Some Call Them Feathered Rats

Article excerpt

But a Montreal researcher is discovering complexity and beauty in the world of the Urban Pigeon

We've all met those intrepid scientists (if only in magazine stories and TV documentaries) who study rare animals in the world's far corners, muddy-booted field researchers braving monsoon or quicksand to seize the truths that may prolong the days of gorillas, tigers and other noble beasts.

Then there is Louis Lefebvre. Mud-free, middle-aged, something of a Renaissance man, this French-Canadian biology professor at McGill University launches research expeditions within a few minutes walk of his office. On the McGill campus in deepest downtown Montreal, he explores the ways of animals that Woody Allen called "rats with wings."

Louis Lefebvre studies pigeons. Common, everyday, fecund, soot-shaded, park-bench-spattering street pigeons. "I think they're neat little animals," he says without embarrassment. "I also like the kind of people that like pigeons - this sort of marginal type of person." By which he means those urbanites, often the elderly or loners or both, who go out of their way to feed pigeons. Perhaps the researcher is just keeping his eye on his goal: "I'm interested in why pigeons do so well. So the more there are, the happier I am."

A 44-year-old Montreal native, Lefebvre has published two novels (neither of them appears to be about pigeons) as well as poetry. As a scientist, he is curious about the advantages animals derive from group living. To investigate the question he has studied pigeon-flock dynamics and looked at how new information or behavior (how to capitalize on new food sources, for example) is transmitted between the birds. In experiments bridging the world of the laboratory and of the street, he has examined how the birds compete through imitation and speed instead of aggression.

Seeing live pigeons in the park will never quicken the bird-watcher's pulse quite like a rare warbler flashing through on migration. But give pigeons credit. Every day, these birds perform feats demanding adaptability, intelligence and pluck. Namely, they survive on today's urban mean streets.

"They have specifically adapted to that niche of living in cities, treating buildings as if they were cliffs [the birds' wild ancestors roosted in crevices on rocky outcrops], treating people as if they were any normal source of food," says Lefebvre. "Whatever type of environment you decide to colonize, whether it's the romantic wilds of Costa Rica or just a plain city square, the fact that you're doing well in it is something that I find admirable." The practical biologist has another reason to study the pigeon. "It's available - you just step out of your lab, and you've got your research animal."

And how. Lefebvre guesses that 50,000 to 100,000 pigeons dwell in Montreal. But many cities have many, many more pigeons. American physics professor and author James Trefil, in his book, A Scientist in the City, writes that in London's pigeon-carpeted Trafalgar Square and Venice's Piazza San Marco, "The weight of the living pigeons is probably greater than the total weight of living animals on any comparably sized wild habitat."

For thousands of years, chubby little Columba livia, aka the rock dove, aka the feral city pigeon, has strutted along urban man's boulevards and backstreets. Pigeons in North American cities are descended from birds brought across the Atlantic as food by colonists as early as the 1600s. Their ancestors also include escapees from homing and racing flocks and even the occasional showbird.

As far back as the fourteenth century, relations between urban people and these urban birds could turn tense, with the Bishop of St. Paul's Cathedral in London lamenting that folks hurling rocks at the rock doves were also smashing cathedral windows. Acid in pigeon droppings can corrode paint and stone, and the guano plugs roof drains, causing buildings to flood with rainwater. …