My neighbor feeds pigeons.
He’s usually one of those people you want in your neighborhood. Yards like his, neatly mown and trimmed and fertilized, keep property values up. And yet every morning there’s this incongruous patch of scraps, bread crusts and seed leavings outside his house, a swath of our sidewalk that’s white with feces.
“Don’t feed the birds,” my father cautioned, watching Mary Poppins with me. “It kills them.” He told me not to strip the leaves and bark from trees, not to pound nails into branches, but most of all not to teach birds to be dependent on me for food in the cold season. I still don’t know if he meant birds shouldn’t be dependent on people in general, or that I, in particular, am undependable.
In 1997 I lived in Poland. In Krakow, where the city legend has not only a dragon, but a hundred enchanted princes, turned to pigeons until a precondition is met, like all fairy tales. The spell hasn’t been satisfied yet, I guess. It’s illegal to hunt or poison pigeons in Krakow. When I lived at Ulica Piastowska 47, Krakow was suffering an epidemic. Powdered pigeon feces and the feather-dust of their abundant flight created an atmosphere that fosters a lung disease called hypersensitivity pneumonitis. The pigeons themselves are twisted, deformed, with the wrong number of toes, walleyes, half-beaks. In the Rynek square, you can purchase a cup of birdfood and they will land on you with their twisted feet and eat from your hand.
The closest El stop to my school in Chicago had an abundance of pigeons. They picked through the garbage outside the McDonalds and would all fly up at once when a crowd emerged from the platform. If you were the first person down the stairs you would be met with a flurry of wings, a sense that the sidewalk was suddenly ascending. If you weren’t the first person, you might be buffeted by the flock, hundreds of pigeons trying to get out of each other’s way before they collided in midair. If they collided, they would fight, falling. I saw a man step on one once. He was expecting it to get out of his way. Chicago pigeons aren’t like that.
Every day my neighbor leaves the house at 7:30 and returns at 8:15 bearing a half-rack of cheap beer. He opens his first beer of the day. Then he feeds the birds.