On Killing A Pigeon in New York City

I thought about the heat at the edges of bodies, the life contained for a time within

Pigeons on a railing
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Not a whit. We defy augury.

Hamlet, V. ii. 233

We were gone for almost all of August. When we got back, we found a rime of black and white bird shit and feathers encrusted on the top few steps of the stoop. Pigeons had been roosting on the pediments atop our windows. Whatever normally kept them away from our building was no longer keeping them away. Who’s to say where they came from; pigeons come from nowhere.

Nadia and I figured the late summer rains would wash the fecal matter away, and the pigeons would eventually leave. Find some other Brooklyn brownstone with protruding eaves. But the rains only got rid of the white shit, leaving behind the more three-dimensional, wormlike black shit, and the pigeons stayed. Fresh feculence of both varieties kept falling. The stoop, where we sometimes sat around and chatted with the neighbors, had become entirely unusable.

Our landlord, Erik, a veteran New York Times reporter based in Mexico City, was oblivious to the issue until he visited one rainy afternoon in October. He was standing by the trash bins sorting junk mail. He always wore a pair of newish black Sambas. No rain jacket or umbrella. High receding widow’s peak. Dark, angular, bushy eyebrows that gave him the semblance of a hawk.

“Sorry about the mess,” he said. “How long has it been like this?”

“Probably since mid-August,” I said. “We were away when it started.”

“That’s a long time, I’m really sorry. It’s frankly disgusting. It’s also a public health hazard.”

“How would you go about getting rid of them?”

The three of us looked up. A row of light and dark gray triangles hung over the lip of the brownstone’s uppermost ledge. The pigeons were sheltering from the rain.

“I’ll probably hire a guy to go up to the roof and hang off the side to clean those ledges. Then they put down this sticky stuff, which keeps the birds away.”

“Is that okay for the birds?” Nadia asked.

“Oh yeah, it’s all-natural. They don’t like the feeling of it on their feet, so they stop landing there.”

This seemed a better solution than nets and metal spikes, which always felt so medieval to me. Erik promised to have the property manager get straight to work. Rain had darkened his shoulders. The junk mail sat in his hands like undevoured prey. We thanked him and left it at that.

This seemed a better solution than nets and metal spikes, which always felt so medieval to me.

A few weeks later, I woke to the sound of voices on the landing. Aurelio, the property manager, and a couple of his guys were heading up to the roof. I lay still and listened to their footsteps creaking across the bedroom ceiling. When I went downstairs, I noticed that the stoop was clean. Aurelio the generalísimo—tall and well-fed, well-liked on the block—was standing by his van, staring up at the eaves. He smiled when he saw me and shook my hand. He said they might need to go inside the apartment tomorrow to work on the window ledges. I said no hay problema.

 “No hay problema?” he repeated, smiling again, and went back to work.

The crew came back the next day with coarse black brushes duct-taped to the ends of wooden poles. They dipped the brushes in a soap solution, lay flat at the edge of the roof, and reached down to scrub, presumably while others gripped their ankles from behind. I stood by the bedroom window at one point to watch. Fine particles of soapy water floated past the glass. The men joked around while they worked, suspended over the edge, supremely indifferent to death. Once the stone was clean, they took a pole with a putty knife taped to the end, smeared the blade with bird-repellent gel, and reached down to scrape the stuff onto the ledges. The job took less than half an hour.

Aurelio knocked at our door. I waved him and his right-hand man, Rodrigo, inside and moved some books and picture-frames away from the bedroom windows. I pointed to the potted sampaguita on the windowsill with its tracery of green leaves and vines wound about a bamboo trellis by the glass. I asked them to be extra careful with that—my cousin Emily had entrusted the plant to my care before leaving the city. Aurelio nodded. I went into the kitchen to wait.

Emily had been on my mind all morning. She had messaged the family WhatsApp the day before: “Hi fam! I am being admitted to labor and delivery. Baby will most likely be born tomorrow.” Hearts and prayer hands flooded the chat. I sensed something grave and unspoken: the baby wasn’t due for another month. “Eat noodles for us pls,” Emily added. A Filipino custom, eating noodles on birthdays for long life. Whose long life? I wondered. For us, Em had said. The custom covers both, of course, the same life force. Every birthday belongs equally to the mother—

It didn’t look at all, to me, like a deterrent. It looked like a fucking trap.

“All done!” Aurelio said, emerging from the bedroom. On their way out, Rodrigo waved his caulking gun, fitted with the tube of bird-repellent gel, and flashed his perfect set of silver teeth. I went in to examine their work. On the ledge outside the window near my desk, they had put down some thick squiggles of whitish, transparent gel. They had done the same on the other window ledge, by the bed. I found the sight of it vaguely unsettling—the gel had a semen-like quality, maybe that’s what it was. But it also had to do with the lines Rodrigo had drawn. There was something runelike and indecipherable about them. A wide, looping, archaic script, just dense enough to ensure that nothing could land there without touching it. The pattern was not haphazard; some knowledge was encoded there. Some canny human certainty about the ways of animals that I found disturbing. It didn’t look at all, to me, like a deterrent. It looked like a fucking trap.


Nadia came in and said, “There’s a pigeon on the stoop. I think it’s stuck.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s stuck.”

“To the stoop?”

“Come see.”

I followed them out. On the third step down, in the shadow of the wrought-iron handrail, a small huddled form sat motionless. I hadn’t seen anything there on my way up, an hour ago. Maybe I had missed it. We went closer, speaking gently: hey little one, are you okay? It didn’t move. Its head hung low, near the step. Its crown and throat were snowy white, with dark gray regions around its eyes. Its eyes were wide and black and blank, like the eyes of someone shocked.

“What should we do?” Nadia said.

I didn’t know. I switched on my phone’s light. The bird’s wings glistened with transparent gunk. Its feet were a mess. Globs of gel clung to the pink skin above its claws, and the feathers nearest its feet were saturated and dark. It did seem to be stuck where it was. I moved closer to see if it would try to strain. It hardly seemed to see me at all. It must have been exhausted. We watched it for a moment. Its whole form lifted faintly, then dropped, lifted, then dropped. It was breathing.

“We have to do something,” Nadia said.

I went upstairs to fetch one of the wooden poles Aurelio had left on the landing. I moved it carefully in front of the bird. No response. I touched the pole very gently to its breast. Nothing.

“Do you think we should try to free its feet?” Nadia asked.


“Maybe with water?”

“That stuff is extremely sticky. I had to scrub some of it off the windowsill earlier.”

“We have to do something.”

I agreed. The alternative was what? It would just sit there until it died, or until the rats got to it. We went upstairs and did some research. As I clicked around, I saw an ad for something called “Tanglefoot Bird Repellent”—how obscene, I thought, how cruel. We found that vegetable oil might work. So we pulled on double layers of blue nitrile gloves and brought down a dishcloth, a roll of paper towel, and plastic containers of canola oil and water. Coming down the stairs, I felt a heaviness in my limbs. I wasn’t hopeful about the outcome, but Nadia was right, we had to try.

I wasn’t hopeful about the outcome, but Nadia was right, we had to try.

The pigeon had turned around. Now it was near the edge, facing away from the step. So it wasn’t entirely stuck. Maybe it wanted to fly. We decided to start by removing the gunk on its feathers. I moved to a lower step and held up a light. Nadia took a moment to drape the dishcloth over the pigeon’s head, and held a hand there to calm it. Then they dipped some paper towel in the oil and set about swabbing the wing feathers, pulling the gel outward, speaking to it the whole time.

It seemed to be working. The pigeon hardly appeared to notice. Nadia was able to pull one of the wings out from the body—a sickening sheet of gel stretched between wing and side. It had been literally stuck shut. I propped my phone against the step, dipped my fingers in oil, and did as Nadia was doing. We worked quietly, pulling feathers free, dragging the gel down to the tips, then out completely. It must have flapped its wings after it landed in the glue. It must have tumbled into the glue, then righted itself. It must have fallen three stories from the ledge. The Adhan began at the mosque on the corner. Evening prayers curled like smoke; we listened while we worked.

I thought of Emily and the baby. Josh, her husband, had sent a photo in the afternoon of Em lying with her eyes closed in the hospital bed. She looked unconscious or delirious. Her mother was standing above her, feeling her forehead, looking concerned. One aunt said she was going to the church to offer prayers to St. Gerard, patron saint of expectant mothers. She urged everyone to say the Memorare Prayer ten times. My mother wrote, “Lord, please protect Em and baby during this delivery. We trust in your perfect will and timing. Amen.” Josh had said the baby was likely arriving by the end of the day. I wiped a hand to check my phone for updates—nothing. I felt a sudden fear for Emily’s life, and the baby’s life as well. It was getting late. The pigeon moved very little.

Several stray bits of mangled feather matter had become lodged between its flight feathers. I extended the wings and removed each piece that seemed out of place, trying to simulate a natural preening motion. I had kept parakeets before, so I knew something about birds and their habits. A pair of pet-store budgies—one was green and yellow with a single ultramarine tail feather, the other was pale blue and white, puffy, rotund. It was never exactly my choice to own birds. The first was a rescue from my roommates’ theater production. They toyed for a moment with killing him onstage. I intervened on the grounds that art has nothing to do with killing animals onstage. The other one I adopted to keep the first company, to give his life purpose. Both lived in the bedroom I shared with my partner at the time—another Brooklyn brownstone, another life.

I sometimes woke up flat on my back with my hands folded softly at my chest, as if we had all died together.

But keeping birds troubled me. I was haunted by the thought of one of them slipping through the cage, flying for the window, striking the glass. Somehow worse was the thought of the window hanging open and one of them flying out, a blaze of tropical wings, suddenly alone in the cold and powerless to the casual killing force of everything in the city. Even worse was the thought of the other one left inside, confused, calling for its mate. All of it was awful, the whole arrangement. In the end I broke up with that partner and left that apartment, but I had nightmares about the birds for years—cradling their little forms between my hands, traveling with them through the chaos and noise of the subway, shielding them from gears and cars and heavy machinery. I sometimes woke up flat on my back with my hands folded softly at my chest, as if we had all died together.

I would tell Nadia about these dreams just after we started dating. We were sitting on the stoop one morning drinking tea when they asked if there was any subtext to the dreams’ recurrence. Previous relationship, I said. That seemed clear. I suppose I equated their absence with grief over the relationship. I suppose I felt I had abandoned the birds, as I had abandoned my partner.

Talking it through made it comprehensible. Even then, Nadia could tell when I was stuck or troubled, bewildered to the point of incapacitation. I saw them off that day with a kiss atop the stoop. I remember it vividly: Nadia closed the gate, waved, turned away. They were carrying a yellow backpack and wearing a yellow leather belt. I watched them recede down the block and sat back for a moment to enjoy the morning, the spring air. Then glancing down, I saw, just inches from my feet, a dead chick, sprawled on the step. No longer than a finger, pink and nearly translucent in the sun. Its head was thrown back, arms not yet wings at its sides. It must have fallen from a nest—the oak tree moved extravagantly in the wind, shuffling its leaves like cards. I sat for a while with these strange pieces of experience in my hands. The continuous line from dreaming to waking to this moment. Ill augury? I waved a fly away, went into the vestibule for an envelope, and lifted the bird with mute ceremony to the trash bin. It weighed next to nothing.

Once the feathers looked relatively free of the gel, we turned our attention to the feet. But as soon as Nadia started swabbing the toes, the pigeon startled. “It’s okay, it’s okay!” Nadia said, and placed a hand atop the dishcloth. They used their fingers to drag the gel away from the legs and claws. They were making steady progress; it was working. But then the pigeon jumped again, and this time it tumbled off the side of the step, falling with a thud onto the trash bins below.

“Oh no!” Nadia was horrified. “It’s okay,” I said, hurrying down the steps with the light. It had fallen all the way to the ground, between two of the bins. I moved them apart carefully. It was standing with its wing against one of the bin’s wheels. It was alive. Nadia was rattled—“That was my fault. Is it alright?” “It’s alright,” I said. “You’re helping it, you’re doing beautifully.” We decided to wait a few minutes so that it could rest. We needed to collect ourselves as well.

Hollow bones, I thought, pneumatized, devoid of marrow.

It was a cool night, temperate for November. Occasionally someone would walk past, glancing at us in our blue gloves, glancing briefly at the pigeon in the field of the flashlight. No one seemed to think about it much. Our neighbor Linh, who lived on the parlor level, appeared at the gate. Nadia told her what was happening. Her shoulders fell forward. She seemed genuinely sad. “Is there anything I can do?” she asked. We said there’s no need, we would take care of it. I could tell she was relieved. “We have some Dawn,” she said, and offered to bring it out. We accepted.

I squeezed some soap into the water and we went back to work. Nadia laid the cloth over the pigeon and picked it up entirely. They set it down in a clear part of the forecourt and tried to continue wiping at the feet. But now it was sitting flush against the bluish stone, as though brooding over a nest. I checked my phone: still no news about the baby. “It must be really tired,” Nadia said. Maybe if I held it up, they could get to the feet? They shrugged. We agreed to try.

I refolded the dishcloth and wrapped it around the bird’s head and body. Then I placed my hands on either side of the wings and lifted. It felt somehow both substantial and light. Hollow bones, I thought, pneumatized, devoid of marrow. But here was a life. These were its contours. I tried to impart calm through my touch. It did not strain or protest. I saw Nadia’s green eyes distant with concern. I thought about the heat at the edges of bodies, the life contained for a time within. I thought about the living force within my body, as well, and I thought about Emily, laboring to bring life into the world, laboring to keep it there. What large decisions was she in the midst of making? What life-or-death adjustments was she trying? My lola, the mother of Emily’s mother, would say that in giving birth, the mother has her one foot in the grave. One life going out as one comes in. The hold of one body weakening as it releases another. The thought was unbearable. Unbearable, unspeakable—to imagine the family’s prayers becoming prayers for the dead.

I tilted my hands so the pigeon’s feet faced up. Nadia pulled back the cloth and swabbed the claws with their fingers, now using both oil and soap. From time to time it twitched, and its feet grasped, but I held it steady and we spoke to it, and it relaxed. Nadia worked diligently for a few minutes. But holding the bird like this, we saw how deeply the gel had worked its way into the feathers covering the breast and abdomen. The stuff came away from the wing feathers, more or less, but it seemed to be caked about this lower region like tar. It all felt suddenly hopeless.

I frowned hard and looked down the street. No one else was out.

We looked at each other. I wondered where I should set it down. “Out there?” I said, gesturing to the sidewalk. I don’t know why I suggested that. Maybe I wanted to be free of the responsibility. Maybe I wanted to be like all the other people walking past, going about their swift urban existences. “How about here?” Nadia said, pointing to a corner of our forecourt near the neighboring wall. “It should have some kind of shelter.” I eased it down where Nadia pointed and lifted the cloth. Its right shoulder seemed higher than its left. Its head still drooped. Because I had set it down facing the wall, it gave the appearance of turning away from us, refusing our help.

“You poor thing,” we said. This bird had no chance. What more could we do for it? Calling animal rescue seemed absurd. A single pigeon in New York City; who would move a muscle? I thought about the rats again, big ones on this block. They would descend on it soon, any moment. It would be a bloody mess by the morning. A sad thought occurred to me. “Maybe we should put it out of its misery,” I said. Nadia searched my face. “You don’t think it’ll make it?” I didn’t even think it would last the night. Nadia frowned. I did, too. I felt we had a hand in this—getting rid of the pigeons had seemed like a good idea to us. We were partly responsible for this creature’s suffering. Maybe the least we could do was to end it. Miserable, the frailty of human logic.

“How?” Nadia said. I had no desire to kill it with blunt force. “Maybe we drown it,” I said. But we didn’t even own a bucket. Our other neighbor, Deb, was coming down the street. Nadia explained the situation to her. “That’s so awful,” Deb said. “That’s exactly what I thought would happen with the sticky stuff.” A completely inane solution, we agreed. “We’re considering putting it out of its misery,” Nadia said. I asked Deb if she had a bucket. She shook her head. I think she was lying.

Nadia and I went upstairs and rooted around in the kitchen. I found a bag made of thick green plastic and tried filling it at the sink. It seemed to work. I lifted it into a nylon grocery bag, in case the plastic ripped, and filled it about halfway. I asked Nadia if they thought that was enough water. They did. I held the double bag in my arms like a wineskin and brought it down. “Are we really about to do this?” Nadia said. The pigeon still hadn’t moved. I frowned hard and looked down the street. No one else was out. “It’s the right thing,” I said. “It would just suffer otherwise. I think I would want the same.” Nadia nodded, pensive. I said if they held the bag steady, I would drop it in. “Them,” Nadia suddenly corrected me. “Drop them in.” They were right, of course.

I wrapped the bird with the dishcloth, this time holding the fabric a little more snugly over their head. Their life in my hands. “Sorry, little friend,” I said. “You’re going to fly straight to heaven.” Nadia was solemn, holding the handles of the bag upright. “It’s really brave of you,” they said. I said I was just following their lead, which was true. I brought the pigeon closer to the bag.

“On three?” I said. We counted—

One. Two. Three.


O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided.

Inspired by this confidence I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother. To thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful.

O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy

hear and answer me.

Beside the bag, a little yellow larva was inching along the ground—a newborn caterpillar maybe, fallen from the oak tree. A little bead of pure life, inching, squirming, striving blindly. I stared at it, amused, while Nadia said some words I couldn’t hear. Water was seeping from the outer bag. “Oh no,” that’s what Nadia was saying. I worried suddenly that there wouldn’t be enough—I moved my hands and felt the coolness of the water at my wrists. It was still deep. I looked for the larva again and was pleased to see the water trickling in a stream just past it; it was dry, safe. The pigeon strained—I felt their feathers sharpen against my hands. I adjusted my grasp. I spoke to them. The wings went slack. “I think that’s it,” I said. We waited for a moment to be sure.

I hadn’t prayed in a very long time. We sat on the floor and did ten recitations, taking turns.

I lifted the body in its sopping cloth out of the water. Nadia opened the lid of the trash bin. I set it down inside. “It’s too bad we can’t bury it,” Nadia said. I brought the bags to the street and tipped them out. The water rushed forth. I felt relieved. It was done. I covered the pigeon’s body with the bags and carefully lowered the lid of the bin. We floated upstairs in a daze. I felt a vacancy in my eyes. We sat silent in the kitchen. I lit a stick of palo santo at the stove, and it burned a long time.

An image of St. Francis lay face up on the dining table. I found the sight of it calming. “He looks like the pigeon,” I said to Nadia. Wounded and alone. Wings at his sides. Draped in coarse cloth. We decided to pray the Memorare for Emily and her baby. Nadia lit a candle and turned out the lights. I hadn’t prayed in a very long time. We sat on the floor and did ten recitations, taking turns. My mother’s voice traveled to me across the years; I remembered her intoning this one often, almost every day. At the end I said, “We pray for Emily and her baby. For the soul of the pigeon. For the current of life that connects all of us.” The candlelight flickered through my shut eyelids. I didn’t remember how to end the prayer, so we just sat there for a while in the dark.

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