Identification: 13 inches (33.02 cm) from top of head to bottom of tailfeathers. Can be distinguished from the Domestic Pigeon and the Rock Dove (Columba livia) by the white turtleneck tuft on the back of its neck. Plumage: off-white, opaline milky green or purple. Eyes low in head, level with beak. Flies higher than most other pigeons.
Song: can do the familiar coo-roo-coo of other doves, but, in certain urban zones, its call features exuberant, operatic glissandi and trills.
Habitat: urban and peri-urban areas; commonly roosts in cornices of industrial buildings and on masonry outcroppings on commercial structures.
Caesar called me to come over.
We sat on his roof in the late November sun. He tucked the bird inside his worn wool vest, donating it a bit of his own heat.
It was the last of its kind. Columba regio civitatis. The Zoning Pigeon.
Ornithologists have long pretended the bird did not exist. John James Audubon refused to include it in The Birds of America, which he published in chunks between 1827 and 1838. In his diary, he wrote that it was the one and only bird he felt was not beautiful enough to paint. Roger Tory Peterson suppressed it from his groundbreaking 1934 field guide, asserting in a note to his editor that its existence was nothing more than urban myth.
But Caesar knew better. Once, Zoning Pigeons darkened urban skies like pollution. Though not recognized by naturalists, they were known to urban denizens for their calls, which changed depending on the density and use of urban districts. The birds preferred mixed-use areas, and if you found them there, their calls were swooping cadences that sounded as thrilling as a coloratura aria sung by Luisa Tetrazzini. In purely industrial zones, the birds developed a buzzing sound not unlike a car alarm. And in regions dominated by office towers, Zoning Pigeons emitted a heaving call that some described as a cross between laughing and throwing up. The birds could also be quite destructive. Their guano pitted marble and granite, and, if given time to seep in, damaged the structural integrity of brick and mortar. Building managers banged pots and pans or blew off fireworks to disperse the birds, which acted more like magpies than doves and stole anything they could get their beaks on.
By the time Caesar got his bird – his friend Victoria had found it with a broken wing after it fell (or was thrown) from the roof of the former Tung Fa Noodle Building in Brooklyn – most people had forgotten about them. Mixed used districts had given way to residential zones, supers to doormen, factories to co-working spaces. The Zoning Pigeon was done in by development, hunted and harried by special permits, bonuses, incentives and those killers of all things good and natural, air rights transfers and upzonings.
All it needed in this world was air and a place to breed – food was plentiful given how messy humans are – and these were gradually taken away. Like the Passenger Pigeon before it, the bird was not missed by the generations that didn’t know it.
Caesar, being the son and grandson of building superintendents, knew immediately what it was. He named it Hector, nursed it back to health – for a while he and Hector slept together – and then introduced it in the wire mesh home he had built for his other doves. Hector seemed happy, Caesar told me, except he wouldn’t flock with the rest of the crew. Instead, he flew the other way. Ultimately, Caesar banded him with a GPS chip, so he could track where Hector went. Sometimes he ventured to Yonkers or Jersey City, but never further.
“Hector’s like me,” Caesar said. “He hates suburbs.”
For years, whenever he saw Caesar, Hector would sing. But it was hardly the kind of melody the Zoning Pigeons of yore were reputed to create. Rather, he spoke softly – a kind of sprechstimme in a minor key, a dissonant plaintive chant.
|Picasso’s 1949 Dove of Peace|
It’s not widely recognized – and, again, woodland-loving ornithologists would surely disagree – but the Zoning Pigeon was the model for Pablo Picasso’s dove of peace. Doves have been symbols of tranquility and harmony for thousands of years, in a transcultural tradition stemming from Ancient Greece and Ancient Japan. But the international symbol is a modern thing, a print Picasso made in Paris that was adopted as the logo of the Congrès Mondial des Partisans de la Paix in 1949. Picasso’s dove features the tell-tale rear cowlick and smoky low-placed eye, suggesting that his model was a Columba regio civitatis from the back alleys of the city of light.
Caesar cared for Hector for almost 25 years. But when he called last November, he must have known the end was near. Hector had stopped singing, stopped making any noise at all. Then, one day, he ceased flying, and soon thereafter he stopped eating. It was as if his reason for existence had gone. Here he was, the joyous bird of the melting pot, the symbol of togetherness and possibility, meant to freewheel around the city, to be at home in a live-and-let-live metropolis. And now his world was no more. The great flocks were gone, wiped out by real estate. Human society had moved on. The Zoning Pigeon hadn’t.
Victoria arrived soon after I did. Both of us could see how weak Hector was. Just a heartbeat and some bone and feather. Nothing more. Caesar rubbed the bird’s cowl and Hector snuggled closer.
We enjoyed the sun for most of the afternoon. Then we heard a series of arrhythmic clicks, like a solenoid gone bad. Caesar put his hand over his heart.
We sat for another hour and a half, listening.
The horns, the traffic, the voices, the sound systems on the party boats moving up and down the river.
Our mouths puffed like little smokestacks.
Our hands clenched in our pockets like tree stumps.
Our thoughts emerged stillborn, like a scatter of stones hitting a deep-frozen lake.
Caesar swore us to secrecy.
Victoria nodded. “The landlords. The superpowers. We can’t let them know.” She was near tears.
“No crying,” Caesar commanded. His voice was heavy, too. “We have to hide our emotion.”
He stood, cradling Hector’s body against his chest, and opened the door to the birdhouse. The doves swarmed around him like a plume from a volcano and for a glorious moment we could believe once again in the age-old falsehoods: nothing has been lost, our city is immortal, survival is guaranteed.