Is Downtown for the Birds?

(October 1973)

Somehow, they missed the flight to the suburbs that emptied Cleveland’s downtown in the Sixties. They stayed when everyone left. Even when the shopping malls were going up and the interstates were taking city dwellers to the exurbs, they hung around downtown. Public Square, the Mall, City Hall, the Courthouse.

They weren’t universally loved, but they were loyal to the city, the kind that Mayor Perk and Chairman Strawbridge would find compatible. The only problem was they really were dirty, sometimes disease-ridden, a public nuisance. But they have always had their friends, these pigeons, and no matter what was done, no matter how Edward DeBartolo said downtown was dying, they were laughing last.

Take the Mall. Even on Sunday. They’re all over, flitting from Tom L. Johnson’s crown to the Terminal Tower clock, getting peanuts, popcorn and sometimes even a little TLC, from real people. Clevelanders come and go, but the pigeon population continues to multiply, some say geometrically. And if they eat the crumbs that we toss to them, they are accomplices to what the city says is a misdemeanor.

Says David Bittner, an animal lover and head of the living animal exhibit at the Museum of Natural History:

“Cleveland has a surplus of pigeons because they reproduce so rapidly. A couple can produce eight to twelve a year. Most pigeons don’t live to be a year old, but some live to be five or six. Pigeons die of starvation, infections or cars.”

“Pigeons associate people with food,” notes Dr. Jack Wilt, city health department veterinarian. “Eliminate people feeding pigeons and you control them.”

Dr. Wilt adds, in a gesture of conciliation, “Pigeons damage buildings with their droppings ... but some pigeons are needed to help balance nature by eating insects.”

Hawk-nosed Gerald T. McFaul, the downtown councilman, who has more pigeons in his ward than the other 32 councilmen combined, and knows more than a little about political birds of prey, does not fancy pigeon fanciers.

“People who feed pigeons are violating Sec. 2373-1 of the city ordinances,” says McFaul. “I receive most complaints from people waiting for buses and homeowners who complain about damage from pigeons to their houses.”

The crackdown on pigeon feeders is highly unlikely though, because the police have been made aware of the sympathy some people have for these birds. Says a downtown cop: “We don’t arrest people who feed pigeons because a patrolman was persecuted by do-gooders when he arrested a little old lady at the Public Square a few years ago.”

The law really turns out to be neutral, for it is also against the law to shoot, poison or strangle pigeons; but throwing things at them and chasing them is okay.

Just like people from the countryside looking for success in the big city, pigeons migrate from Akron, Canton and Erie. Dr. Leonard Goss, director of the Cleveland Zoo, feels helpless about pigeons. “Even if every pigeon were killed here, they would continue to migrate in from adjoining states.” The city law department says that the state law protects non-game birds except starlings, sparrows, crows and, yes, the common pigeon. You can destroy them and their nests and eggs any day except Sunday.

Ernest Hemingway, we know, used to butcher and eat pigeons when he was a fledgling writer in Paris, but health officials here say pheasant under glass is preferable.

“Squab, baby pigeons, robbed from their nest before they have flown, are a delicacy and a good source of protein. Older pigeons can be eaten or used for soup, but they are tough, filthy and carry diseases,” says Don Enlinger, bird keeper at the Zoo, which has its share of exotic pigeons (not the downtown type) on view.

Dead pigeons are thrown away, sick pigeons are destroyed at the gas chamber of the Animal Protective League, painlessly of course; but they just keep coming.

Ina Keegan, Mayor Perk’s press secretary, is a bird lover, and she sees to it that pigeons nest undisturbed at City Hall, where the full force of the mayor’s office protected the recent birth of twins in a dirty eave. Mrs. Keegan thinks pigeons are a part of government because they always seem to be around government buildings — something like lobbyists for the local utility companies.

George Wrost, city properties director, believes that pigeons will always be with us. “They are not loyal to one mate,” he says, in determining their overpopulation cause. “In the past we tried to scare them with noisemakers and poisoning, but the noisemakers didn’t work and the poison was dangerous to children, dogs and cats.”

Boyd P. Marsh, commissioner of environmental health in the city’s public health department, fears pigeons might cause trouble because their mites could cause fever in humans.

“Besides,” he says, “they deface buildings.”

There have been case histories in Cleveland of rare diseases caused by breathing in dust from pigeon droppings, and last year two men died in unrelated cases from histoplasmosis, caused by disease-carrying pigeons.

Exterminating companies have ways to get rid of pigeons but not pigeon lovers. They’re a lonely but devoted lot, and you can find them anywhere downtown, from the Stadium to one of those aesthetic mini-parks. One business-suited middle-aged man feeds them because he believes they are reincarnated humans. Even Dr. Lester Adelson, chief deputy Cuyahoga County coroner, admits, “I enjoyed feeding pigeons as a boy.”

Pigeon haters are, perhaps, equally vociferous, but not as united, and Mr. Bittner of the Museum of Natural History, fears there’s no end to the overpopulation. So does Mrs. Claire Chapin of the Cleveland Audubon Society. “The poor, hardy pigeon is overpopulated like we are and as long as we put out our garbage, he and the rats will be happy,” she says. “Man has progressed at the expense of wildlife and now a form of wildlife is progressing at the expense of man.”

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