Andrew D. Blechman
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Buy *Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird* by Andrew D. Blechman online

Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird
Andrew D. Blechman
Grove Press
256 pages
October 2006
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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A few years back, Marty entered a three-hundred-mile race. She didn't return home. Her human companion, Orlando, assumed she had been killed. But, two weeks after the race, Orlando found Marty on his porch. She had a broken wing; she had apparently walked home.

Marty was a homing pigeon, one of dozens of breeds of the ubiquitous species of pigeon. Most of us are accustomed to seeing rock doves, one breed, almost everywhere we travel. In Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird, author Andrew D. Blechman explains these birds’ histories and uses and centuries of human obsession with them. The birds apparently inspire great love or great hatred and little in between.

The expression “rats with wings” has not helped the avians’ PR image. Americans, in particular, are becoming more cleanliness-obsessed; we don’t like bird poop everywhere. And many people think pigeons are disease carriers. However, Blechman dispels many fears. He writes, “Here’s the poop on pigeons: their droppings can be linked to more than sixty communicable (bacterial and viral) diseases, but then again, so can yours. Yes, they can pose a health risk, but one that is comparable to cleaning out Whisker’s litter box.” The two diseases most commonly connected to pigeon poop are histoplasmosis (this attacks the lungs) and cryptococcosis “which causes meningitis and encephalitis.” But, the author reminds us, neither disease “is carried by pigeons.” Fungi in the soil cause them; pigeon dung is a breeding ground for this fungi.

Blechman is great with the history of bird and its evolution. We do learn how many breeds there are (according to the 2000 Encyclopedia of Pigeon Standards, 193 breeds are now recognized), how far they can fly, the natural returning instinct of homing pigeons (this is still a mystery, even to scientists), what they prefer to eat and how they have benefited mankind. The author travels much of the world to meet pigeon fanciers (including British royalty), attends a pigeon shoot (still, unfortunately, legal in Pennsylvania, at least), and even eats a bit of the European-favored squab, young farm-bred pigeon who never will have the chance to compete or even stroll around St. Mark’s Square.

The most in-depth parts of the book center on the obsessed men (few women take to this avocation) who raise, race or kill these birds, and their “ hen-pecked” wives who almost never see their husbands. Obviously, pigeons are addictive, especially flying them in races - not a hobby for the full-time employed or those afraid of the elements. The birds, if they are to win races or shows, leave little time for other family affairs like regular mealtimes, bedtimes or vacations.

Orlando Martinez is a perfect example. Like all the men in the book, he was gracious and generous with his time and knowledge with the author. Martinez, like many other men in New York, has a loft of racing pigeons. He flies his birds often; the Bronx-based Main Event is the "Kentucky Derby of the New York pigeon-racing community.” More than $15,000 in prize money goes to the first-place winner, and many others win thousands “in side bets.” Such pigeon clubs and races exist around the world. While they are decreasing in popularity in North America, they are now increasing in some Asian countries.

Orlando explains the avocation: “To walk into your racing club, knowing that your bird beat our a thousand others because you put in the time, bred it right, fed it right, and trained it right, well, few things compare.” Including wives, he might have added.

Another pigeon aficionado is the infamous sports personality Mike Tyson. The author tried to catch up with him unsuccessfully for many months. Tyson is obviously elusive to the press. When Tyson lost a boxing bout to Kevin McBride, explains Blechman, “he tells reporters after the fight that he just wants to go home and be with his pigeons.” Apparently, with the birds, Tyson can be a gentle man. (In an article in USA Today in June 2005, Tyson says that he has loved pigeons all his life; they are next to his six children in his heart.)

The book includes many historic tidbits - pigeons have been worshipped as fertility goddesses; they are symbols of peace; and close to a million of the birds are credited with saving soldiers’ lives in World War I and II, when they were widely used to carry messages. Homing pigeons are able to fly more than 500 miles in a day at speeds up to 60 mph, most of them without stopping for food or water. In fact, they get extra credit if they have no mud on their feet when they arrive safely home. Cleanliness is valued. Explains Orlando, “A healthy bird should never have shit on his feet.”

Pigeons, organized by the seasons and their related pigeon activities, provides captivating reading. The author clearly falls into the camp of revering rather than reviling the birds. The only thing this reader wishes had been more highlighted are the social lives of the birds themselves – more about their mating, more about the rearing of their young, more about their relationships with the humans that feed them, pamper them and win money off their backs. Pigeons remain beautiful, athletic and often maligned birds.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Deborah Straw, 2007

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