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“Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird.”

Written by Andrew D. Blechman,  Published by Grove Press, New York

Reviewed by Jim Jenner

 

Those of us who have spent a lifetime loving pigeons have learned many things. For example, I've learned that a lot of journalists are idiots.  This was not one of the seminal experiences raising pigeons taught me; it was more of a sidebar to being that rare bird known as a  "pigeon fancier".  However, as I pursued my own career in the news media, after a childhood of happily caring for the bird of peace, I was not prepared for the smug stupidity many reporters bring to any story involving Columba Livia.

Newspaper reporters, who usually have more time to absorb and craft a story, are not the worst offenders.  But get that story back to the aloof editors in the newsroom and a well written piece about a racing pigeon hobbyist is quickly headlined "Bird Brain" or "For the Birds", etc.  And the television newscasters are absolutely the worst.  You know what I mean.  There will be a nice little news story about a pigeon show, or a racing club, and without fail, when it's over, the blow-dried anchorman in the studio can't resist summing it all up with some reference to pigeon poop or flying rats; chuckle, chuckle, ha ha, and now let's take another look at tomorrow's weather.  

It's a global problem, but it has reached its nadir in America, where happy talk news long ago replaced responsible journalism.  Now, even in England, where Her Majesty herself is an active pigeon racer, this essentially anti-pigeon attitude is creeping in.

Some of us fight it with efforts to educate the public with visits to schools and community centers, or in my case, by making films.  Others simple shrug and give up and just keep racing.  But in the last fifty years I've learned the hard way to distrust any outsider that wants to do a “story about pigeons”.  

So when I first heard from writer Andrew Blechman I was skeptical, especially when he told me he’d gotten the green light from a major publisher for a book about pigeons based, in large part, on the recent success of a book called simply "Rats".   Apparently there is publishing hay being made in telling the inside story of dangerous or denigrated animals.  And now, finally, it was our bird's turn in the publishing spotlight.  Luckily they didn't go with "Rat with Wings" for the title.

My skepticism was tempered when Blechman directed me to a story he'd written for the Smithsonian Magazine about a pigeon racer in New York.  I looked it up and found that he was not only a good writer but had woven in more than a little sense of wonder about the whole racing sport.  So, as we got to know one another, I had a growing faith that maybe, finally, a positive piece might come from this young American working on his first book.

Well, happily, "Pigeons - The fascinating saga of the world's most revered and reviled bird."  is a clever and caring look at an avian species and the people who love and hate them.  It's a mainstream work that may, finally, improve the material you will find under 636.596 in the library [that's the universal library decimal designation for pigeon books by the way].

In a highly readable style Blechman basically takes the reader by the hand as he wanders through America and Europe seeking out the seminal stories in this domestic creature's history with mankind.  He hits all the high spots, Darwin, Reuters, Rothschild, and Her Majesty; and relates their details with a smooth, humorous, fact-filled writing style that makes the book impossible to put down.  Blechman is indeed a gifted writer and a shrewd observer and, by the end of the book, he admits to being won over to an understanding of why we pigeon people care so much for our charges.  What’s more he marshals a lot of existing material into strong commentaries that will be very helpful in telling our story in the years ahead.  His careful description of how the poisonous pest control industry turned pigeons from revered creatures to disease carrying vermin, for profit, is worth the price of the book alone.

Is this a must-read book for every fancier?  Yes and no.  It's a little bit of an ink-on-paper blend of my "Oldest Feathered Friend" and "Share the Blue Sky" which deliver many of the same sagas from the pigeon world that don't always appeal to hard core racing men who can only spare time for the latest news on winning.  These purists won't have much time for stories about feral pigeons, squab farms, Pennsylvania pigeon shoots and Blechman's hilarious and unsuccessful attempt to track down Mike Tyson, one of the hobby's most famous and possibly oddest fanciers.  But, more important, what Blechman has done is hand us a marvelous new weapon in the long battle to win back some respect for the birds we are literally fighting for the right to enjoy in modern society.  "Pigeons" is definitely a book a pigeon club would want to make sure is in their local libraries, and will be a baseline of accurate information for decades to come.  What's more, as a book printed and promoted by the highly respected Grove Press, Andrew Blechman has been pushed out into the public realm as a spokesman for our birds and our hobby.  If you've heard him on one of the countless radio interviews he's given, or read his pro-pigeon writings in such important publications as The New York Times, you know he's become an articulate spokesman for why our publicly reviled pets deserve to be recognized and revered.  For that we can't thank him enough.

So, what's not to like about "Pigeons" if you are a pigeon person yourself?  Well I think any shortcomings relate directly to the nature of what a young writer is faced with when he gets his first big break and has a year to pop out a potential best seller.  First, as a book aimed at mainstream readers, there is a logical propensity to spend time with some of the odder members of the pigeon world's human flock.  Some of the characters from the fancy side of the sport are pretty strange and we all know that racing in the Northeastern part of the U.S. is pretty hard core compared to more placid, friendly small clubs in other parts of the world.   And he describes my friend Frank Tasker as a "fanatic", which of course he is, but only by half compared to the hundreds of families on the continent that Blechman never met in the course of describing modern day racing in Europe.

This tendency to celebrate the odd balls, characters we all know and have learned to tolerate since we were children, is part of that same media habit to make things stranger than they really are.   I'm sure the publisher wanted enough of it to make people feel they'd been on a journey into a strange land.  For example the cover features a single red check racing pigeon.  Why?  I'll bet because somebody in the marketing department said "Red ones?  They have red ones?!"    Marketing aside, let's face it, there are no pigeon people who are stranger than the people who worship, show, race and generally devote their lives to dogs and horses, or cats for that matter.  It's simply more acceptable and Blechman makes this case for us well.

Happily Andrew Blechman is a people person.  His meetings with such gentle and articulate spokespeople for the Rock Dove as the Queen's loft manager, Carlo Napolitano, or the wonderful author and pigeon historian Jean Hansel, left him with a better understanding of the deep respect reasonable and intelligent people have for pigeons and it shows in his book.  He summarizes his last chapter with his experience attending the House of Commons dinner honoring war pigeons and reflecting on the bewildering twists and turns following our flock had taken him through.  And, in the end, he admits that he has come to realize how wonderful the true story of pigeons and people really is.

In short, an outsider showed up and, for once, got it right.  Thanks in large part to his skills as a observer, but also thanks to folks like you, who, when pressed, made him understand that pigeons make us happier to greet each day, this book is a great success and something we can add to our arsenal in our fight for the right to keep our birds.  The only thing I found missing, and after all the pluses it is not a criticism but an observation, is for all of his wonderful prose Blechman never really gets a chance to weave a true word picture of the emotional bond between people and pigeons.  But that's simply because he is an outside observer without the benefit of first hand knowledge.  You know what I mean, let's call it the "Order of the Scrapper", you earn it on your knees in the loft as a child and it's a magic bond between human and bird that grows into your heart like the roots a tree sends into the earth.  It's the sense of pride that comes from looking at youngsters in a new nest, the feeling that your favorite bird recognizes and loves you, the exhilaration of seeing racing wings in the sky before you expected them.  Those emotions are impossible for an outside observer to articulate.  But, in his defense, Blechman came to our world to produce a non-fiction book and not a passionate plea for what pigeon keeping can do for your soul.  He succeeded splendidly.  This journalist is no idiot.  Andrew Blechman proves in “Pigeons” that he is a bright and gifted young writer with a great career in front of him.   Bless the New York racing pigeon fancier who lead him to our door.   This may be his premier book but it certainly won't be his last and we now have one of the best new media allies on our side since I started to have second thoughts about the media decades ago.    This book is an eminently readable, fact-filled and fascinating journey through the pigeon’s world.  I highly recommend it.