People think it’s okay to be rude about pigeons because they’re clumsy, grey and ill-proportioned. But you’d never dream of talking about your grandparents like that. You’d never call them “flying rats” or “the scourge of the streets.” Even if they were part of a senior citizens’ drug gang, you’d probably find a way around it.
People think it’s okay to dismiss pigeons because they’re so common. But logically, most people are common too. Crowds flock to the zoo to see exotic birds like parrots and peacocks and pelicans. They stare into their cages with open mouths and say things like “would you look at those magnificent feathers” or “isn’t she a beauty?” meanwhile kicking the pigeon who has landed near their foot.
Last May, German daily Der Tagesspiegel published an excellent article in defence of the pigeon. The writer concluded that the bird had an “image problem” and dispelled many of the hateful myths associated with it. For one, pigeons don’t carry any more diseases than your average feathered friend. Their excrement is not as abundant as you think either. In Berlin, dogs produce 20,000 tonnes of poo a year. Pigeons, on the other hand, a measly 27. Pigeon expert Ludger Kamphausen claims the chance of picking up an infection from a flower pot containing mushrooms is higher than from a city pigeon.
This is nothing new. Birds have been maligned for not matching up to an aesthetic ideal for hundreds of years. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling was published in 1843. It tells the story of a duckling who undergoes hardship because of its plain feathers, until one day it turns into a beautiful swan and is re-accepted into the community.
Here’s the thing though. It’s not pigeons that have the image problem, it’s society. We can blame it on evolutionary biology but it’s no excuse really. We think that if things are cute, they are good. And good things are more deserving. Take these two examples.
In 2007, Germany went crazy for a polar bear cub called Knut after he was rejected by his mother. He became an international phenomenon; books, DVDs, teddy bears and even songs were produced in his honour. After his untimely death, Spiegel Online ran an obituary of Knut which described him as an “innocent bear who enchanted millions.” A bronze statue was erected at the zoo in his honour.
Thousands visited Berlin to pay their respects to Knut. They mourned the loss of the bear while eating mass-produced pig meat which they bought from the hot dog stands nearby. Jonathan Safran Foer writes eloquently about this irrational behaviour in Eating Animals, which is worth a read whether or not you are a committed carnivore.
From Knut to Susan Boyle. Two years after Knut came on the scene, 47 year-old frumpy Scotswoman Susan Boyle appeared on TV talent show Britain’s Got Talent. The judges laughed at her and unfortunate members of the audience, whose faces have been immortalised on Youtube, scowled cruelly when she came on stage. Then she started to sing. She was very good and moved one of the judges to tears. They stopped laughing after that because Susan Boyle had compensated for the offence of not being conventionally attractive. She had talent, so her aesthetic shortcoming, or in other words the crime of looking like a normal person, would be quashed, pending a makeover as soon as she got a record deal.
The story of the Ugly Duckling and of Susan Boyle have been packaged as if they contain some moral message. But they tell us much more about society’s questionable collective morality than anything else. In the case of the Ugly Duckling, enduring years of hardship is rewarded by becoming beautiful and accepted. In the Susan Boyle saga, the message is that it’s possible to distract people from the obvious defect of not being glamorous by showcasing alternative accomplishments, like a beautiful voice or a talent for embroidery.
As for what Knut teaches us, it’s no more than the inconsistency pet-owners who eat meat recognise in themselves. We seem hard-wired to prefer things that look nice, but we’re also smart enough to know that acting on that bias goes against the equality mature societies strive for.
So next time you shoe a pigeon away while canoodling with a canary, think about whose feathers you’re really ruffling.