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The Pigeon Files, Part the First

Filed under: The Squib Report   Tagged: , , , , , ,

A recurring bulletin from Martin Schneider, Emdashes Squib Report bureau chief, in which urgent matters regarding The Complete New Yorker are speedily and elegantly investigated.

If I were to tell you that pigeons were on the verge of becoming extinct in New York, would that delight or depress you? I’m sure that the range of reactions would include both glee and gloom. Although given their inescapable ubiquity in New York, you might instead question my sanity (or, more prosaically, merely my powers of observation).

Their status as an endangered species is restricted to a very specific domain, and I’ll address what domain that is in just a moment.

Rebecca Mead’s March 5 TOTT about Kader Attia’s “Flying Rats” art exhibit sparked Emily to inquire about prior coverage of pigeons in The New Yorker’s glorious past. It turns out she’s a pigeon fan! Or more properly, a stalwart defender of the charms of the pigeon (Spec. Columba livia, Latin for “lives near Columbia University”), inexplicably overlooked by so many.

There must be a term for the historiographical practice of using a smaller subject to track the development of an era or empire. As aqueducts work well for the Roman Empire and heresy for the Middle Ages, so do pigeons for The New Yorker. Pigeons appear in many guises and forms, sometimes as the butt of the joke, sometimes held up for contemplation, sometimes exalted (well, not too often). So we’ve decided to launch a limited series of pigeon-related posts from the CNY.

Pigeon fact no. 1: They appear in lots of cartoons; indeed, a survey of pigeons in New Yorker cartoons would tax the resources of this humble venture.

Our first pigeon piece may even fall under “exalted,” a lovely 2/21/01 TOTT called “Some Pigeon!” by Sheridan Prasso that well-nigh claims that a specific pigeon that used to demand (and receive) nocturnal entry to a Burmese restaurant on the Upper West Side (since closed) may have embodied the soul of a former denizen of the premises. It’s just the kind of piece we look to TOTTs for, a charming slice of life nowhere else covered.

Pigeon fact no. 2: Once a staple of New Yorker covers, pigeons have since been almost banished as a cover subject. This is the “extinction” to which I earlier referred. The demise dates approximately from the arrival of Tina Brown; there has been only one pigeon-related cover since 10/5/92—don’t need to tell you what made that issue special, do I? And even that cover, by Peter de Sève for the 9/5/94 issue, seems really to be about the Hamptons and not pigeons per se.


And I think therein lies a lesson: If you make a decision to increase topicality, to boost newsstand single-issue sales, to stretch the capacity of The New Yorker to cover the newsworthy and the trendy (as Tina Brown was no doubt right to do, don’t get me wrong), a price is nevertheless paid. New Yorker covers once regularly featured triste still lifes or plangent landscapes, a sometimes haven from the headlines rather than a cheeky “take” on them; they don’t really serve that purpose anymore, and that’s too bad.

But we’ll be visiting some of those in future installments of the Pigeon Files.


What about that recent TNY cover a few months ago or more recently? (I must have thrown the issue out because I wasn’t in it), but I could have sworn there was at least plenty of pigeon excrement on the ledge of the building? It was a bird’s eye view of manhattan, I believe it was looking northeast from somewhere in midtown.

Here’s the last pigeon cover that I refered to, from january 15th, 2007!


Damn, that’s pretty clearly a pigeon, isn’t it. Clearly they’re overcompensating for their recent lack of pigeon covers! Drat. It’s still not a plangent still life or whatever I wrote, so the point kind of stands….

Never let it be said that I let flimsy evidence stop me from making a sweeping generalization!

Thanks for refreshing my faulty memory. If it’s not in the CNY, I’m clueless.

I had been very impressed (half in the good way, and half in the slightly grossed out way) by the exrement detail on the ledge,which was why I remembered it so well. Also, I had posted about it, trying to figure out which street was the vantage point. That’s the only reason had the image address: I got it from the newyorker website the actual week it was the cover.

Three cheers for pigeons! They’re so much lovelier than people give them credit for. And I’ve yet to hear of an actual Birds-like attack or transfer of so-called dirty pigeon germs. (This from the same people who wear flip-flops on NYC streets in the summertime.) Mostly they’re just being birds. Birds are good!

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