I don’t give a damn ‘bout my reputation – Joan Jett
Joan Jett’s anthem, Bad Reputation, a song about staying true to herself while exposing the sexism of the record industry helped make her the iconic rock star she is.
For her tenacity and courage, I think Jett could be the patron saint of some wild birds.
Beyond the bully birds that raid our bird feeders, pigeons, Canada geese, and seagulls have earned bad reputations. But it’s not because these birds are innately unlikeable…
It’s because we’ve changed our environment, and they adapted, that they’re now detested.
It’s not fair.
The Rock Pigeon
Even so, we seem to admire doves—releasing them at weddings and equating them with peace—while we loathe the pigeon as a “rat with wings” (a name first coined in June 1966 by the parks commissioner of New York City, Thomas P.F. Hoving).
The pigeon we see pecking at urban sidewalks among hordes of people, and the target of our ire, is the rock pigeon.
It’s generally grey and sports iridescent neck feathers that when caught in the sunlight, reflect greens and purples. It may not be strikingly beautiful like other pigeons/doves, but it’s pretty all the same.
The pigeons we see perched on city buildings are descendants of the wild rock pigeons brought to North America in the 17th century by early European settlers. Those that flew off adapted to their new environment, and now feral rock pigeons live around the world.
See also: City Birding Tips
What Went Wrong?
Humans and pigeons began their co-existence between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. While people did raise pigeons for food, as time moved forward, we also valued them as messengers, pets, and competitors in sport.
It wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that the relationship slowly went south.
We didn’t like pigeons pooping on our landmarks, statues, and sidewalks. We began to consider them a nuisance.
In the 1950s, ties became more strained when we discovered pigeons carry disease.
The final “betrayal” came in 1963. It was then, sociologist Colin Jerolmack notes, that pigeons “were framed by several officials as menacing vermin to be exterminated.”
But you don’t just ditch a 10,000-year-old relationship because one party gave the other a cold.
According to Jerolmack, there was something else going on. Essentially, humans and pigeons broke up because we can’t share.
An Interesting Idea
Jerolmack writes that cities are places where “we invite nature in in ways that we control.” To illustrate, consider how we grow trees in squares we’ve cut into sidewalks. For Jerolmack, when weeds grow in places that we don’t want them to, we get upset “because that’s nature breaking out of those boundaries that we want to keep it in.”
But pigeons ignore these boundaries.
In places we think of as our space, they freely roam.
“[Pigeons] prefer concrete and sidewalks and ledges over grass and shrubs,” Jerolmack says. “Rats will retreat… and remain out of view, but pigeons invade the spaces that we’ve designated for people.”
The Canada Goose
They chase our pets and children and because of this aggression, many people dislike the Canada goose. But to be fair, they’re typically only aggressive when they’re protecting their territory or nest during breeding season. At other times, they can be quite congenial.
Other reasons for our animosity toward the Canada goose include:
- There are just way too many of them (more than 8 million);
- Their bathroom habits are gross (digestion only takes 30 minutes and it always lands everywhere we want to picnic);
- Like guests who have overstayed their welcome, they never leave.
But it’s not the Canada goose’s fault. These are problems we created.
Why Canada Geese Live in the U.S.
Hunters once captured and used Canada geese as live decoys to lure other geese. The tactic worked so well that in the 1960s, extinction became a threat, and federal and state authorities began a repopulation program.
But there was a problem… the Canada geese born as part of the program didn’t migrate. Instead, they became year-round residents.
Canada geese only nest in the area in which they were born, so the re-populated geese and the generations that have followed have no biological imperative to leave. They’re stuck.
Additionally, we’ve made it comfortable for them to stay.
Ornithologist Roger Pasquier of the Environmental Defense Fund suggests resident geese have adapted so well because of the changes we’ve made to the environment:
- We’ve cleared millions of acres of land. Canada geese love wide open areas.
- We’ve planted grain in our fields, and grass in our parks, golf courses, corporate lawns, ball fields, and cemeteries. Grass and grain are among the Canada goose’s favorite meals.
- We’ve often included ponds, lakes, and streams in these areas—perfect for a water-loving bird.
And since our winter temperatures are moderate, which means snow doesn’t stick around for long and lakes rarely completely freeze, there’s no reason for them to leave.
The primary complaint against the herring gull (a.k.a. seagull) is their belligerence when it comes to stealing food.
For example, the seagulls that populate the boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey, indiscriminatingly grab ice cream, pizza, pretzels, French fries, and sandwiches right out of visitors’ hands. The problem is so bad, the mayor brought in trained falcons and hawks (at $2,100 a day) to scare the seagulls off the beach.
Seagulls can be aggressive but, as usual with birds, it’s typically when they’re guarding their territory or protecting their nest and young. What you see at the beach isn’t aggression; it’s opportunity taken.
As is the case in Britain and some other countries, in the U.S. the population of herring gulls is increasing in developed urban areas while their population along the coasts are decreasing. Plentiful sources of food and a lack of predation account for the former. Climate change and our over-fishing of smaller fish account for the latter.
And, since there are less fish, there are also fewer fishing vessels, and those that remain have changed their practices. As a result, the waste crews would throw overboard when processing their catch is no longer available to the gulls that would normally eat it.
Being opportunistic feeders, and wanting only to survive, gulls have moved into areas heavily populated by humans because that’s where the food is. For every gull you see at the boardwalk, it’s one less gull in the wild.
Newton’s 3rd Law
Birds like pigeons, geese, and seagulls, whose only crime is trying to cope with changes we’ve brought about, are not unique in their circumstance. With our choices, we’ve pushed wolves, mountain lions, bears, raccoons, and countless other animals over boundaries they’d rather not cross.
And it does us no good to project our frustrations about the inconvenient encroachment of wildlife onto that life.
Maybe we’d serve ourselves better if we applied Newton’s third law of physics to our relationship with nature and the world around us…
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.