The New York Times had an article the other day about the new popularity of offbeat animals.
An opossum named Starfish has attracted nearly a quarter-million followers on Instagram and Facebook, it reported. Raccoons, prairie dogs, skunks and pigeons were also gaining in appreciation.
Let’s stick with pigeons for a moment.
As I write, if I were to go downstairs to the city streets in our neighborhood, I would discover a multitude of pigeons, doing their crazy neck-snapping walk as they peck away at whatever fodder is on the sidewalks. Occasionally, you see them munching on a pizza rind or some other recognizable discarded food, but most of the time they seem to be pecking at nothing at all.
I am not planning to start a pigeon Facebook enterprise, but unlike virtually all New Yorkers, I do not loathe pigeons and give them credit for living a tough life on the mean and unforgiving streets of Manhattan.
And if you actually stop and look at them, which no one does, their plumage can be quite striking. Yes they are plump and the neck-snapping walk is mind-boggling — what evolutionary rationale could that possibly have? — but they demonstrate an unrelenting pluck to survive in the city that I find admirable.
Just like seagulls, you never see a young or old pigeon, and never a sickly one. They are all the same size and seem in excellent health. I’ve never seen a dead pigeon or a squished one, which is remarkable for all their bicycle- and car-dodging. Not to overthink this, for all of their daily vicissitudes they seem pretty content with their lives, although their expressionless faces could be masking all kinds of nameless dreads.
One activity that seems to definitely give them great pleasure is communal flight. As I look east from our 16th floor apartment, I often see sizable flocks of pigeons soaring in synchronized movements that have no purpose, just banking, turning this way and that, diving and climbing.
They are clearly playing. They will, as a group, alight on a random rooftop, cogitate for a while and then set off on another flight maneuver, happy as clams.
If there is an afterlife, this playful flying would not make me elect to come back as a pigeon. I’m on record as choosing to come back as a chickadee. But if I have no choice and I’m forced to come back as a pigeon, I could handle it. The key, it seems, is a sufficient stream of pizza rinds.
Seagulls seem a lot like pigeons. They are always scamming for food and can fly beautifully. They seem smarter than pigeons and have a more sculpted shape. Gratefully, they have eliminated the disturbing neck-snapping walk, and they are artful at catching food thrown at them by the bored human denizens of Crescent Beach.
Which brings me to a seagull story. It is a third-hand story and its veracity cannot be verified. It was told to me by my nephew on Cape Cod, and he is a known embellisher. There is a thin line between embellishment and prevarication, and I am pretty sure he was sticking to the embellishment side. Not betting my life on that, however.
It starts with a surf-casting fisherman and a nearby observing seagull. The seagull watches as the surf-caster baits up his hook and heaves it into the waves. This is repeated several times with no success, fish-catching-wise. This is where it gets interesting.
This story wants you to believe that a light goes on in the observing seagull’s brain. The light says one, there is food being flung into the air and two, I can fly. Ergo, an intercept is entirely possible. But the light does not fully grasp the concept of “fish hook.”
You probably see where this is going. A perfectly timed intercept is made and the hook lodges in the seagull’s beak, surprising both human and bird actors in this story.
Embellishment alert: The fisherman starts reeling in the seagull and eventually gets it on the beach where a concerned woman assists the fisherman to calm the seagull while he fetches his needle-nose pliers to extract the hook. The seagull is not pleased, and it takes a while to wrestle the hook out.
A moment passes as the humans and seagull digest what just happened. Another light goes on in the seagull’s brain. With good intentions, the concerned woman is carefully holding the seagull but gets no credit for this act of kindness. The light says take a nip of the woman’s cheek and get the heck out of here. End of story.
True story? We cannot be sure.
But it sure beats any pigeon story I know.