Synopses & Reviews
They've been worshipped as fertility goddesses, and used as symbols of peace. Domesticated since the dawn of man, they've been used as crucial communicators in war by every major historical superpower from ancient Egypt to America and are credited with saving thousands of lives. A pigeon delivered the results of the first Olympics in 776 B.C. and a pigeon first brought the news of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo more than 2,500 years later. Charles Darwin relied heavily upon pigeons to help formulate and support his theory of evolution. Yet pigeons are reviled today as "rats of the sky" without just cause. How did we come to misunderstand one of mankind's most helpful and steadfast companions?
Author Andrew Blechman traveled across America and Europe to meet with pigeon fanciers and pigeon haters in a quest to chronicle the pigeon's transformation from beloved friend to feathered outlaw. Starting with a Brooklyn man's quest to win The Main Event (the pigeon world's equivalent of the Kentucky Derby), Andrew attends a pigeon breeders convention dedicated to breeding the perfect bird and also participates in a pigeon shoot where participants pay $150 to shoot live pigeons. From tracking down Mike Tyson, the nation's most famous pigeon lover, to spending time with Queen Elizabeth's Royal Pigeon Handler in England, and shedding light on a radical "pro-pigeon underground" in New York City, Pigeons tells for the first time the remarkable story behind this seemingly unremarkable bird.
"Many people consider the ubiquitous rock dove, better known as the pigeon, a 'rat with wings.' But as Blechman demonstrates in his enjoyable and informative book, this much maligned bird has served humans well for thousands of years, carrying messages informing the ancient Egyptians about flood levels along the Nile, bearing news of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo and saving thousands of soldiers' lives during the two world wars. Today pigeons are found everywhere, from the queen of England's luxurious racing pigeon lofts to the garbage-strewn streets of every large city. Pigeons gregarious, easily domesticated and capable of flying for hours at speeds of more than 100 mph are interesting in their own right, but Blechman writes not so much about the birds themselves as about the people who either love or hate them. These include members of a Newe York City homing pigeon club who dedicate themselves to raising and racing pigeons; Queen Elizabeth's royal pigeon handler; breeders who spend years perfecting champion birds for show; gun enthusiasts who participate in brutal live pigeon shoots. Many of these people are eccentric, and while Blechman's book won't convert pigeon haters to pigeon lovers, it does make for entertaining reading." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Few of us who live in cities, besieged by flights of what we like to call winged rats, can rightly be described as philoperisterons. But King George the Fifth of England was. So was Charles Darwin. Julius Reuter was too, though for purely commercial reasons. And so also, and for which we should all be thankful, is Andrew Blechman, writer. Mr. Blechman positively loves pigeons but as graceful and ancient grey doves, not as either targets or as food. In this breezy, quirky, endlessly entertaining book, he tells us just why and explains why philoperisteronicism is, generally speaking, a Good Thing." Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and The Madman
"If ever there was a creature that was due a revisionist assesment, it is most certainly the lowly pigeon. Andrew Blechman's wonderful book gives the pigeon its due, but along the way reveals as much about humans with our bizarre, sometimes obsessive love-hate relationship to this most enduring of birds as the pigeons themselves. In so doing, he has written one of those rare and magical books that causes the reader to see the world differently. Read Pigeons and you'll never look at Trafalgar Square, the Piazza San Marco or Bryant Park the same way again." Warren St. John, author of Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip Into the Heart of Fan Mania
"Andrew Blechman's writing is graceful and swift like his subject. The ubiquitous pigeon, whose image spans the lows and highs of human imagination, finds a superb chronicler, exegete, partisan, and redeemer in this book....This book proves, once again, that magic is near at hand, that it can feed from our hands, and that there are mottled angels in our midst. Read Pigeons it's marvelous." Andrei Codrescu, author of New Orleans, Mon Amour & commentator for NPR's All Things Considered
"I've been as guilty as anybody of looking down on the lowly Rock Dove. But Andrew Blechman's Pigeons woke me up. Informative and well-written, if anybody can read his book and still harbor contempt for pigeons, I have to wonder if there is hope for human beings." Mark Bittner, author of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
"You can love them or hate them, and even shoot, feed, race, or eat them, but if you ever ignore pigeons as a major natural force, you will surely be splattered upon. After trailing these remarkable creatures from the rooftops of Queens to the castle of a queen, Andrew Blechman has bagged a story that is fun, warm, and full of wonder." Mark Obmascik, author, The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession
"[C]onsistently engaging, surprising...entertaining, and eye-opening....The author's enthusiasm for his subject starts flying right off the page." Salon
"Admittedly, the bird is a hard sell, but in Pigeons, an amiable, mildly engaging tour of the species and its fans, Andrew D. Blechman does his level best to inspire respect, perhaps even affection, for 'a scruffy-looking bird with a brain the size of a lima bean.'" New York Times
An intriguing study of pigeons and the people who both love and loathe them provides a close-up look at the natural history of this ubiquitous bird, journeying across the U.S. and Europe to explore the world of pigeon racing and breeding, the radical "pro-pigeon underground" in New York City, the breeders dedicated to developing the perfect bird, and more. 25,000 first printing.
In the tradition of Robert Sullivans best-selling Rats comes a whimsical and intimate look into the fascinating world of pigeons and the people they collect. Pigeons have been worshipped as fertility goddesses and used as crucial communicators in war by every major historical superpower from ancient Egypt to the United States, saving thousands of lives. Yet, without just cause, they are reviled today as rats of the sky.” How did we come to misunderstand one of mankinds most helpful and steadfast companions? Author Andrew D. Blechman traveled across the United States and Europe to meet with pigeon fanciers and pigeon haters in a quest to chronicle the pigeons transformation from beloved friend to feathered outlaw. Pigeons captures a Brooklyn mans quest to win the Main Event (the pigeon worlds equivalent of the Kentucky Derby), as well as a pigeon shoot where entrants pay $150 to shoot live pigeons. Blechman tracks down Mike Tyson, the nations most famous pigeon lover, and he sheds light on a radical pro-pigeon underground” in New York City. In Pigeons , Blechman tells for the first time the remarkable story behind this seemingly unremarkable bird.
Pigeons are athletes of the highest caliber. While racehorses receive all the glory with their 35 mph sprints around a one-mile racetrack, homing pigeons--a mere pound of flesh and feathers--routinely fly more than five hundred miles in a single day at speeds exceeding 60 mph, finding their way home from a place they've never been before, without stopping. Pigeon racing is an internationally popular sport that can count the Queen of England among its enthusiasts. Winning birds can bring home millions of dollars in prize money and fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auction. Although we all share a universal bond with this ubiquitous bird, there are some of us whose lives revolve around the bird in more profound--and often humorous--ways. I met trainers who ran around their backyards with whistles in tow, barking orders at their racing pigeons as if conditioning a team of professional soccer players; militant members of a New York City pigeon-underground, who prowl city streets in search of pigeon poachers; and backyard geneticists who toyed with the cellular composition of pigeons in their quest to create a bird more akin to a Dresden figurine than a child of nature.
About the Author
Andrew D. Blechman is an award-winning journalist who has been a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the Des Moines Register. His work has also appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, the New York Times, the New York Observer, and Newsday. He splits his time between Berkshire County, MA and Germany, with his wife and daughter.
Reading Group Guide
1. What were your preconceptions about pigeons before reading this book? Do you have any concrete experiences that supported your preconceptions?
2. Blechman's introduction is a paean to the amazing abilities, attributes, and history of pigeons. Were you aware of their religious and historical significance? Why do you suppose he started his introduction with the story of the pigeon who pooped on his head during a job interview? Does the contrast between the reverence in which pigeons have been held for most of history and today's prevalent attitude that pigeons are filthy and germ-ridden work effectively to foreshadow the rest of the book?
3. Although the pigeon racers profiled in the book are fanatical about their hobby, they are not attracting new enthusiasts, so it is a dying sport. Why aren't young people interested in continuing this traditional pastime? As the children of today's pigeon racers become more assimilated into American culture, is it possible that the sport's immigrant, working-class roots are off-putting to them? Would it be possible for pigeon racing, like NASCAR, to expand beyond its original blue collar/redneck roots and draw fans from a higher socio-economic level?
4. Pigeon shooters are another group profiled. How well does Blechman manage to keep his liberal bias from coloring his account of the pigeon shoot that he attended? He announces "I find shooting any animal for target practice repellent", but participates in the event anyway, and is even upset when he doesn't kill a pigeon. What causes his confusion? What do you think of Bubbenmoyer's tirade against the "animalists" on pages 94-95? Are any of his arguments valid? Do urban animal activists have a right to impose their values on rural hunters? Is there a moral difference between shooting deer and shooting pigeons?
5. Blechman includes a brief history of how the passenger pigeon became extinct in the chapter about Dave Roth, a man who devotes his life to trying to eradicate pigeon poisoning. Is he trying to suggest the possibility that today's pigeons might become extinct? Do you think modern opinions about hygiene and sanitation might lead to a desire to exterminate pigeons entirely? Speaking of hygiene and sanitation, how is it possible for Dave Roth to live the way he does? Should certain standards of cleanliness be imposed for the good of the community, or should a live and let live attitude prevail?
6. Compare Roth's methods of controlling pigeon populations with those of the bird control experts profiled in the next chapter. Will the war on pigeons in Trafalgar Square ever result in a victory using the current methods (banning pigeon feeding, patrolling the area with a falconer)? Why don't all cities and governments adopt the Basel/PiCAS model to humanely regulate their pigeon populations? Who benefits from using traditional methods?
7. "Pigeons overbreed when people overfeed", is one expert's opinion on why pigeons overpopulate urban areas. Certainly, compulsive feeders like Sally Bananas (who distributes 40-50 pounds of birdseed a day in Manhattan) are part of the problem. Is this merely eccentricity taken too far, or criminal behavior? Should laws prevent citizens from feeding wild birds? Where does charity end and compulsive behavior begin?
8. "Mike and Me" chronicles Blechman's attempts to interview Mike Tyson, championship boxer and pigeon fancier. Although he is unsuccessful, he gives an overview of Tyson's long-term involvement with pigeons. How, if at all, did this information change your opinion of Mike Tyson? Does this chapter fit in with the rest of the book? Are there any similarities between Mike Tyson and any of the other pigeon afficianadoes profiled in the book?
9. Killing pigeons was covered in the chapter on pigeon shoots, and it is also covered in the chapter on the Palmetto Pigeon Plant, which processes squabs for the food service industry. How are the two chapters different? Does the author change his tone when he describes the factory as opposed to the shooting grounds? Do Kee Bubbenmoyer and Tony Barwich share any characteristics? Is there a moral difference between killing adult pigeons for sport and slaughtering 7,000 baby pigeons a week for profit?
10. At the end of "The Breast Farm" chapter, the author goes to the company kitchen and samples the product. How do you feel about the juxtaposition of the tour of the killing floor and the tasty snack of squab he enjoys immediately afterwards? Was the inclusion of the pigeon pot pie recipe a jarring note or the natural conclusion to the squab processing narrative?
11. Although Orlando's year of pigeon racing ends disappointingly, he is only briefly depressed. Almost immediately, he begins to plan for next year. His whole life is planned around his pigeons; moving to Tampa would mean pigeon racing year-round. Why would anyone live their life in such a way? Even if he won all the races he entered, would it be worth sacrificing a "normal" life for? Do you think the author's organization of this books by the seasons of pigeon racing works for this topic? Could he have organized the material another way ?
12. Blechman ends his book with his trip to London to attend a dinner in honor of the pigeons who served the British military in wartime through the centuries. Earlier chapters included stories of how pigeons saved lives by managing to get vital messages through enemy lines; this chapter includes one more. Why do you think he chose to end the book on this note? Has your opinion of "rats with wings" changed after reading "Pigeons?"
13. The author does not deny that pigeon droppings are unsightly and unsanitary, but nonetheless, he has become a pigeon cheerleader by the end of the book. Overall, how effective is Blechman in conveying his growing admiration for pigeons? Did his writing bring the birds and their admirers, whether racers, breeders or feeders, alive for you? What are the good and bad points of pigeon obsession overall?