pigeons”, “I love pigeons”, “Pigeons are a nuisance”, “Pigeons are cool”, and so on. It is not until a person has a personal encounter with a pigeon that these general characterizations are overstepped in favor of the singular ‘pigeon’: “I was attacked by a pigeon”, “That pigeon cost me my dignity”, “Some pigeon stole my patatjes”. A lovely person once said to me: “Where there is friction, there is love”. Talking impolitely about pigeons generally tends to be some form of banter that humans have reserved for their avian friends. There are few things, let alone birds, to which urban citizens reserve such a strong opinion. On the other hand, the discussion of the singular ‘pigeon’ gives character and almost humanizes the bird, oftentimes to a point in which its behavior is scrutinized as though it were another person. This reveals something beautiful: We have accepted these birds as co-inhabitants of our lived environment.
Most of our frustration with pigeons stems from a false expectation. Specifically, we think that a pigeon will behave in a way which aligns with culturally dictated ‘proper etiquette’. We expect pigeons to give us space, to get out of the road, or to poop in a designated spot. Anyone who has spent a couple of days in Amsterdam knows that it would be foolish to expect anything less than rude pecking behavior, obtrusiveness, or watery white stains landing on their jacket. I’ve come to realize that Amsterdam’s pigeons are as aggressive as they are bold—those in the center of the city most of all, well acquainted with big crowds of people. I often see people shooing away approaching pigeons either by shouting or stamping their feet. This hostile human behavior could be attributed to some sense of entitlement, or a belief that everything within the city ought to be ordered and in line with cultural conventions. Pigeons don’t understand the concept of ‘personal space’ or ‘ownership’ of resources—instead, they thrive off entropic improvisation.
Reclaimed territory, notice the bench.
The pigeons of Mercatorplein.
All over the city, one can see how they have adapted to different architectural formations. The many bridges all over the city offer a comfortable underside where pigeons like to perch. Dutch Baroque architecture in the center offers many creases and ledges from which they can take shelter. One can see pigeons in most public squares in the city where they, just like the human inhabitants of the neighborhood, like to eat and socialize. Examining this from my local neighborhood square, Mercatorplein, I tried to relax and immerse myself with the pigeons, becoming a part of their flock and seeing the world from their perspective. To my surprise, many humans were enticed by the large flock of birds. Either feeding them or indulging their inner child, there is nothing but pure excitement at the sight of so many birds at once. Moreover, the birds have reclaimed some territory to themselves. The bench in the picture below is particularly reserved for pigeons. As there are tree branches right above, the prospect of a pleasant surprise from above is enough to deter people from sitting there. The exception is the elusive pigeon feeder of Mercatorplein, a majestic burly man who can be seen feeding the pigeons in the morning. Arms open wide with tens of pigeons surrounding him, nibbling at the food in his hands while calmly perching on his arms and shoulders, it is truly a sight to behold. He does not seem to mind all the pigeon droppings, the hectic flapping of feathers—but rather, he is someone who has truly come to understand the kind of relationship we ought to have with our pigeon neighbors.
We have taken the wild rocks in which pigeons originally made their homes and reconstructed them as our cities. The birds still have an affinity for this material and decided to adapt to our reconfiguration of their elemental home. Their flexibility has made them our neighbor, the co-owners of Amsterdam, and we should embrace that pigeons are not leaving any time soon. The fact that pigeons are so close to us in the first place should be taken as a positive thing: They get food and shelter in exchange for keeping the city running smoothly as they participate in its organic metabolism by eating leftovers on the street and fertilizing our trees. Pigeon poop should not be seen as an insult, but as a symbol of neighborly friendliness and love. The fact that a pigeon is comfortable enough to be within pooping, feeding, or touching distance is impressive, especially since they can simply fly away whenever.
Some people, such as the bird feeder of Mercatorplein, have embraced this friendliness by treating the birds as fellow citizens. Dutch legislation has also taken necessary steps to protect our feathered friends by implementing protection policies that forbid harmful actions to pigeons. Independent organizations have also emerged such as the Stitching Stadsduiven Hulp, which aims to “[...]end stringfoot suffering & improve conditions for feral city pigeons in the Netherlands”. In raising awareness to the living conditions of pigeons, there is hope of destigmatizing their presence and creating a more harmonious environment for both bird and human. At the end of the day, it would be worth asking: Would pigeons exist without us? Perhaps the right question would be: Would our cities lose an essential part of their charm without pigeons? After all, the people who began domesticating pigeons over 5000 years ago saw something in them. Adaptability, ruggedness, and an advanced sense of home—all features which mirror that which makes us human.
-Thank you S for inspiring this piece