I was sitting outside my subway stop, enjoying the sun for a moment, when I started watching the pigeons.

I’m sure plenty of New Yorkers find them dirty and annoying, but I love watching them.

This time, I was thinking about how precious it is that some people take it upon themselves to make sure they’re fed. At my stop, it’s usually someone homeless or clearly poor. It must feel good to be able to provide for so many.

As I was thinking this, I watched that exact scenario play out as a woman dumped a heaping grocery bag of crumbs on the ground.

Pigeons clearly depend on social cues, as they always startle easily and will take flight if they see other pigeons do the same, regardless of whether they can see any danger themselves. I was fascinated to see that they respond similarly to food — every pigeon in the vicinity took flight seemingly at once from every corner of the stop.

As they descended on the food, I watched as newcomers arrived, not yet aware that the food was there and having missed the initial frenzy.

I wonder if they can tell the difference between taking off from fear and taking off to get food. How much are they just following the crowd? Is pigeon body language nuanced enough to tell the difference?

The lady that fed them saw me smiling and came over to sit by me. She was dirty and wrinkled, wheeling a small cart. Apologetic, she started mumbling before I could react.

I’ll only sit here for two minutes,” she reassured me, as if she felt she was encroaching.

I just want to see that no kids come and kick them. I want to protect them, you know? Kids always come kick them and their parents don’t tell them any better. They should tell them.”

I nodded, and we sat there watching them for a bit. Every time a scooter would ride through the stop, she would tense up, ready to admonish the driver should he get too close.

While we sat there, I noticed some pigeons were more regal-looking than others. Plump necks with fluffy feathers. They looked healthy and strong.

I noticed one of these wasn’t eating with the group. He was closer to me and the lady, dancing around in a pattern and making a deep, soft cooing sound that I could barely make out. Every once in a while a smaller pigeon would walk by, clearly female, and he would dance up to her. If she didn’t react, he would lose interest after a moment and go back to his dance.

I pointed this out to the lady and she responded.

Of course, it’s mating season.”

I had noticed a white pigeon earlier, and another mottled gray. Clearly rare, I now noticed that these two pigeons, both female, were the object of a similar dance. Each had a suitor vying for their attention, and the white one often had two different males trying to impress her. They were much more persistent than the first fellow I noticed, following her closely around the stop, one at each side.

I quickly noticed couples all over the stop doing this dance.

A few males had crumbs in their beaks, ready as an offering for the bird of their dreams.

The feeding frenzy had finished, and the lady got up to go. Her role as protector was fulfilled.

There was a kindness to her. I still feel it now.

Nice talking to you,” she said as she smiled and walked away.

I sat for another moment before getting up to board my train.


May 30, 2024