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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!