Bird Sanctuary in the City

Bird Sanctuary in the City

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While the passenger pigeon may be gone, Chicago writer Robert Hughes says there’s no need to worry about its cousin – the scrappy city pigeon.


Scientists tell us that the bird population of Illinois is decreasing.

What bird scientists need to do, I think, is come over to my house. They would be so heartened. I live in a supposedly bird-hostile entertainment district on the North Side. Some might call it a virtual no-nature zone. In this unlikely place, paved over with asphalt and concrete, my wife has created a lovely Urban Aviary.

Purple finches, sparrows, cardinals, robins, even the occasional peregrine falcon—make an appearance. Four—count them, four—bird feeders in one large hawthorn tree draw so many birds, it’s like the food court at the mall on a bird school holiday. Within two hours of being filled, the feeders are empty, and the teenage finches outside our window are hanging around, flirting and boasting and text-messaging, waiting for the restocking of their leafy Taco Bell.

The catch, however, is the pigeons.

A young woman—now and then even a Tippi Hedren look-alike—will walk by our house on her way to the El station. Then suddenly, from our microscopic front yard, a dozen pigeons will ambush her. Sometimes she’ll laugh. More often, she will gasp and look up angrily at our house.

Finches are cute, I tell my wife Ellen, but pigeon attack squadrons are, well, embarrassing. It’s bad enough people think of us as the Bird Couple on the block. During morning rush hour, you can see Bird Man hoisting a 15-foot painter’s pole high into the tree with a hanging feeder at the end. You can spot Bird Woman pouring the seeds into a feeder, spilling much of it on the ground as the uninvited pigeons skulk, smirking, nearby.

Ellen recently hit upon a breathtaking solution. We started with a squirt gun, then a squirt rifle, and have escalated—so far—to a $7.00 red plastic “water cannon” capable of blasting a row of pigeons at seventy feet.

The rich combination of pleasures the birds now bring is inexpressible. On the one hand, we enjoy a simple, Walden-like feast of sight and sound right outside our window. On the other hand, we no longer feel like victims in a Hitchcock film. Urban living is now more of a fun Bruce Willis vehicle, “Die Hard” in a yard, full of pretend violence and harmless weaponry.

I would like to tell the worried ecologists: man and nature live in sweet harmony in this corner of Illinois. Now if I can just avoid collateral water damage to Tippi Hedren as she passes by in the morning.


Robert Hughes teaches English at Truman College and is the author of Running With Walker: a Memoir.