For a number of years now, there’s been a highly publicized controversy over what to do with the multitude of pigeons populating London’s Trafalgar Square. Having been there myself, walking through the square is tantamount to being on the set of Hitchcock’s The Birds. Everywhere your eyes scan, a pigeon is directly in front of you.
This morning I stumbled upon an article from September of 2007 detailing the latest chapter of Trafalgar’s pigeons. It highlights the Westminster City Council’s decision to ban all pigeon-feeding with the threat of prosecution and a fine of up to 500 pounds, or nearly $1000 dollars, for anyone found running afoul of the legislation. The whole saga got me to thinking of my old stomping grounds and a sweet, if not enigmatic, acquaintance of mine.
One of the great experiences of my life was having the opportunity to live in New York City. For better or for worse, living there is unlike anything you’re able to imagine until you get there. Of the many apartments I had, one of them was on the corner of 15th Street and Fifth Avenue, one block west of Union Square. And if you’re familiar with New York City, you know the section of Fifth Avenue I speak of was light years removed from the glitzy, high-rent section of Fifth Avenue . . . not that my location was inexpensive, but it did allow me to eat. Occasionally.
Whether you’re living in New York or just happen to be visiting, and no matter where you are at any given moment, there is a presence you cannot escape. On every street corner, inside every park and in front of every restaurant, that presence is as ubiquitous as the buildings lining every street in Manhattan. I’m speaking of . . . The Pigeons. They’re everywhere. Not one or two, or even a handful. No, according to various sources including the Citizens Union Foundation of the City of New York, we’re talking about a total resident pigeon count estimated in excess of one million. Manhattan’s human population (2000 census) is 1.6 million people. I don’t mean to be an alarmist but Pigeons vs. People: The Final Conflict can’t be far away. Which brings me to that acquaintance.
Most every Saturday morning I’d walk through Union Square amidst dozens of pigeons to grab a cup of coffee and read the morning paper at a favorite diner of mine. On one of those Saturday’s I decided to get the coffee to go, find a bench and read my paper out on the square. As I sat there, I couldn’t help but notice out of the corner of my eye a very well-dressed, rather chipper elderly woman occupying a bench about 30 feet from me. The reason I noticed her was that when she arrived, the pigeons seemed to begin congregating around her. I came to learn her name was Millie. I also discovered if you messed with Millie’s bench, there was a price to pay. It became something of an understanding that on Saturday mornings, the bench near 15th Street on the west side of Union Square was reserved for Millie.
Every Saturday morning, weather-permitting, Millie fed the pigeons from her seat on the bench. But simply leaving it at feeding the pigeons doesn’t begin to tell the story.
Seeing her in this pigeon element, I eventually began calling her Lady Millie of the Pigeons. Over time, I think she grew to like the title. At least that’s what she told me through a wry smile. I never pressed her on it for fear she would yell “ATTACK” and the pigeons would tear me apart. Millie was cool, but I feared the pigeons.
I don’t know if she enjoyed anything more in her life than feeding those pigeons in Union Square. If you’ve ever been up close with pigeons, you know they have what’s called Food Crumb Radar, or FCR as pigeon insiders refer to it. A pigeon could be watching you from an altitude of, say, 1000 feet but throw a bread crumb on the sidewalk, that bird turns into an F-16. There are few things in New York that strike more fear into tourists than pigeons diving for crumbs at the speed of Mach 1.
Millie turned pigeon-feeding into sport. She enjoyed watching the pigeons fight with each other for the food she doled out. Some people order pay-per-view boxing on cable. Not Millie. She was part Don King, part HBO and part Caesar in the Coliseum all rolled into one. Her unspoken ethos: If you want to eat, you’ll need to earn it.
Once situated, there sat Millie on her bench with several large bags, her Saturday New York Times, a large cup of black coffee and a fried egg sandwich. I always tried to get there at just before 10 a.m. because that was Millie’s Pigeon Prep time. She’d sip her coffee, munch down her sandwich and read the front page of the newspaper in a methodical, almost mesmerizing manner. This was, in many respects, the physical and mental routine of a seasoned professional athlete preparing for the impending battle. But in this case, it was merely Millie gearing up for Saturday with the Pigeons.
Once ready she put down her coffee, folded up her paper and slowly placed one hand into one of her grocery-sized, white-handled bags. As if knowing what was next, the pigeons in the area began to mass. And then more came pouring in, some of them trotting (I never knew pigeons could trot) and others flying, seemingly from every direction. It bordered on frightening, this power Millie seemed to have simply by placing her hand into her bag. And then, the Holy Grail for pigeons . . .
Out came a bagel. Not a piece of a bagel or even a sliced bagel. Millie’s hand held onto a whole bagel. She then lifted the bagel which threw the pigeons into a frenzy, furiously flapping their wings — listen, you can’t make this stuff up — and finally, The Toss.
And with the toss, the scrum was on. One after another, Millie tossed out more bagels. It was pigeons on the rampage. The bigger pigeons shoved aside the smaller ones, two, three even four at a time would fight over a bagel — the whole thing was hypnotic if not downright surreal.
People coming out of the Union Square subway station, joggers, or passersby on a pleasant morning stroll stopped in their tracks as if they had seen Medusa. I don’t know that I ever saw anything do that to New Yorkers.
Meanwhile, back at the bench, Millie was stoic. She would watch impassively as the birds and the bagels played out a scene one imagines was reminiscent of the kind of entertainment served up in the Roman Empire.
Eventually, as was the case every Saturday I made it over to Millie’s bench, the pigeons moved on once they filled their bellies. Not all of them, but most. And as you would imagine, there weren’t any shreds of bagels left to be found. It was a moment that defined “Only in New York.” It also pointed up the serious problem now facing major cities: Bully Pigeons.
Incidentally, in New York City, Bully Pigeons are the ones carrying small children in their beaks as they fly up and down Broadway. It’s a little game they like to play. It is also a chilling reminder of what lies ahead.
Once I moved from 15th Street, I never saw Millie again. That was back in the 1980’s, when feeding pigeons wasn’t considered a big deal. Manhattan had other “Millies” to be sure. But I can’t imagine anyone that had a more profound bond with the pigeons than Millie.
pigeon on building/frenzy photos, courtesy picasaweb.google.com; pigeon staring photo, courtesy aweatherston.com
About the Author: Christopher Gabriel is the host of the cleverly named Christopher Gabriel Program on AM 970 WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. You can hear him weekdays from 9 to Noon. As a writer and humorist, his work has been been published online by the Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters and publications within the Sun-Times News Group.