The pigeon plague

The pigeon plague

As a kid in Weequahic I naturally saw occasional pigeons. No big deal!

They ignored me and I ignored them. I didn’t think they were fascinating and they felt the same about me.

Of course I read about pigeons, especially in their careers as messengers. This was incredible stuff, similar to reading a good spy novel. Just imagine a bird delivering urgent mail to generals many miles away, preceding gmail by thousands of years. Julius Caesar is reputed to have employed them, as did Genghis Khan. Ancient Baghdad also was in on messaging via pigeons. Amazing, no?

But then there were the pigeons of Downtown Newark. This crew seemed rather parasitic, gathering noisily around little old ladies sitting on benches, who were surrounded by great flocks of the creatures. The elderly enjoyed the tumult and the pigeons loved the crumbs. I am now old enough to be one of those generous geriatric feeders of pigeons, but the fact is I’m just not benevolent enough. I don’t like their sounds, which are called coos, but, in fact, due to my experience, I immediately associate with poo.

As a matter of fact, as my mind conjures up the upcoming chag of Pesach, I consider adding a plague to those already described in the haggadah. A plague of pigeons. Unfortunately I am not credentialed to supplement the ancient text.

A long time ago, I was a student at Rutgers Newark, where I had an opportunity to learn plenty more about pigeons. This was never my goal, but the professor who taught the course in comparative psychology was the world-renowned Dr. Daniel Lehrman. Being in his class was an opportunity to be taught by an inspired and inspiring genius. He was, deservedly, a star, and Rutgers had very few stars on its faculty. It was not a place known for professors of renown.

It was a simple city school. There was no ivy on Rector Street or Washington Place, the streets where most classes were held. The main building was a former Ballantine beer factory, and I could sometimes get an unexpected whiff of hops and grain while studying calculus or biology. Or maybe the fragrance was the result of Dr. Lehrman’s experiments with those many pigeons on the top floor, those creatures who were his raison d’etre, and his reason for staying at Rutgers instead of joining the numerous prestigious campuses drowning in vine-covered brick walls in picturesque places that had never brewed beer.

He was invited to teach at many of them but none compared to his laboratory at Rutgers, where he was able to teach, perform his research, and commute easily to New York. This professor was a bona fide master of his field, and thus many of us with limited interest in the subject matter took his course in order to engage with him.

Please do not think that pigeons were his only interest. He was fluent in the German language, a skill he used to perform secret work during World War II, when he also served as a cryptologist. And he was an accomplished bridge player. On those many times that he was late to class he would finally arrive and check, comment, and instruct us on our ongoing bridge matches before he started his lecture. Often he found the bridge lessons so appealing that he never got to his planned material.

From Dr. Lehrman we learned that pigeons are monogamous (go know!) and that we should be extremely careful about describing their behavior as instinctive. That explains nothing, at least in the world of pigeons. Dr. Lehrman looked for unemotional reasons, for why, for instance, they sit on their eggs. Unfortunately pigeons also are very intelligent and capable of circumventing obstructions to their daily activities.

If pigeons are annoying you, you will not be rid of them, like mice or ants with a little trap from the supermarket. No no no! Not fast. Not easy. Maybe impossible. Quite possibly they will outwit you. Remember this is not an even match. You are one of those creatures who gets lost. Your pigeons do not. Built with Waze! And when you finally think you’ve eradicated them, be prepared for their hasty comeback. You might become obsessed with these rats with wings.

Our personal encounters with pigeons began about 25 years ago, when we settled, part-time, into what became a well-loved apartment in Herzliya. The pigeons actually preceded us but it had been easier for the former residents to deal with their issues since they were full-time occupants who could monitor the birds’ activity. We could not.

Our apartment had a heat pump that was situated in a small spot, approximately 3 feet by 5 feet, decoratively concealed from the outside by a series of aluminum strips. It was totally accessible to pigeon invaders from outdoors. And invade they did.

Since we were only there half the time, the pigeons had ample opportunity to become our unwanted guests, making themselves right at home in our absence. They especially enjoyed a unique pigeon lavatory that was the floor of the little space. Our first encounter with the dung was when we arrived back at the apartment after an absence of three months. By that point a shovel was needed to clean up, a very difficult and truly disgusting job that required masking, years before covid made masks ubiquitous. We also worried about contracting psittacosis from inhaling this really unhygienic pollutant. The cleanup took many hours and we realized we had to do something permanent to evict the pigeons.

Our Israeli friends and family thought we were overstating the drama of dealing with the poop — until the pests infested their homes.

As with covid, the diagnosis of pigeon invasion was far easier than the mitigation. We started with the obvious, spikes and spray. It was the dreadful discovery of an impaled pigeon on the spikes that convinced us that that scene belonged in a horror movie and not in our vacation apartment. As to the spray, it was gross and sticky, discolored all the stone outside the apartment and totally permanent. It will be there for the archaeologists when the building is part of a dig, a thousand years or so from today. And besides it did nothing to get rid of the pests.

Neither of these treatments made any impression on the pigeons. They continued to call our place home and learned to manipulate their bodies to avoid the spikes, perhaps citing their dead cousin as an example always to be wary. His demise is not a new and better way of shechita but it did produce a similar result.

The next solution was laborious and expensive, and with regular maintenance proved to be an actual deterrent. It consisted of having the entire area screened in from the outside, obviously not a job for us or the faint of heart. You had to affix the screen from outside by erecting and perching on scaffolding. These people perches were scary enough. But the screening also required frequent checks, since the pigeons quickly figured out various sneaky gymnastic maneuvers to beat us at the game.

But we won the battle.

We’ve discovered that Israeli pigeons are truly all over Israel. Once we took our granddaughter, who had developed a pigeon phobia on the streets of Manhattan, to a place where I promised her there were no pigeons, the beautiful Rosh Hanikra, situated high above the Mediterranean, and home to windblown grottoes. I had thought pigeons would find it inhospitable. I was wrong! Very wrong!

Perhaps the birds, like us, regard Israel as their promised land. They are not held back by Areas A, B, or C, or territorial issues. They are above the fray.

We, however, have learned to coexist. We just try to keep our distance. We are polite but we don’t invite them for home hospitality. Now if the humans of the world could do the same with each other, it would be a far better universe. After all, these birds, these yonim, do fly on the wings of peace.

Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!