Run, you pigeons, it's Robert Frost! –- Manny Calaveras, Travel Agent of Death

If you’ve lived in a city, any city, chances are you’ve seen them. I’m talking about the majestic statues of the heroic general, or the proud statesman, or the brilliant artist. Erected by a grateful people, these monuments to our past heroes can be found standing, sitting, or mounted on horseback, in all their glory, in the center of virtually every major city.

And they all seem to be covered in bird shit.

Kind of breaks the spell, doesn’t it? It’s tough to keep up appearances as a Founding Father or a respected judge when it looks like flocks of birds have deliberately decided to use your face for their own personal bathroom. And what about us? It’s hard for us to revere our past heroes –- much less to teach our children to do likewise –- when it’s as plain as the, er, noses on their faces that their memorials have been left in such a state of disrepair.

But why is it that these statues seem to make such prime targets? Is it some Hitchcockian plot hatched by the birds -– no pun intended -- to desecrate our past by targeting our statues? Or is there some simpler, more logical reason to explain why city statues seem to bear the brunt of the pigeons’ wrath? To put it even more bluntly, why are statues covered more thoroughly with bird shit than the other places in cities?

Let’s figure it out.

Coming Home To Roost

The first question to deal with is whether or not pigeons are specifically targeting statues. The answer is no. Pigeons, also known as rock doves, or, more scientifically, Columba livia, are originally descended from wild rock doves of the Mediterranean and Western Europe. First domesticated by the Ancient Egyptians, the pigeon has since spread throughout the world in a wide variety of domesticated forms, including ornamental, racing and carrier pigeons.

The pigeons we see today in cities are no longer domesticated, however, but have become feral, reverting to their wilder, more natural behavior patterns upon escape from captivity. As such, they engage in a wide range of social behaviors common to all wild birds: feeding, flocking, and, most importantly for our purposes, roosting.

Roosting –- that is, a period of inactivity analogous to sleep in human beings -- is an activity common to all birds. Some roost in solitude, some communally. The birds we’re looking at here, Rock doves, pigeons, whatever, tend to roost communally. The underlying reason for this is simple –- younger pigeons will seek out older pigeons to find the best places for food, the best shelter from danger, while the older pigeons will accept this social parasitism so long as it gives them a survival advantage. In cities, the birds flock together because the cost of social aggregation is low –- I mean, there’s food all over the ground after lunch hour -– while the benefits to communal roosting are high.

So we see pigeons roost. Not a big surprise. And where do we see them roost? Places that echo the seaside cliffs of their distant ancestors. In a city, that would be tall buildings, mature trees, and, of course, statues. If you’re a city dweller, you simply need to ask yourself this simple question –- do I only see pigeons on statues, or do I really see them on building parapets and tree branches, as well?

Interesting point. Pigeons can’t roost on a surface with an incline of greater than 45 degrees. There are pest removal companies that stake their life on this point. So we see pigeons on large flat branches. On flat surfaces and cornices of buildings that provide a level spot to roost. And, of course, on statues that provide as many flat spaces as possible.

This is why, for example, you see less pigeon “damage” on statues like that of Admiral Farragut, in Farragut Square in Washington, D.C., than on a statue, say, of Lafayette in Lafayette Square. The former is a statue of a single man, standing upright, with precious few flat surfaces on which to roost. Lafayette’s statue, replete with charging horse and extended saber, is nothing so much as an open invitation to every pigeon in the city.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

So, if the pigeons aren’t specifically attacking our statues, what’s going on? The first question to ask now is this: are pigeons really inflicting more damage on our statues, or is it some figment of our imagination? In all seriousness, I can’t answer this question definitively. It’s true that the pigeons’ “impact” on statues is more visibly obvious –- the statues are out in the open, for all to see. But it’s also true that the pigeons’ “impact” on other areas -– under trees, near private buildings, on park benches –- is masked by a variety of factors, including nothing so important as the fact that private owners, as opposed to the city, will go to greater lengths to ameliorate or mask the damage inflicted by pigeons.

Add to that the fact that pigeon waste in other areas -– under trees, on park benches, wherever –- is subject to removal by, and I apologize for being gross, contact with human beings. Anyone who has ever walked through a Pollock-inspired piece of pigeon art knows that you can’t leave the exhibit without taking some of it with you. I challenge anyone to tell me they’ve crawled across a statue in the same way.

So, at the end of the day, I simply don’t know whether we’re imagining the severity of the pigeons’ assault, or if it’s real. So let’s just assume it’s real -– that there’s more of a visible impact on statues than elsewhere. Why?

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

The answer, as is almost always the case, comes down to money. There are four different types of accepted commercial bird repellents: (1) tactile (touch), (2) sound, (3) odor and (4) visual. For most urban and industrial bird problems, the tactile repellents are the most practical and effective. Of these, there are two principle types: (1) mechanical and (2) chemical.

If you’ve been in a city, you’ve seen the “mechanical” solution. It’s those little spikes you find on every flat available surface. They keep the pigeons and other birds away by (temporarily) inflicting severe pain on their feet. It may not be subtle, but it works.

Of course, you can’t exactly put a row of spike on top of your statues now, can you? Kind of sends the wrong message, no?

And as for the chemical stuff, it’s expensive. I don’t want to pin this down to a single price list, but let’s just say it would cost several -– i.e. more than five -– hundred dollars to treat a single statue, and that would last for only a year. If our city leaders cared that much, they could just jet-clean the statues for less. Private building, maybe they'll pay to look prettier. Taxpayer dollars, not a chance.

As for the other possible methods of bird control, well, “sound” just makes me think of Tom Skerrit’s character in Steel Magnolias, which was as much a joke then as it would be now. I don’t even want to contemplate the “odor” solution, and the “visual” -– scarecrow –- solution just doesn’t seem to fit in your ordinary, sophisticated urban setting.

So to answer the question, why do our statues look so bad? It’s simply because we’re not willing to pay enough to make them look better.


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