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Here's Everything You Didn't Think You Wanted To Know About Pigeons

Here's Everything You Didn't Think You Wanted To Know About Pigeons

"I want this to open people’s eyes to pigeons and be able to show them how beautiful they are."

Posted on May 24, 2018, at 5:04 p.m. ET

A probable racing or homing pigeon, Nic was found standing on a street corner, lost and disoriented. He was brought to the Wild Bird Fund in a closed box. He was given a checkup and a clean bill of health. He was soon adopted by a Brooklyn coop owner. The next morning he was found standing on the sidewalk in front of the Wild Bird Fund, somehow knowing how to return, even though he never saw the exterior.
Andrew Garn

A probable racing or homing pigeon, Nic was found standing on a street corner, lost and disoriented. He was brought to the Wild Bird Fund in a closed box. He was given a checkup and a clean bill of health. He was soon adopted by a Brooklyn coop owner. The next morning he was found standing on the sidewalk in front of the Wild Bird Fund, somehow knowing how to return, even though he never saw the exterior.

They've been called "flying rats" and are often the unwelcome guests to a beautiful stroll in the city. Needless to say, pigeons are one bird with a bad rep.

But for photographer Andrew Garn, pigeons are creatures of dazzling beauty who conquer tremendous odds each day by surviving in often hostile urban environments. His new book, The New York Pigeon: Behind the Feathers, offers a fascinating look at the history, anatomy, and unexpected beauty of these ubiquitous birdies.

powerHouse Books

Here, Garn shares with BuzzFeed News a selection of pictures and words from his new book as well as his thoughts on why people have misconceptions of pigeons.

I’ve always been drawn to underappreciated subject matters. For me, there’s a challenge in revealing the beauty in things that people often overlook. It’s easy to photograph flowers or models, but it’s much harder to photograph things that people don’t consider glamorous.

I didn’t want this to just be a book of beautiful portraits of pigeons — I want people to learn more about them so they can appreciate how amazing these birds truly are.

The New York Pigeon is really a public relations vehicle for the birds: I want this to open people’s eyes to pigeons and be able to show them how beautiful they are.

Andrew Garn
Left: Embryo. Right: Newborn with shell.
Andrew Garn

Left: Embryo. Right: Newborn with shell.

Left: Uncaptioned. Right: Orphaned at 2 days old, this fellow was hand-fed by a concerned rehabber. Here, at 10 days old, he is curious and confident.
Andrew Garn

Left: Uncaptioned. Right: Orphaned at 2 days old, this fellow was hand-fed by a concerned rehabber. Here, at 10 days old, he is curious and confident.

I think one misconception that people hold about pigeons is that they spread disease. I mean, if someone were to lick their poop, then yes, you would probably get sick. But then again, if you licked to poop of any animal, you’d probably get sick too.

Some people also think that they’re dirty, but that’s also not true. These are birds that are constantly cleaning themselves. In the wintertime, when it’s really hard to get fresh water, they’ll even sit out in the snow to clean their wings and feathers.

The major problem in urban areas is that people think they’re helping pigeons by feeding them bread, but in reality they are really hurting them. Pigeons are so adaptable — they’ve lived alongside humans for over 5,000 years — and with that adaptability they’ve become accustomed to eating any type of food. I’ve even seen them eating chicken wings, which is kind of creepy.

But the problem with bread is that it has no nutritional value and it weakens their immune system. A lot of the times when you see a sickly looking pigeon, it’s because it’s eating bread all the time!

The broad range of eye coloration.
Andrew Garn

The broad range of eye coloration.

Jana was rescued in Riverside Park after exhibiting signs of torticollis (twisting of the neck), most likely caused by lead poisoning. Once treated, she recovered. In this portrait, she's exercising her finely hued brown and gray wings.
Andrew Garn

Jana was rescued in Riverside Park after exhibiting signs of torticollis (twisting of the neck), most likely caused by lead poisoning. Once treated, she recovered. In this portrait, she's exercising her finely hued brown and gray wings.

I was born in Manhattan and never really had any feelings toward pigeons. To tell you truth, I was sort of ambivalent. My guess is that 10% of people really hate these birds, 80% of people really don’t care at all, and the other 10% truly love them. These are the people who feed them, care for them, and keep them as pets.

Really, I think that’s a thing about growing up in NYC — I really don’t think I ever even noticed nature, much less the birds of the city. I didn’t see the cycles of nature or notice it that much. The epiphany for me was really focusing in on this project. It just kind of hit me.

Since beginning this project, I became a licensed bird rehabber and have really become caught up in the entire world of pigeons and pigeon people. I actually raised a baby pigeon from an egg, which is no easy feat! For a mother to do it is a tough — much less a human. Since that first day that I spent with them, I was totally hooked.

Left: Uncaptioned. Right: Speckles has a perfect flecking and a double ring of eye ceres that distinguish the bird from Howard's flock in Bushwick.
Andrew Garn

Left: Uncaptioned. Right: Speckles has a perfect flecking and a double ring of eye ceres that distinguish the bird from Howard's flock in Bushwick.

Marilyn, a saddle pigeon with perfectly symmetrical wings that form a heart shape when closed. She was found limping with string wrapped around her toes.
Andrew Garn

Marilyn, a saddle pigeon with perfectly symmetrical wings that form a heart shape when closed. She was found limping with string wrapped around her toes.

If you’ve ever touched or held a bird you’ll notice that they seem so fragile. That’s because they’ve evolved to be incredibly lightweight; there’s nothing extraneous on a bird — I mean, most birds evolved to even not have penises since that would just be extra weight!

The really crazy thing about pigeons is their breast muscle. To control their wings, these use the huge muscles that are one-third their body weight, so if a human were to have a similar breast muscle, it would be somewhere around 6 feet deep in relation to our bodies!

And when they fly, pigeons have maneuverability almost unlike any other birds. Sure, falcons can fly faster and hummingbirds can hover, but pigeons have the ability to move almost like a helicopter. That skill comes from their native habitat, cliffsides, where they have almost no protection from predators, so they have to be able to get out of the way pretty quickly. It’s an evolutionary thing.

A Red Bar pigeon shakes off excess water after enjoying a sprinkler on a 100-degree summer day.
Andrew Garn

A Red Bar pigeon shakes off excess water after enjoying a sprinkler on a 100-degree summer day.

Left: Fido was found starving under the elevated train on Roosevelt Ave. in Queens. Fido was brought to the Wild Bird Fund and immediately bonded with the people there. Right: Apollo was one of the first patients of the WBF. He now lives happily in the front window of the WBF headquarters on Columbus Avenue, where his elegant beauty enchants passersby.
Andrew Garn

Left: Fido was found starving under the elevated train on Roosevelt Ave. in Queens. Fido was brought to the Wild Bird Fund and immediately bonded with the people there. Right: Apollo was one of the first patients of the WBF. He now lives happily in the front window of the WBF headquarters on Columbus Avenue, where his elegant beauty enchants passersby.

Pigeons are also very compliant and smart, which makes them the perfect subjects for studying. They weigh roughly 1 pound; they’re docile and they’re not really the nervous type. In fact, the Journal of Experimental Biology has over 1,100 published studies about pigeons — everything from navigation to motion.

And of course, psychologist B.F. Skinner’s behavior modification series came from working with pigeons. He taught them to guide missiles with a better accuracy than humans and to even find people at sea with better accuracy than humans working with binoculars. Lately, pigeons have even been taught to read X-rays and can spot cancer in patients with a 99% accuracy rate, which is higher than most radiologists.

Eighty-nine pigeons huddle on the Washington Square Arch during a snowstorm. Snowflakes help pigeons keep clean in the winter months when water is scarce.
Andrew Garn

Eighty-nine pigeons huddle on the Washington Square Arch during a snowstorm. Snowflakes help pigeons keep clean in the winter months when water is scarce.

When I started work on the book, I began photographing on the street using a portable studio box, but that entails grabbing a pigeon and actually placing it in the box — which is not very practical. People on the streets would come up and start yelling at me, saying, “What are you doing?!”

When I finally got very close to the pigeons, I was immediately captivated by their iridescence and feather patterns, not to mention their unique personalities!

Up until that day, I had been looking at them as objects; I had actually forgotten that they are birds! And beautiful birds at that!

Pudding is caught frozen in midair, looking directly at the camera, during a downstroke of the wings.
Andrew Garn

Pudding is caught frozen in midair, looking directly at the camera, during a downstroke of the wings.

To pick up your copy of The New York Pigeon: Behind the Feathers, visit powerhousebooks.com.

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