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Posts Tagged ‘pigeon’

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I’ve read and been told many times that our city’s resident pigeons (Columba livia), or “rock doves,” evolved dark pigmentation to blend with the European, North African, Middle Eastern and Central Asian cliff sides where they originally roosted.  The transition to a feral life in our gray and sooty concrete, granite, and steel hardscape on another continent was smoothed by this camouflage. Or so the logic went.

One problem with this natural supposition is that for several human generations (and that’s a whole lot of pigeon generations) there were very few predators to act as agents of natural selection.  The much trumpeted return of hawks and falcons to New York City is very recent. Numerous paler pigeons and faux white doves were released into the mix too, yet their distinctive patterns breed out rather rapidly.

So what gives?

Recent research published in the Journal of Avian Biology indicates an immune system advantage somehow related to melanin might be at work. A healthy or complimentary immune system is often a key element of sexual attractiveness in many species, including humans. The BBC has more. What strikes me as particularly interesting is there seems to be a possible human parallel for this theory regarding avians. Of course so many tricks deployed by “higher organisms” are old hat to insects and even smaller beasties. Insects damage and entomb microbes using melanin, but according to a researcher in New York, microbes themselves might use melanin for protection from host immune responses!

Let’s hope this means that all those wedding “doves” sent skyward are rushing into the wings of a dark, handsome stranger and not an eager set of talons!

If you love these birds across species lines, who are we to judge? You might enjoy volunteering with the NYC Pigeon Rescue Central!

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by Erik Baard

 

As I walked past the Sunnyside Railyards yesterday I spotted a tree with a crown that each year is generously laden with green-gold pods. It’s rising up from beside the tracks, reaching eye level for strollers on the south side of the overpass. It occurred to me that while I’ve seen this kind of tree countless times throughout my life, I didn’t know its name.

 

When I focus on a tree these days, the first question I ask is its name, followed by “can I eat it?” For the latter obsession, I blame Wildman Steve Brill. The foraging instinct that he reawakened in me is useful not so much as a survival tool as a prime mover toward general ecological knowledge. Once I’ve asked that, the other questions come flooding: If I eat it, with what species am I now competing for food? If I can’t eat it, what chemicals are there to thwart me, and why? What species are able to eat it and what’s different about their physiology? Did those species co-evolve with the tree because they are superior vectors for spreading seeds?

 

Anyway, I did some digging and found some foresters who want us all to do some more digging…to uproot the species.

 

Oh, “Tree of Heaven!” Oh, “Ghetto Palm!” It’s amazing how a species can be viewed with such difference. We’ve already considered how the pigeon is “revered and reviled,” to use Andrew Blechman’s phrase, as a carrier of both the Holy Spirit and disease. Anthropologist Mary Douglas defined dirt, as opposed to soil, as “matter out of place.” The Ailanthus tree is indeed “out of place”; it’s an invasive species from eastern and southern Asia and northern Australasia. I also guess it doesn’t help that the male flowers of this tree smell like cat urine.

 

I couldn’t find a reason for its more flattering moniker, translated from the Ambonese in Indonesia. Folk medicine practitioners do make some intriguing claims for the tree though; Asian tradition holds that the bark is good for lowering heart rate, reducing muscle spasms, and, well, delaying a particular spasm that could cause your Fourth of July fireworks to shoot off a little too soon. Maybe it was an Ambonese wife who named the tree?

 

The inimitably New York name stems from the hardiness of this tree. Even when the city fails to green a community or lot, Ailanthus trees will find a way to grow. Park Slope has its London planes, while back alleys have the ubiquitous “poverty tree.”

 

That ability to thrive in urban wastelands spotlights another similarity between pigeons and ailanthus trees: despite being so opportunistic, they are usually benign to other, indigenous species because they specialize in unclaimed niches. There are places, however, where Ailanthus can be a destructive force. At forest fringes and clearings, or where new forests are being seeded, Ailanthus squeezes out slower-growing but essential native trees. One good case of this is Conference House Park on Staten Island. Volunteers are needed to yank young Ailanthus on Monday, from 1PM through 4PM. But be careful not to pluck similar-looking sumac, ash, black walnut, or pecan.

 

If you can help, RSVP by calling 718-390-8021 or emailing cheri.brunault@parks.nyc.gov as soon as possible.

 

And even as you’re thrashing the Ailanthus out of our city’s bucolic frontier in southern Staten Island, keep some gratitude in your heart for the shade it provides us when it seeds into the toughest hardscapes of the urban core.

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by Erik Baard

 

 

One of the stupider “sports” people have come up with is pigeon shooting, where the birds are released from boxes into the line of yahoos’ ready fire. In a 1902 debate over a bill banning the sport from New York, a state senator compared that lack of humanity and sportsman-like behavior to shutting a doe up in a barn and then blasting her as she ran out the open door.

 

As nearby as Pennsylvania the practice persists, and New York City birds are being stolen to supply the madness. Fortunately, In Defense of Animals is part of the vanguard to stop it. This week the group conferred its first $2,500 award for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a person netting pigeons, also known as rock doves, in NYC. The recipient was Desi Stewart, a street sweeper with the Doe Fund. He spotted Brooklyn resident Isaac Gonzalez spreading seed and netting many pigeons on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation officer arrested Gonzalez, who pleaded guilty in Manhattan Criminal Court on June 26, 2008.

 

It’s a shame Gonzalez didn’t go to prison, if only because we’ll miss the small ironic pleasure of letting him know of his idiocy in trapping for deathly amusement birds whose intelligence might have made them useful allies in alleviating the sufferings of confinement. Kindred criminal spirits in Brazil, at least, were smart enough to attempt to employ the birds as jailhouse smugglers, complete with little pigeon backpacks!

 

Pigeons have a growing fan base outside “the clink” (is my mother the only person who still uses that expression?) too. National Pigeon Day  was Friday the 13th in June, appropriately enough for such a besotted bird. In Defense of Animals, the United Federation of Teachers Humane Education Committee, the New York Bird Club, and luminaries ate pigeon-shaped cookies…and perhaps scandalously snuck a few crumbs to their avian honorees. The contributions of this species, including astonishing heroics in war, rescue, and acts of touching personal loyalty were recounted.  

 

City Councilman Tony Avella, who’s taken the lead on a number of animal rights issues, shared a moving observation. “They are often a city child’s first contact with nature and an elderly person’s only friends,” he said.

 

One might wonder why there isn’t a greater effort to control pigeon populations, for fear that they might crowd out other, indigenous species. To understand how little worry ecologists have in this regard, here’s a simple exercise: plant your own lush garden or grove of indigenous plants and trees and wait for the pigeons to show up. Or simply visualize the trees on your block being filled with pigeons. It simply won’t happen. The “rock dove” species feeds on the ground and prefers barren areas much like its ancestral cliff sides in Asia Minor. In other words, buildings and asphalt. Not that city life is kind to pigeons. In the wild they live about 14 years, but typically reach only two in urban areas. They do, however, breed a lot more.

 

If you’d like to get involved in the responsible care and control of pigeons in the city, try volunteering for Pigeon Watch. And remember, if you witness a pigeon netting in the five boroughs of New York City, call New York State DEC Officer Joseph Pane at 718-482-4941. If you need help in rescuing a pigeon of any age or condition, please visit New York City Pigeon Rescue Central. For the simple enjoyment of learning more about this species, one great place to start is Andrew Blechman’s book, Pigeons, which he calls “the world’s most revered and reviled bird.”

 

All this brings to mind that we’re at a sad centennial: it was in 1908 that zookeepers posted a $1000 reward (more than $23,000 in today’s dollars) for fertile, wild passenger pigeons. That awakening to the crisis was too late and the reward was never collected. Over-hunting and habitat destruction wiped out that species, which once filled North American skies in flocks of billions. Martha, the last of her kind, died in captivity in 1914. I’ll write more about this missing species of pigeons in coming weeks.

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