NYC's Pigeon War Targets Unsung War Hero

When a New York City councilman announced a plan Monday that would slap $1,000 fines on New Yorkers caught feeding pigeons, the news made headlines as far away as Europe and Asia.

A thousand dollar hit for tossing some bread to pigeons?

"There should be no one allowed to feed pigeons," New York City Councilman Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat, said at a press conference outside City Hall. "The sidewalks, parks, streets and bridges of our city are littered with evidence that something needs to be done. The government needs to take responsibility for this issue and end the free rein of pigeons in our city."

"If people like pigeons, take them into their homes, feed pigeons in your house and let them crap all over the place in your living rooms," Felder said.

The pigeon poop problem is so critical to Felder that he released a report titled "Curbing the Pigeon Conundrum," which calls for the creation of a "pigeon czar," who's responsible for all problems related to pigeon population and droppings.

"Pigeons and pigeon droppings are host to several severe communicable diseases," Felder's report states.

Despite their reputation as disease carriers, according to The Associated Press, the city Health Department does not consider pigeons a major danger and says the average New Yorker is not at risk of catching anything from the birds or their droppings.

Other cities have tried to thin the ranks of their pigeon populations with varying degrees of success. In Venice, Italy, the government tried banning the sale of bird seed in St. Mark's Square. The sellers are fighting the measure. Los Angeles is trying birth control, using the oral pigeon contraceptive OvoControl P. London has banned pigeon feeding in Trafalgar Square and brought in hawks to scare the birds away. Liverpool, England, has tried robotic hawks.

Felder has proposed that all these methods be studied for use in New York, which has tried hawks once, in Manhattan's Bryant Park. That program came to an end when a hawk swooped down and attacked a tiny Chihuahua.

From Wartime Hero to Modern-Day Nuisance

Felder's announcement Monday was somewhat timely, as Nov. 12 was the day we observed Veterans Day, honoring America's wartime heroes. But few remembered that thousands of American and allied forces were saved in World Wars I and II by pigeons. Pigeons?

For centuries, pigeons were used to carry important messages in wartime when communication lines were down, according to Andrew Blechman in his book, "Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird."

Blechman recounts one instance of the birds' heroism in the story of the U.S. Army's 77th Division, later known as the Lost Battalion, in World War I. The battalion was trapped behind enemy lines while American troops 25 miles away, unaware of the 77th's position, unleashed a massive artillery attack on them. The desperate soldiers wrote a message: "Our artillery is dropping a barrage on us. For heaven's sake, stop it!" and attached it to their carrier pigeon, Cher Ami.

Blechman writes:

The soldier uncupped his hands and watched the bird flap its wings and gain altitude. The Germans also saw the pigeon and trained their rifles on it. A hail of bullets whizzed through the air and several hit Cher Ami. He quickly lost altitude and plummeted toward the ground. But moments before crashing, the bird somehow managed to spread his wings again and start climbing, higher and higher, until he was out of rifle range.

Twenty minutes later and back on friendly terrain, Cher Ami landed at headquarters. A soldier ran to the bird and found him lying on its back, covered in blood. One eye and part of the cranium had been blown away, and its breast had been ripped open. A silver canister containing the Lost Battalion's desperate plea dangled from a few tendons -- all that remained of the bird's severed leg. Bewildered, the soldier rushed the message to his commanding officer. The American artillery fell silent, and the last remains of the Lost Battalion were saved.

One hundred and ninety-four remaining members of the Lost Battalion were saved that day by a pigeon. Cher Ami died of his war wounds months later, and today can be seen, stuffed, tattered, but still standing on his one leg, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., a testament to the character of the animals so many cities are trying to eliminate.

Felder plans to introduce a bill formalizing his proposal by year's end. When asked about the plan, Mayor Michael Bloomberg seemed to like the idea of cracking down on those feeding pigeons.

"While I love animals and I love birds, we do have a lot of pigeons, and they do tend to foul a lot of our areas, and people would be better off not feeding the pigeons," Bloomberg said at a separate news conference.

"Those that are here will find food and they just won't grow at such a rapid rate, and we'd all probably be better off," he said.