By Gary Singh
OF ALL all the topics I've sashayed through in this column, there exists one in particular that will elicit opinions from every corner of San Jose's social spectrum—a topic that makes you either grit you teeth in annoyance, flip tables over in sheer anger or just laugh uproariously: pigeons.
In my May 30 column, I expounded on the presence of dead pigeons underneath the overpass at the Lawrence Expressway Caltrain Station. Netting had been placed underneath the overpass to prevent them from nesting, only to result in the strangulation of some birds upon their attempts to squeeze through the netting.
I received emails from all across the United States on that one, including manufacturers of pigeon repellent products, afraid that it was their netting that had caused these deaths. And one local resident left me a four-minute-long rambling voicemail that cut off before she was able to finish. Apparently everyone has something to say about pigeons. Local gadfly Steve Cohen, for example, made a nuisance of himself a few years back for constantly firing off calls and emails to then City Councilmember Cindy Chavez's office about the abundance of pigeon poop on the sidewalks of downtown San Jose. According to him, the city refused to deal with it.
I used to count myself among the pigeon-haters, but I recently did a complete about-face after reading Andrew D. Blechman's, Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird, a masterpiece of pigeon defense, the paperback version of which is out this week. The book is a snap to read and you will never look at pigeons the same way again after completing it. Blechman, an award-winning journalist whose work has graced the pages of Smithsonian Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer and Newsday, culled several known and unknown facts about pigeons, one of which is that the dove and the pigeon are the same bird. It's just that the former is equated with peace and tranquility while the latter is equated with disease and feces. Blame the French if you must, as "pigeon" is merely a French translation for the English word "dove," and it was French settlers, according to Blechman, who imported the bird to the New World for meat in the early 17th century. Now the bird overpopulates nearly every city in the Western Hemisphere.
Blechman reminds us: "It was a pigeon that delivered the results of the first Olympics in 776 B.C.E., and a pigeon that first brought news of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo more than 2,500 years later. Nearly a million pigeons served in both World Wars and are credited with saving thousands of soldiers' lives."
He also calls to our attention to the fact that "pigeon droppings were once considered a semiprecious commodity. In ancient Egypt, it was highly prized manure, and for centuries in England pigeon feces were declared property of the Crown. The valuable dung was used to manufacture saltpeter, a critical ingredient for making gunpowder."
And furthermore: "Pigeons are athletes of the highest caliber: While racehorses receive all the glory with their 35 mph sprints around a one-mile racetrack, homing pigeons—a mere pound of flesh and feathers—routinely fly more than 500 miles in a single day at speeds exceeding 60 mph, finding their way home from a place they've never been before, and without stopping."
Lastly, I'll add this: pigeons are a key visual component of many of the world's most famous town plazas, like St. Mark's Square in Venice, Trafalgar Square in London and the defunct Albertson's parking lot in downtown San Jose. Who could imagine any of those locales without a smattering of the world's oldest domesticated bird? San Jose should celebrate the presence of these divine and peaceful creatures.