Pigeons are everywhere. New York City, alone, is thought to harbor as many as 7-million of them. But where are all the dead pigeons? The short answer: Inside other animals. The long answer – horribly, but necessarily – involves GIFs.
Photo Credit: Carlos Larios via flickr | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
WARNING: This Post Contains Graphic Footage of Pigeon Demise
It's hard out there for a pigeon. Harder than you probably realize. More than most animals, pigeons have shared in a long, at times even convivial, relationship with humans. And yet they seem to have fallen out of public favor in recent years. They have a lot in common with rats, another loathed species with intimate ties to humanity. Like rats, today's pigeons, especially those of the feral variety, are associated with grime, disease, and overwhelming numbers – a nest-building, infrastructure-exploiting perfusion of the modern urban landscape.
It is notable that where rats have succeeded primarily from the dark and shadow-shrouded margins of society, pigeons have made their way in the world almost entirely out in the open – bobbing their heads and beating their wings, dirty, innumerable and occasionally aggressive in the sight of god and man. Robert Sullivan has written that rats are our cities' "most unwanted inhabitants," but one could compellingly argue that title actually belongs to the pigeon. They are, after all, "rats with wings," the implication being that the only thing worse than a rat is a rat capable of flight – and in broad daylight, no less. (Pigeons, you should know, are quite the aerialists.)
All this is to say that pigeons, having fallen from grace in the eyes of humans, already have it kind of rough. But it gets worse. Because pigeons, I recently learned, also have to worry about being eaten. By pretty much everything.
Under ideal circumstances, a pigeon can live upwards of 15 years. The average lifespan of a pigeon "under urban conditions," however, is more like 3–4 years. Given this information, urbanites are wont to inquire after the whereabouts of their city's most reviled birds. Where, pray tell, are all the dead pigeons?
The classic answer is that pigeons and their offspring are killed and eaten by a long list of other animals, and that this keeps their inanimate bodies more or less out of sight and mind. If you're like me-from-six-hours-ago, you probably have no idea just how extensive that list is. It includes:
Via Bubu station
Via Brian Rusnica
Via jayesh patil
Via vanessa cano
Video by Cucherousset et al. via Ed Yong
Be apprised: This is only a sampling of the peristeronic torture porn that awaits you, should you choose to plumb the depths of the Internet with a keyword search of "* kills pigeon."
The list of pigeon-eating animals grows when you incorporate scavengers. Here's what Gary Graves, curator at the Smithsonian's bird division, had to say when The Atlantic's John Metcalf looked into the whereabouts of the world's dead pigeons:
...decay processes and scavengers clean them up quickly. In Atlanta, from April through October, blowflies and ants can reduce a dead sparrow to a pile of loose feathers in a few days. [Ed. Note: According to The Straight Dope, insects can do the same to a pigeon "in a week or two."] In winter, opossums, raccoons, rats, cats, dogs, skunks, foxes, coyotes, crows, and Turkey Vultures clean up the dead. These same scavengers operate in the warmer months too, but blowflies often beat them to the punch.... Yes, the world would be a lot smellier without nature's cleanup squad (including the smallest and most important decomposers——bacteria and fungi)!
The more one reads up on pigeons and the animals that devour them, the more one is faced with the distinct impression that the Venn diagram depicting "Things That Eat Meat" and "Things That Eat Pigeons" is basically a circle.
It's true, of course, that many of the things that eat pigeons also hunt and scavenge for other animals. There are instances, however, of pigeons constituting the primary food source for urban predators.
The peregrine falcons and red-tailed hawks of New York City, for instance, prey upon all manner of birds, including starlings, blackbirds, flickers, and blue jays – but their diets consist primarily of pigeon. In the early nineties, raptor-on-pigeon violence became so aggressive that the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals actually received complaints from people seeking to have pigeon-predators shot.
"We had one woman in Brooklyn who called us in a fury, asking that we do something to get rid of the peregrine falcons," Dr. Stephen Zawistowki, science director for the A.S.P.C.A. in New York, once said, in an interview with the New York Times. "She thinks the city should belong to the pigeons."