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’What a cutie’: The truth about Berlin’s pigeons

It’s a dangerous world out there for Berlin’s least-favourite bird, full of pest- control spikes and poison. But as fans and feeders point out: if pigeons seem gross, it’s because we made them that way.

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It’s a dangerous world out there for Berlin’s least-favourite bird, full of pest- control spikes and poison. But as fans and feeders point out: if pigeons seem gross, it’s because we made them that way. Photo: Paula Ragucci

Robin bobs his head slowly but deliberately, mimicking the gesture of the wide-eyed pigeon perched less than a metre away on the edge of his Neukölln balcony. “I don’t know if this is true but I get the feeling it makes him feel more comfortable,” he says.

Minutes later, the bird hops onto his lap. It then waddles across a small wooden table to see Barbara, Robin’s girlfriend, who grins affectionately as the bird nibbles dried peas and cashews from between her fingers.

The bird’s name is Rocco. (“He just looked like a Rocco!” according to Barbara.) He is male, judging by his lilting cuh-cuuuh-cuh call, and comes in at 522 grams on the scales. The pigeon has been visiting Barbara and Robin almost every day for the past year (apart from the month of November, when he was a mysterious no-show). The couple, a carpenter and a vintage store owner, both in their early thirties, have gradually earned Rocco’s trust, to the point where he seeks out their company and eats out of the palms of their hands. Rocco has even been known to bring his “wife” along to the balcony and – in one highlight, recalled by Robin with a glint in his eye – his barely fledged baby.

Of all the animals to befriend, a pigeon might not seem like the obvious choice. At first, not everyone was supportive – “Aren’t you worried you’ll catch a disease?” is one question they heard a lot – but one by one the haters were won over as the couple shared photos of their feathered friend, the way proud parents might disseminate pics of their darling little sprogs. “When I show pictures, the reaction is always, ‘Oh what a cutie!’” Barbara says.

No one can resist his lush plumage and that coquettish tilt of his sculpted head. But as Barbara and Robin are quick to point out, Rocco is a wood pigeon, not the scraggly feral variety.

The pets that humans forgot

Rocco’s unkempt, street-dwelling relatives have a harder time getting the public to like them. They each produce around 25 pounds of droppings a year, coating city structures in a Tipp-Ex-like substance that serves as a ubiquitous reminder of their filthiness. There are some 10,000 feral pigeons in Berlin alone, although Dr Kathrin Herrmann, the city government’s animal welfare commissioner, says some estimates put the population as high as 50,000. She is working with volunteers to solve Berlin’s “pigeon problem” – but wants us to know that the birds are the victims here, not us.

“The animals, which are seen by some as a disturbance or even a plague, are feral pets rather than wild birds,” Herrmann explains. “We are talking about abandoned or escaped domesticated pigeons as well as lost carrier pigeons and their offspring. So it’s a manmade problem and we have a responsibility to improve the sometimes dire living conditions of urban pigeons.”

If a city pigeon could, they might sit in a squalid corner of some S-Bahn station and wonder where it all went wrong. As members of the Columbidae family of birds, they are essentially doves. Why then is no one celebrating them as an international symbol of peace? Or inviting them to flashy weddings to be ceremoniously released into the skies?

I think Woody Allen is partly to blame. For a while, doves were a symbol of purity, and then came Stardust Memories.

Humans created a monster when they began domesticating the wild rock dove around 5000-6000 years ago, a long-running experiment in breeding that would eventually result in the feral pigeon as we know it today. From livestock kept for their meat, feathers or guano, to carrier pigeons who kept communication channels open during the two world wars of the last century, the birds suited our needs in a variety of ways.

Breeding also produced more exotic forms, coveted by pigeon fanciers for their ornamental features, such as fantails, puffed-up chests, permed plumage, or tiny skulls and squashed beaks, not dissimilar to the face of a bulldog.

Beaks to feed

While the fastest and most alluring domesticated pigeons can fetch huge sums at auction (just last November, Belgian racing pigeon New Kim set a record by selling for €1.6 million), their less esteemed brothers and sisters must eke out a life for themselves on the streets as strays. They might look like they’re thriving to the untrained eye, but it’s a dangerous world out there for a city pidge.

They rely on gut-busting diets of discarded Pommes and Döner merely to keep from starving. Away from the rocky cliff sides their ancestors called home, the birds nest in the recesses of our urban lives, often wedged between menacing pest-control spikes that do little to keep them away but pose a constant threat of impalement. Animal welfare activists regularly report cases of pigeon poisonings to the Berlin police, with repeat offenders said to be targeting Storkower Straße and Gendarmenmarkt.

In overpopulated urban hotspots, 90 percent of chicks don’t survive their first year. Even if they do make it to adulthood, the birds rarely live more than two or three years, a fraction of the life expectancy in captivity.

The pigeons at Alexanderplatz have it slightly easier. Doreen Rothe, a studious-looking woman of 50, has been feeding them there with a proper diet of grain for the past 15 years. Around 500-600 pigeons flock down for feeding time with her and other activists on the square every day.

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Pigeons are friendlier than most people think, and have been known to distinguish between different humans. Photo: Paula Ragucci

“We don’t want the animals to be waiting around at people’s feet for food; instead, they wait for us, they know us, they recognise us from afar,” she says. “They are waiting precisely when we arrive, fly down and then when they’re full, they’re gone – you don’t see them any more. If they don’t get fed, they wander around all day, filling the whole space with their droppings.”

Rothe founded the Stadttaubenprojekt e.V., whose members give the birds proper feed and coordinate care for the sick and injured – but the main goal is to work towards a day when such “emergency assistance” is  no longer needed. To achieve this, activists need dovecotes, structures where the animals can live out happy lives while their droppings are disposed of and their eggs replaced with fake ones to control the population. So far, there are just a handful of these set up in Berlin – nowhere near enough, according to Rothe.

The missing link lies in the hands of the Berlin government and Dr Herrmann, who acts as a kind of pigeon tsar. She concedes that the process of applying for state support in setting up these sites is so complex that

it scares off a lot of activists. Herrmann’s predecessor, Diana Plange, devised a two- year pilot project for “pigeon management” so that the city government could build dovecotes of its own. This has not yet got off the ground. The idea is to establish several supervised pigeon lofts together with a small reception centre for injured birds. But this requires funding, land and personnel. “A difficult undertaking,” Herrmann says. “The plight of urban pigeons has been a problem for decades, and a sustainable solution requires the cooperation of a wide range of actors.”

All the while, there are over 15 flocks of birds, each with upwards of 200 members, languishing in squalor and in urgent need of care in Berlin.

Robin hopes the plan to end the birds’ suffering works, not least because he’s seen through Rocco how smart and sociable pigeons can be. According to a 1995 study he came across online, conducted by scientists at Keio University in Tokyo, pigeons were able to tell the difference between a Monet and a Picasso, even if they had never seen the painting before.

If the birds can distinguish between Impressionism and Cubism, then Rocco most certainly knows his human buddy when he sees him. “He really has got used to us both,” Robin explains. “He trusts us a lot but, given what we’ve seen, that’s not the case at all with other people.”

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Alexanderplatz is a popular place for pigeon feeders. Photo: James Huertas

Pigeon stigma

Rothe has also become well acquainted with her flock. But while she is a hit with the pigeons, the human inhabitants of Alexanderplatz haven’t always been so kind. “I often get asked, ‘Don’t you have anything better to do?’” she says. “And in public squares, you really are targeted again and again with nasty comments. Some of us have been physically attacked. It is unpleasant because people don’t give you a chance to answer – they call at you from far away.”

The veteran campaigner calmly relates some of the abuse she’s received: “They ask if you’re stupid, or they even say that you should be locked up or set on fire. Things like that.”

It’s not just members of the public that harass Rothe and her colleagues. She says the police and Ordnungsamt also approach her regularly, often unaware that – unlike in several other cities – feeding the pigeons is not in fact verboten in Berlin. “It’s appalling how many officers don’t know this,” she says. In 2018, Rothe even appeared before court after being charged with “unauthorised street contamination”, but the case was later dropped.

Searching for reasons why pigeons have become so hated, Rothe points the finger at an unexpected culprit: “I think Woody Allen is partly to blame,” she says with a taut laugh. “It really was the case for a while that doves were a symbol of purity, and then came Stardust Memories.”

The 1980 comedy, written and directed by Allen, who also plays the starring role, featured a term that would haunt city pigeons for years to come: “rats with wings”. While the film may not be Allen’s best-known work, it is still blamed by pigeon defenders for making the slur popular.

Movies can also stigmatise the people – particularly the women – who care for pigeons. Take the nameless “Pigeon Lady” from Home Alone 2, for example, or the “little old bird woman” from Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins. While these female characters may be treated more fondly than Allen’s pigeon, they still embody the prevailing stereotype of pigeon lovers as weird, frumpy spinsters, often without a home; as middle-aged women perched on the edges of society.

Birds of a feather

Rothe insists that she doesn’t fit that bill. She is a translator by training but has carved out a career for herself in activism, working for the Albert Schweitzer Foundation, an animal welfare charity that promotes veganism. Speaking from her flat in Prenzlauer Berg, she says that the city’s cohort of pigeon feeders is, in fact, a diverse bunch.

“There are a lot of feeders by now in Berlin and they come from all walks of life: all age groups and men as well as women,” she says. “There are more women but that is generally the case in the field of animal welfare. It really is done by all sorts, from homeless people to professors.”

On Facebook, her Stadttaubenprojekt has over 700 followers, while another Berlin platform for pigeon protectors, Graue Flügel e.V., has the backing of over 5000 accounts.

With growing support, perhaps pigeons can begin to shed their pariah status and win back the support of the species that bred them in the first place. Rocco the wood pigeon has acted like a kind of ambassador for his less fortunate cousins: through getting to know him, Robin and Barbara have joined Berlin’s growing legion of pigeon advocates, educating themselves and passing information on to friends. In the words of Barbara: “These are great, loveable animals!”