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Pigeons - Rising Above Image -- book review

November 15, 2006

Books of The Times

Rising Above the Image of a Rodent With Wings

By WILLIAM GRIMES

PIGEONS

The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird

By Andrew D. Blechman

239 pages. Grove Press. $24.

Pity the pigeon. In cities around the world, it ekes out a precarious existence, subsisting on pizza crust, stale doughnuts and bread crumbs. Like any other immigrant group (pigeons were introduced to North America by the French), pigeons wish only to live in peace and raise their families. Instead they are persecuted by hostile landlords and crusading city officials, who pursue them with nets, poisons and guns. They are denounced as rats with wings, cursed by every car owner who has ever scraped droppings off a freshly waxed fender, kidnapped by poachers and blasted from the sky by sportsmen tired of shooting at clay pigeons.

Admittedly, the bird is a hard sell, but in "Pigeons," an amiable, mildly engaging tour of the species and its fans, Andrew D. Blechman does his level best to inspire respect, perhaps even affection, for "a scruffy-looking bird with a brain the size of a lima bean."

It’s much more than that. Mr. Blechman starts out on a high note, invoking the hero pigeons of yore that, in the days before the telegraph, carried messages at top speed. Who delivered the results of the first Olympics in 776 B.C.? A pigeon. In wartime it was the pigeon, with its uncannily accurate homing instincts, that could be relied on to brave enemy fire and deliver secret dispatches.

The greatest of them all, Cher Ami, suffered multiple gunshot wounds but pressed on and delivered the message that saved the surviving members of the Lost Battalion during World War I, a feat that won him the Croix de Guerre. On a more domestic note, Mr. Blechman points out that pigeons mate for life, adding that "the sexual act itself is relatively gentle and completely consensual."

What’s not to like? Well, perhaps the fact that the average pigeon produces more than 25 pounds of droppings a year. The feral members of the tribe, whose higher-class relatives race for prize money or preen at fancy bird shows, have the unfortunate habit of gathering in large flocks and staying put, which brings the waste issue front and center.

They also, Mr. Blechman concedes, "look less than manicured." Pest-control companies have done an excellent job of convincing the public that pigeons carry a host of unspeakable diseases, a canard, if that’s the right word here, that several experts cited by Mr. Blechman refute convincingly.

Add to this troubled public image a very strange fan base. In the course of his wanderings Mr. Blechman encounters some extremely marginal characters. Some are dully obsessional, like train spotters. Some defy categorization. Muard Melvin MacRae Naugle Jr., a revered judge at the contests run by the National Pigeon Association, lives in a cabin with no heat, no running water and a chamber pot for a toilet. Better known as Dr. Pigeon, he once lived on 50 cents a week, eating nothing but dried spaghetti that he soaked for days in cold water until it became soft enough to chew.

There seem to be a lot of people like him in the pigeon world. Mr. Blechman, who comes across as rather finicky, a bit of a Felix Unger, walks straight into a horror film when he looks up Dave Roth, the founder, president and sole member of the Urban Wildlife Society, in the Phoenix house he shares with countless pigeon friends.

One is Hollywood, the lone survivor of a spectacular building demolition in the Charlie Sheen film "No Code of Conduct." Rescued birds, their droppings encrusting the interior of the house, share space with mountains of papers and piled-up junk, to which Mr. Roth remains oblivious as he fulminates against all those who torment pigeons — not just poisoners and hunters, but those who order squab in restaurants. "That’s like Jeffrey Dahmer eating your kid," he tells Mr. Blechman.

Mr. Blechman adopts the pose of a curious outsider, making the rounds and asking innocent questions. For no particular reason, he writes in the first person and the present tense. In theory, this should lend color and immediacy to what, admittedly, can be less than riveting material.

"I guess I like pigeons because they’re pretty," one pigeon breeder offers by way of self-analysis. In practice, the first-person approach drags the reader into the mechanics of reporting a story, with far too many sentences describing telephone calls and trips in the car. It adds nothing to know that Mr. Blechman prefers fat-free dressing on his salad.

Less time spent on Mr. Blechman would have left more for Orlando Martinez, a New York pigeon racer whose quest to win the big race provides the narrative spine of the book and gives the author a window onto a vanishing subculture with a rich history. Breeders like Mr. Martinez, nearly all of them working-class, invest thousands of dollars each year in special feed, medicines and, yes, steroids, in pursuit of racing glory and substantial prize money. The rich race thoroughbreds, the poor race pigeons (and the Queen of England races both).

As Mr. Blechman delves into the fine points of racing, the image of the rat with wings fades away. The homing instinct of the pigeon, an unsolved mystery perhaps related to the magnetic field of the earth, inspires something like awe, as does the gutsy performance of the top racers, which can cover distances of 500 to 800 miles, nonstop, at speeds of more than 60 miles per hour. One of Mr. Martinez’s birds, after breaking a wing on a 300-mile race, persevered and walked back to Brooklyn.

If that doesn’t sway you, Mr. Blechman includes a recipe for pigeon pot pie.

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