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Who's Stealing New York City's Pigeons?

Activists say that hundreds of birds have been stolen from Greenwich Village's Washington Square Park, possibly so they could be shot by hunters in Pennsylvania.

Melissa Cronin

Melissa Cronin

Photos by Tina Trachtenburg

A war over some of New York's smallest and most divisive residents has been brewing for a while now. In the latest skirmish, a 38-year-old man named Luis Rosado was arrested last Wednesday for illegally catching pigeons on Wyckoff Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Lieutenant John Grimpel of the NYPD told VICE that Rosado was arrested under the Agriculture and Markets Law relating to cruelty to animals. The law makes it a misdemeanor to carry an animal "in a cruel manner," and in punishable by jail time for up to a year or a fine of $1,000—or both.

But Grimple was a bit mystified by my interest in the birds: Since when did pigeons become a bigger news story than people? he asked me.

As a matter of fact, bizarre pigeon happenings are nothing new in New York. In Greenwich Village's Washington Square Park, activists and people who feed birds are on a warpath over their beloved avian friends. Last Monday, Washington Square Park Blog reported that someone had pulled up to the western side of the park, thrown a net on the ground, and scattered birdseed on top of it. According to witnesses, hundreds of pigeons were netted and stuffed into the trunk of a car, which drove off before anyone could catch its plates.

Related: The Underground Squirrel Doctor of NYC

The NYPD told VICE that it has opened an investigation and found no evidence that someone stole pigeons from the park. But the local birders at Washington Square Park say they've seen a noticeable drop in the number of pigeons they see there.

"It sucks," said Tina Trachtenburg, an animal activist who's been feeding the birds in the park for 55 years. "Its really, really heartbreaking."

The local community of birders, many of whom visit the park every day, went so far as to hold a memorial service for the pigeons, and one has even offered a $500 reward for information about the pigeon bandits.

The saga of pigeon thievery in New York is surprisingly long and tumultuous. Last May, another man, 49-year-old Pablo Alomar, was arrested on 72nd Street in Manhattan for netting pigeons. And back in 2008, a pigeon broker was allegedly buying birds that were netted off the streets at a Brooklyn pet store. This broker happened to be the organizer of a large pigeon shooting tournament in Pennsylvania, the only state where shooting pigeons is legal and openly done.

According to the New York Humane Society, one of those hunts was scheduled for this past weekend, leading activists to fear that the pigeons they say were stolen from Washington Square Park have already met their maker.

It's illegal to capture pigeons in New York without a permit, and the city doesn't use any type of netting to control pigeon populations. But in Pennsylvania, it's a pigeon free-for-all.

Joyce Friedman, NYC coordinator for the Humane Society, told VICE that her organization has been trying to protect local pigeons from Pennsylvania hunters for years.

"The majority, about 70 percent, will not killed immediately and will suffer with gunshot wounds," Friedman said. "To have this be called a sport is absolutely inaccurate."

But hunters and disgruntled New Yorkers sometimes have a hard time sympathizing with the birds that share their city. There's no reliable estimate of the number of pigeons in the five boroughs, though as the New York Post reported in 2010, an old adage goes, "one pigeon per person," and the beasts produce 25 pounds of waste each per year.

Suffice it to say, pigeons can become a nuisance.

But there's not much humans can do about them. "Flock dispersal agents"—in other words, poisons—are generally not a viable choice for cities because other animals can be harmed by them, and because tourists don't normally want to see pigeons convulsing and dying on the sidewalks. Proposed bills that would slap anyone feeding pigeons have never become law.

Stories have been floated on quasi-medical blogs that pigeons might carry diseases and transmit them to humans through their feces. But according to the New York City Department of Health, the risk of infection is small, and those at risk are mainly bird owners, pet shop employees, and veterinarians.

And even stronger than policy are the voices of pigeon-lovers who, like their beloved, flock to New York. There's an organization devoted to saving wounded pigeons, the New York City Pigeon Rescue. There's even a Pigeon Appreciation Society.

In Washington Square Park, anger lingers over the missing birds. Trachtenburg says that, like the rest of New Yorkers, pigeons should be entitled to carve out a patch of city and live there unmolested.

"They survive in a city the way that we survive," she said. "Here these birds are hanging on for life and all we do is shun them. For New Yorkers, each pigeon you see is your neighbor."

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