PART 1: PIGEONS
My Mum lives in a not very well known (although the once very important) Polish harbour city called Szczecin. Her flat is on fifth and top floor of the old communist block of flats, with a fantastic view of a river and a harbour immersed in a greenery of trees from one side of the flat, and a balcony facing another block of flat on the other side.
Szczecin as a city is quite boring. But there are good things here. It is full of tall luscious trees, the remains of the old town (Szczecin was destroyed during the WWII) are in a beautiful art-deco style, there is also an amazing, although very much ruined, old industrial part on the bank of the river Odra.
My Mum resides in a city’s district Pomorzany (Pomerania) – built in the early 70s on a land which was once a village. As far I as remember – until mid 80s there was a few small farms around and sometimes, as a child, I was woken up by the sound of roosters. Small sparrows, fast swallows and of course seagulls were everywhere.
The balcony of my Mum’s flat is situated in the more or less middle of the building, as mentioned, on a top floor. Lovely few couples of Mr and Mrs Pigeons used to rest on balconies’ fences using them as shelters when the weather was wet, cold and windy. All neighbours used to leave bread crumbs and seeds for all the birds and it seemed that everybody (that is humans and all type of birds) were living in a perfect harmony.
But recently something strange has happened. Pigeons took over. The gangs of pigeons pushed out most of the other birds. Sparrows are gone, I haven’t seen a seagull in here for ages and only a very few swallows are speeding through the air. Instead pigeons behave like kings of the area.
One particular Mr & Mrs Pigeon couple took a fancy to my Mum’s balcony.. The fairly innocent morning “cooing” turned into an annoyingly loud early morning alarm clock. My poor mother was jumping out of bed in wee hours, running to the balcony door, trying to scare those two to force them to leave, but they were always coming back, ignoring my Mum’s presence. An old stick from the broom found a new use as my Mum’s anti-pigeon sword. She was out on the balcony waving the stick in attempt to slap pigeons’ bottoms. It worked…for a short while. But in fact it got worse. For my Mum that is, not for pigeons.
My Mum has got an old cupboard on her balcony, where she keeps her gardening tools, some pots, soil and other stuff. The doors of that cupboard are a bit wonky, and on a few occasions a strong wind opened them wide. Mr and Mrs Pigeon were only waiting for it. One weekend when Mum was away, they made themselves comfortable inside the cupboard, dropped few tools (among other “dropping”) on the floor and got ready to build a nest. The nest alone is not bad, in fact – can be lovely. But what was a really bad thing in pigeons behaviour was that as much intelligent they were, they did not seem to grasp the idea of the toilet. The floor of the balcony was covered with their poops, the smell from the cupboard was disgusting. Needles to say on her return my Mum went livid. While pigeons were “away” she destroyed the foundation for the nest and spent couple of hours cleaning the floor. She secured the cupboard door and hoped that it would all end there. However pigeons came back. And as soon as an opportunity arose – there were back in the cupboard.
My Mum kept her stick on the balcony all the time, waving it and shouting and, in a matter of fact, couple of times she managed to slap one pigeon’s “bottom”. Birds flew away, but kept coming back. And that situation was repeating over and over again for a few months, while Mum was running out of ideas how to convey to pigeons that they were not welcome, and fighting thoughts about, well, murdering them.
Pigeons are undoubtedly part of urban biodiversity. They are clever. They have extremely good sight (being able to see ultraviolet) and visual memory. Sometimes they are used during offshore rescue operations – it is easier for them than us or any human-made machine sensor – to spot the orange colour of safety vests in the vastness of the grey seas. That good memory too played a huge role in my Mum’s pigeons. They recognised her. They knew she wasn’t posing any real danger. And so they decided to “occupy” her balcony.
If we are seriously thinking about the “collaboration” with nature, especially in the context of urban developments, we also must be ready to put up with such a behaviour. The notion of “Nature” – somewhat romanticised by us is wrong (as we – humans are PART OF IT – so the division on “us” and “nature” is simply faulty). Nature as something spiteful, or annoying, often doesn’t occur to our minds. Unless that is, when we – as a part of nature – must fight for our own survival. The misbehaving pigeons do not pose a direct threat on our lives, although bi-products – excrement, parasites, rotting remains might be a risk for a human health.
Bruno Latour in his book “Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy“ proposes, in a very simplified summary, a democracy which would encompass us all – that is all living species in a given area. The constitution, of a collective, a community incorporating humans and non-humans shall be build on the experiences of the sciences. The old dichotomy between nature and society shall end, and concepts such as “multiculturalism” replaced with “multinaturalism”, a complex collectivity determined not by outside experts claiming absolute reason but by “diplomats” who are flexible and open to experimentation.
In this context lets go back to my Mum’s fights with her pigeons neighbours. Who can be a mediator to resolve the conflict? Who shall determine where pigeons shall live? A head pigeon of the gang or a human? Who understand pigeons needs better after all than, well, pigeons? The ornithologists might be useful here as translators. In fact they were warning us not to feed those birds, because a) often we feed them with not right for them food, b) they lose their wild instinct of foregoing and surviving in the wild, c) more food = more mating = more baby pigeons = more pigeons, d) they are bloody smart and of course if they figured out that people would give them food, they won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. I mean will you refuse a free food or a chef making you dinner everyday for nothing?
While Bruno Latour makes such a statement, and while some of us (including me) try to create narrative of “collaboration with all living species”, it is clearly not only about not throwing plastic rubbish out to the ocean or polluting our streets with chewing gums to protect birds. It is also about trying to accommodate pigeons (and other species) needs and perhaps accepting their own evolution from wild, self-sufficient animals to lazy, smart species using humans as a constant food/shelter supply.
However – if pigeons shall indeed become citizens of the city and participate in the “multinaturall” democracy – perhaps they also shall work. They might need to pay rent. Taxes. Health insurance. Send their young to schools. Look after retired elders. Definitely use dedicated toilet space and do not make a “cooing” noise next to deeply asleep humans. They might find employment in rescue operations. Their recognition skills might help the police. Perhaps they can work as a “live” delivery drones for Amazon – after all there is a history of pigeon post.
But wait – now I am trying to dictate human rules to pigeons. Isn’t that one sighted thinking? I cannot get out of my umwelt to try to think like a pigeon. If I were that pigeon from my Mum’s balcony – what would be going through my mind? Perhaps I would feel that I have a right to the territory of the balcony occupied by a human? Perhaps it would be me – the pigeon – claiming the tax from humans? Some humans were feeding my gang, so their tax was paid that way. One human (my Mum) haven’t fed my gang, so the other way of claiming the tax was to seize her cupboard.
Obviously whatever I have written here is a big anthropomorphisation of pigeons behaviour, because it is impossible for me to understand what is going through their birdy minds. But the point is – that if indeed we want to collaborate together – we need to start breaking out of our umwelt and try to perceive the world through “eyes” or “senses” of other species.