As I walked up Park Avenue I spotted a Rock Pigeon chick, about ten days old, lying stiffly dead on the steps of a church. At that age, they are bristly and their underlying structure is apparent; you can see how they were related to the Dodo. At first I felt a visceral wrongness at seeing a baby bird in the heart of December, but Rock Pigeons will breed whenever the food supply is adequate, and in the city it always is.
With pigeons so prolific and natural selection so unremitting, that means there must be a lot of dead baby pigeons in the city at any given time. And even given that most dead baby pigeons will be eaten by scavengers before long, and that many may fall in out-of-the-way places, you’d think many would fall within the purview of human observation. And this is true. I can confirm it. I have seen them before now – under overpasses, on fire escapes, and yes, right smack dab on the sidewalk.
It’s not like I have magical access to a secret New York where no other human foot treads (I wish!) What I have seen, others can see for themselves. So whence the persistent urban legend that baby pigeons are invisible or perhaps don’t exist? Sure, if all goes well for a pigeon, you’re not going to see it in the street until it’s grown, but as we just pointed out things do not always goes well for pigeons.
My hypothesis is this – many, many people do not see dead birds. That is, light bounces off of dead birds and enters people’s eyes, but somewhere in their brains, the dead birds are not acknowledged. I attribute this to a combination of factors. Dead birds are distressing, and people are often unsure of what they mean. They don’t know whether to think about West Nile virus (scary!) or mortality in general or hawks or pollution or what. So their eyes slide over it and they – they don’t forget, so much as never construct a memory about it at all.
I theorize that this happens for other dead birds besides just pigeons. This autumn, I found an indeterminate (squished) warbler on the sidewalk of Park Avenue; a pristine Red-winged Blackbird in a pocket park not far from the Battery; birds that surely, if nothing else, a person who was really thinking would have moved aside from the path of traffic out of respect, but no one had.
That’s what I like about this. Indeed, I’d like to see it expanded, formalized, and similar books created for other cities as well. Pick the top, say, twenty-five birds that impact with windows in any given metropolitan area. Streamline the descriptions – I like the combination of detail about the bird in life and reminders that the bird is dead, and why, but it could be fine-tuned. Include some back-matter on the proper method of reviving the stunned bird, getting the dead bird to the nearest museum, and information on preventing window strikes in the first place. Figure out a way to distribute them at low or no cost not just to people who are already interested in birds, but landlords and early-morning dog walkers, buyers and renters of condominiums, groundskeepers, joggers.
Hell – we should make a series of posters, stick them to offending windows! We should create stencils and give them to young punks and those hipsters who whitewash over the illegal ads. We should put cards in the tea tins; build little memorials where we find birds, with candles and flowers. Notice, notice, notice, and explain.
Give people a way to see dead birds, and they won’t be invisible any more.