The Pigeon Paradox – Transcript

By Zoe Grueskin

Voices (in order of appearance)
Zoe Grueskin (producer)
Rob Dunn
Pigeon skeptics in Washington Square Park
Ramanan Subramani
Amy Aversa

[squawks of rainbow lorikeets]

Zoe Grueskin [narration] 00:04
Rainbow lorikeets are hard to ignore. For one thing, they make an impressive variety of sounds — which, you know, decide for yourself if they’re actually pleasant to hear.

[piercing squawks]

They’re also very colorful. Rainbow, after all. I actually think they look kind of…fake. Like, if you gave a kid a full box of crayons and told them to draw “tropical bird” — that’s a rainbow lorikeet.

Anyway, you can see them in the wild in Australia. They’re native along a lot of the country’s coast, but in Perth, Western Australia, they’ve only been there since the 1960s. They’re actually considered a pest—

Rob Dunn 00:38
But they’re magical. They’re super colorful. They’re loud. They sort of shock you as they burst out of trees.

Zoe Grueskin 00:43
That’s Rob Dunn. He’s an ecologist in North Carolina.

Rob Dunn 00:47
And I study the biology of daily life in cities and houses and those sorts of things.

Zoe Grueskin 00:52
Rob truly seems to have fun with his research topics. He’s looked at everything from the flavors we taste in food to the biodiversity of belly buttons.

Rob Dunn 01:00
It’s just a swab. Typically it’s like a Q-tip. So mostly it looks like somebody lifting their shirt up and sticking a Q-tip in their belly button.

Zoe Grueskin 01:06
But about 15 years ago, Rob was traveling in Australia, and those lorikeets caught his attention.

Rob Dunn 01:12
[with reverb] They’re magical.

Zoe Grueskin 01:14
Rob and his wife, anthropologist Monica Sanchez, were in a city park in Perth.

[lorikeet squawks and trills]

Around them, squawking, candy-colored birds erupted from the trees.

[the sound of an orchestra tuning slowly builds]

Rob and Monica were transfixed. The locals in the park?

[abrupt end to sounds of lorikeets and orchestra]

Not so much.

That kind of surprised them. Because, again, rainbow lorikeets are pretty outrageous birds. But, as Rob and Monica talked about it, they decided the explanation was actually pretty simple:

Rob Dunn 01:45
They’re not what we’re used to seeing.

Zoe Grueskin 01:48
Just that. To Rob and Monica, 11,000 miles from home, rainbow lorikeets were exquisite and exotic. But Australians see them every day. Nothing new.

This kind of makes sense to me, anecdotally. I actually have Australian relatives, and I’ve never asked them about lorikeets, but when they visit the States, they are very excited about squirrels.

Rob and Monica’s observation could have just become an anecdote like that. A kind of funny story about their trip.

But they shared their idea with a couple friends — both ecologists, also married — and they thought it was interesting, too.

That’s because all four of them agree about something. It’s a few things, actually, but one idea leads to the next, and the next, in a kind of grim but undeniable chain of logic.

And it starts here: the non-human world could use some help. Rob, Monica, their friends — they all think more needs to happen to protect capital-N Nature.

But they also believe that most people can’t really care about nature abstractly. Watching cute animal videos isn’t enough—it has to be more personal.

Rob Dunn 02:50
They have to have a relationship with nature.

Zoe Grueskin 02:52
But that can be a challenge for people who live in urban areas — which is most people in the world.

Cities aren’t exactly wildlife hotspots. I mean, plenty of things do live here, besides us. If a city-dweller wanted to, they could spot plenty of plants and animals around them—

Rob Dunn 03:08
But at the same time, the species they are going to see are going to be species to which their enthusiasm is dulled. Species that they find a great difficulty in enjoying and finding sublime or even just interesting.

Zoe Grueskin 03:22
Rob had just seen a dramatic example — he and Monica were entranced by a beautiful bird that no one else seemed to notice.

Rob Dunn 03:30
And, you know, the obvious juxtaposition to those rainbow lorikeets is pigeons.

[a flock of pigeons suddenly takes flight, beating their wings in a whoosh]

Zoe Grueskin 03:37
Yeah, pigeons. It feels a little strange to compare them to technicolor tropical birds, but that’s kind of the point: If you can tune out the rainbow lorikeet, how much easier to ignore the humble pigeon?

Here in New York, they’re everywhere. They might be swooping majestically over a park — or they could be going for a half-eaten piece of pizza in the gutter. I’ve even seen them peck, a little disturbingly, at chicken wings.

Pigeons aren’t exactly a crowd favorite.

Vox Pop 04:05
I fucking hate pigeons.
Yeah, they’re disgusting. No lie.
Fairly neutral. If anything, I would put them in like my 40% popularity.
Um, I mean, I don’t, I don’t mind them. If they’re not close to me.
Yeah, I mean. They’re ok [laughs]
In New York they’re very aggressive. Unlike other cities.
[Zoe Grueskin, scene: Have you had bad experiences?]
Oh yeah. I’ve had a pigeon slap me a couple of times. Yeah.
[Zoe Grueskin, scene: Oh my god, what happened?]
They just started flying in my face and, you know, slapping me.

Zoe Grueskin 04:35
That was a very un-scientific survey I conducted in Washington Square Park. If you accept my weak methodology, Rob seems to be right that the ubiquity of pigeons has not really endeared them to many people.

But is that inevitable? It starts to sound like couple’s therapy, or that old song: Can you — “Love the One You’re With?”

04:54 [brief excerpt of “Love the One You’re With” by Stephen Stills, fading into the coo of pigeons]

Zoe Grueskin 04:59
Can you love…the pigeon?

It’s a question — and a challenge.

Rob has a name for it:

Rob Dunn and Zoe Grueskin, layered in unison 05:04
The pigeon paradox

Zoe Grueskin 05:06
I wanted to talk to someone on the other side of the paradox. Someone who answers the question with an enthusiastic yes. I wanted to find: a pigeon-lover

Ramanan Subramani 05:15
So I’ve started recording.

Zoe Grueskin [scene] 05:16
Okay, great. Now we have multiple backups.

Zoe Grueskin [narration]

I’m talking with Ramanan Subramani. We worked out the nine-and-a-half hour time difference for him to speak with me from his home in Hyderabad, India.

I wanted to talk to Ramanan because of something he’d written. It’s a blog post for a tech company he used to work for, and it actually shares a name with Rob’s idea —

Ramanan Subramani 05:33
The pigeon paradox

Zoe Grueskin 05:34
That’s how I found it. Although, on the surface, it doesn’t have much to do with Rob’s ideas. Ramanan’s paradox is more of a “Cruel to be Kind” thing.

It occurred to him while watching pigeons with his young daughters. Specifically, a pigeon that had built her nest on the windowsill of his in-law’s second-floor apartment. Ramanan says they see that all the time.

Ramanan Subramani 05:52
Whenever the windows are closed they just make it their home, and every window has a pigeon nestling.

Zoe Grueskin 05:59
Or in this case, three nestlings. It was a sweet scene. A dutiful mother pigeon tending to her young. Until…

Ramanan Subramani 06:06
One of them, you know, crawled outside the nest and it fell off the nest.

Zoe Grueskin 06:12
A fall of 20 or 30 feet. Ramanan figured that was the end of that fledgling. But he went down to check, and he found the fallen baby pigeon injured but actually still alive.

Ramanan Subramani 06:22
I told my daughters that, you know, it’s not going to survive. But they wanted to bring it back to the mother and so, the young one was brought to the nest and we put it in the nest, but the mother did not tend to the injured one at all. And then, a day later, the young one died.

Zoe Grueskin 06:36
Ramanan’s daughters were sad, but understanding, when he explained to them the harsh reality of the animal world.

And Ramanan, who’s worked with several tech startups and had actually just gotten back from a business trip — he didn’t just accept the hard choices that pigeons have to make. He recognized them.

Ramanan Subramani 06:52
They lay more eggs than they can actually manage, which is the classic problem with many leaders, you know, who are playing the game of the survival of the fittest in the corporate world. I have a limited amount of resources, limited amount of energy and time. And who do I invest on, you know? In all honesty, I think what the pigeon did was the right thing to do.

Zoe Grueskin 07:13
It would be easy, hearing this, to think Ramanan is indifferent to the life and death of animals around him. But that’s actually so far from the truth that it’s funny to me that he wrote this blog post.

Ramanan realized the fallen baby pigeon was not going to make it. But at other times, many other times, he’s actually rescued pigeons:

Ramanan Subramani 07:30
Lots, lots. Not just pigeons, but now I have rescued, uh, hawks, eagles, owls. Uh, snakes, you know, venomous snakes, you know, cobra, Russell’s viper.

Zoe Grueskin 07:42
Yeah. Ramanan’s actually a huge animal lover. And he has a special soft spot for the underappreciated. Creatures that a lot of other people find scary, gross or boring.

Like lizards—

Ramanan Subramani 07:53
People are like really freaked out, and then I would pick them up, and then they would freak out that I picked them up.

Zoe Grueskin 07:58
And cockroaches—

Ramanan Subramani 07:59
The strength, the resilience. I just love them.

Zoe Grueskin 08:02
And, of course, pigeons! He pays close attention to the flocks in his neighborhood. He knows their habits, even their schedule.

Ramanan Subramani 08:09
Something similar happens every day at around between 3:00 and 3:30 PM. I mean, it appears as if, you know, they have a conversation with each other. And then, this happens for like about five minutes when they all come together. And then they fly off like crazy. I mean, they fly together for about like 15 minutes right around this place. And it’s a, it’s a sight to see. I mean, the, the kind of, cooperation that is required, you know, when you fly together, and actually flying and helping each other, you know, fly together. It’s a sight to see.

08:40 [a flock of pigeons bursts into flight, giving way to quieter sounds of cooing pigeons and sparrow chirps]

Zoe Grueskin 08:46
When I talked to Rob Dunn, he told me he saw just three ways out of the paradox: the problem of getting people to care about nature when most of what they see is sparrows and rats.

One way is to get city people out from time to time and into “the great outdoors.” They might appreciate a forest more than street trees.

The second route is to make cities themselves a little more wild. Make them better homes for other kinds of plants and animals — ones we might find more impressive, and appealing.

And option three: love your pigeons.

For the record, Rob thinks we probably need to do all of the above.

But pigeon-loving might be the easiest. All we need to change is our minds, right?

Ramanan, in a lot of ways, seems like a pretty good demonstration. He loves the quotidian species of urban life. And he supports environmental protection. He believes if we take care of the planet, it will take care of us. He wants to see less wasteful consumerism. He’s a vegetarian.

And talking with Ramanan made something else click for me. The “personal connection” Rob talked about — the connection Ramanan so clearly has to pigeons, and snakes, and cockroaches — it feels…good.

Of course I knew that, in theory — I’m constantly trying to cultivate that attention and appreciation in myself — but I still don’t think I really got it until I talked to Ramanan. And I heard how much he learns from these animals. How much joy they bring him.

But I talked to one more person, who, I have to admit, made me wonder if there’s a cost to loving pigeons.

10:16 [A crinkling paper bag and a flutter of wings. A quiet voice says, “Go ahead, buddy.”]

Amy Aversa 10:17
My name is Amy Aversa, and I live in New York City, where I am a full-time dog-walker and pet-sitter. And I also rescue pigeons.

Zoe Grueskin 10:27
Turns out, a lot of things can go wrong for a city pigeon.

Amy Aversa 10:30
Lead poisoning or rat poisoning, or, you know, the string foot with, you know, uh, where the string gets wrapped around their toes and ends up, they lose toes because of that, um, collisions with buildings, collisions, with bikes and, you know, hand trucks, attacks by stray cats and, and just random dogs.

Zoe Grueskin 10:48
In all, Amy guesses she’s rescued around 500 pigeons, which she brings to a rehabilitation center in Manhattan. It’s a kind of switch she can’t turn off.

Amy Aversa 10:58
Once you start seeing them and you, you start picking up on the cues, I do find myself looking, you know. You look in the corners and you look behind, you know, as, just as you’re walking down the street, you know, you look in the doorways and you look kind of behind the, the garbage cans and the places where they’re, they are going to hide.

Zoe Grueskin 11:14
This is the cost I was talking about. It weighs on Amy.

Amy Aversa 11:18
And then you think to yourself, well, this is just one street in New York City, and there’s like a thousand other streets. And what if I, what if I, what if I walked down this street instead of that street, and that street is the street that the bird is on and I’ll never find it because I walked down the street. And it can be very depressing.

Zoe Grueskin 11:34
Those 500 pigeons? She says maybe half recovered. Often, when a bird is sick enough to catch, it’s too far gone to save.

And Amy, like Ramanan, doesn’t just look out for pigeons:

Amy Aversa 11:46
Like just a couple of weeks ago, we found a rat actually that was caught in a mousetrap, this horrible, like, weird plastic mouse trap that I didn’t even know it existed. Um, it was like, almost like a bear trap type, like alligator jaw type, weird plastic thing that he was stuck in. And then I just started thinking, oh my god, I didn’t even know that these mouse traps exist. How many other rats are out there right now? Just suffering stuck, you know, or, or like the glue traps. I mean, if you start thinking about glue traps, it’s like, you want to jump off a bridge.

Zoe Grueskin 12:21
But, the thing is, I straight up asked Amy if she regrets her choices, her commitment to this life of constant vigilance and close encounters with pain and death:

Zoe Grueskin [scene] 12:30
Is there any part of you that like ever wishes that you had never started doing this work?
Amy Aversa 12:35
Um, I would say no. If it wasn’t pigeons it would probably be something else, you know? It would definitely be something else. That’s what you just have to do is funnel your emotions into something positive.

Zoe Grueskin [12:35]
Amy, like Ramanan, really loves these animals. Even though what she does is difficult, it’s worth it to her.

And, yeah, doing this work can make it kind of easy to hate people, but sometimes, they surprise her:

Amy Aversa [13:03]
Like one time, I overheard some guys talking, oh, they’re just rats with wings. And out of nowhere, I don’t know what possessed me, I just turned on them and I’m like, first of all, that’s not true. And second of all, rats are awesome. I just started rattling off all of these like random rat facts at this guy. These two poor kids were like walking down the street. And by the end of our like five minute conversation, they were both like, oh my god, I’m going to go home and Google rats now. Like they were completely like blown away at some of the things that I was telling them.

[music: “Phases [Instrumental] by HoliznaRAPS]

Zoe Grueskin 13:34
So where does that leave us? I think, in spite of pigeon-theorists like Rob Dunn, and pigeon-rescuers like Ramanan Subramani and Amy Aversa, we are still far from solving the pigeon paradox.

But, since I started working on this story, I have a little more hope for pigeons. And, some hope for another city species, arguably the most polarizing animal in New York: humans.