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Pigeon-Rights Groups Rush to Defend Their Feathered Friends

Anna Dove feeding the pigeons in Tompkins Square Park on Thursday. She and other activists oppose a move to ban such activity.

By PETER DUFFY

Published: November 17, 2007

When Councilman Simcha Felder, a Democrat from Brooklyn, announced on Monday that he was going to introduce legislation that would make feeding pigeons an offense punishable by a fine, he made plain his feelings about "rats with wings," a phrase used by a parks commissioner, Thomas P. F. Hoving, in the 1960s and popularized by Woody Allen in his 1980 film "Stardust Memories."

At City Hall the next day, the Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, who was careful not to express an opinion on Mr. Felder's proposal, chimed in that she, too, had no love of pigeons and had no use for what she considered "flying rats."

The pigeon backlash has now begun.

About a dozen or so of the city's leading pigeon advocates gathered for an emergency meeting on Wednesday night on the second floor of a Starbucks on the Upper East Side to plan a counteroffensive.

The meeting was called by Anna Dove, the founder and president of the New York Bird Club, which claims 60 members and is one of the two leading pigeon-rights groups in the city. Ms. Dove legally changed her last name from Kugelmas in honor of her dove, Lucy.

Al Streit, director of Pigeon People, a rescue and advocacy group that claims 200 members in its online discussion group, was also there, as were representatives from the New York City Pigeon Rescue Center, Win Animal Rights and other pro-pigeon organizations.

"Don't people realize that this is an extraordinary bird?" asked Mary Beyerbach, a member of the New York Bird Club, who noted the heroics of Cher Ami, a homing pigeon who is credited with saving 194 American lives in France during World War I, earning him the Croix de Guerre. "A pigeon has never attacked a person," she said. "A rat has."

Unlike some animal rights groups, which favor humane methods of reducing the pigeon population, these activists are opposed to any governmental intervention into the lives of what they say are unjustly maligned creatures.

Ms. Dove called Mr. Felder's plan "more scapegoating of pigeons," with the intention of eliminating them from the city altogether. Colin Jerolmack, who was also at the meeting, characterized the idea as another attempt to "criminalize behavior in the public space." Mr. Streit noted that the pigeon had few defenders. "Is there a reason to control this species?" he said. "The answer is no."

In a report released this week, Councilman Felder, beyond seeking to ban pigeon feeding, called for the introduction of pigeon-scaring hawks and falcons, an increase in the frequency of litter pickup in enclosed trash cans, use of pigeon birth control methods and the appointment of a pigeon czar who would coordinate the city's response to the abundant pigeon population.

The report said that an excess of pigeons created an excess of pigeon excrement, which some people blame for damaging infrastructure and carrying communicable diseases.

But pigeon advocates scoffed at the suggestion that pigeon excrement was sickening humans or harming bridges and roads. In fact, Mr. Felder's report concedes that "cases of civilians contracting diseases from pigeons or pigeon droppings are rare and the threat is often exaggerated." And the report quotes a pigeon-control expert who called reports of infrastructure damage caused by pigeons "widely exaggerated."

Another expert, Andrew D. Blechman, author of "Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird," said, "Pigeons don't carry any more disease than you or I do."

Still, groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recognize the need to curb the pigeon population, which according to some estimates now tops one million in New York City.

Michael McGraw, a spokesman for PETA, said that the organization would support a feeding ban if it included a controlled-feeding program that would administer a contraceptive called OvoControl, which is one of Mr. Felder's recommendations. PETA has supported a similar program in Los Angeles.

The A.S.P.C.A., which also supports administering pigeon birth control, is in favor of a ban on pigeon feeding, said Stephen Musso, the A.S.P.C.A.'s chief of operations. "There's no reason to feed these birds, because they are quite resourceful," he said.

Councilman Felder denied harboring any antipigeon animus. "I think people are pretty smart," he said. "People in New York are pretty shrewd. They know what's a problem and what's not a problem. And if there is something we can do, even to improve it somewhat, that is a good thing." He said that he had received "overwhelming support" from fellow council members.

Mr. Felder said he expected his proposal, which he plans to introduce next month, to include a feeding ban punishable by a $1,000 fine. In the meantime, ardent pigeon advocates are preparing to take their message to the public. They are organizing a demonstration on the steps of City Hall on Nov. 30.

During the meeting at Starbucks, the group discussed what to say in a planned informational flier, wondered how much it would cost to produce a banner and debated the best way to sway the public. Toward the end of the meeting, Ms. Dove asked the group, "How about having someone dress up in a pigeon costume?"

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