by Siena Oristaglio
I’m sitting on a park bench surrounded by pigeons.
They teeter and flap about.
It’s raining but they don’t seem to mind.
They peck at the ground, scouring for crumbs.
Their heads scan the surroundings mechanically.
I shift on my bench.
A few turn towards me with an ominous agility.
One sinks its head into its thick neck plumage and gives me a suspicious look.
I stare back at it.
I am very afraid of pigeons.
From what source do our fears arise?
In 1907, a German apothecary named Julius Neubronner found himself fascinated by a carrier pigeon that had returned to him after having gone missing for weeks.
Curious about this pigeon’s adventures, he decided to develop a lightweight miniature camera with a timer that could be fitted with a harness to the breast of a bird.
He received a patent for his invention and a year later began touring the device at international photography exhibitions in Dresden and Frankfurt.
At each festival, he invited attendees to spectate the arrival of his flock of pigeons and observe as the aerial photographs they had taken were developed into postcards.
Deep in an internet rabbit hole one night, I discover this series of photographs and am awed.
As I inspect the graceful framing and unusual angles, it occurs to me that I don’t know exactly when or how I became afraid of pigeons.
Perhaps there was a traumatic childhood incident involving the creatures.
Or maybe the fear stems from a decade-old Wired article about scientific efforts to create cyborg pigeon spies, the graphic images within which gave me nightmares for months.
Either way, as I browse the photographs taken by Neubronner’s birds, I decide I don’t want to be afraid of pigeons anymore.
This decision has landed me now, a day later, on a park bench communing with what feels like the entirety of New York’s avian population.
What now? I think to myself as cars splash by on the nearby street.
Now you pay attention.
I shift my gaze to the birds.
How does it feel to be observed by the mind of another?
Though Neubronner’s pigeon camera began as an artistic hobby, he later hoped his cameras would be used by the military to aid in the surveillance of enemies.
His attempts to this effect, however, garnered limited success: with advances in airplane technology, the devices were deemed too cumbersome and risky to be employed widely.
Efforts to use pigeons for surveillance purposes have been well-documented since Neubronner’s era, but have nearly always been met with failure due to the potential hazards inherent to working with birds.
Ironically, pigeons are themselves very private creatures, known for building nests in secret locations and revealing themselves to humans only after they fully mature.
This is why the sight of a baby pigeon, known as a squab, is a rare occurrence.
On the bench, now, one of the birds bobbles to within inches of me.
I try to talk myself through my discomfort.
He’s not a threat, I tell myself. Relax.
In an attempt at distraction, I shield my phone from the rain and open another image.
In this one, the wings of the bird obscure the edges of the frame.
I marvel at familiarity of this gesture: in lieu of a haphazard finger in front of the lens, it’s a set of grey feathers.
I grin and feel a momentary calm.
Then something imperceptible to me frightens the pigeons.
At once, half of the flock takes flight.
The others, disturbed but not enough to depart, run a few paces before settling.
They pause and shudder.
Their heads jolt in all directions, scanning for a threat.
Seeing none, they settle.
One begins to coo.
How do we distinguish between danger and safety?
Eight years ago, while strolling through a church square, a man approached me, gesturing frenetically.
Without warning, he brushed his hand over my shoulders and an enormous swarm of pigeons flocked to my body, pecking and flapping.
I yelled and spun as a mess of wings obscured my vision.
Panicked, I crouched to the ground and shook my torso until the birds finally dismounted.
The man then proceeded to ask me for money.
I realized he had poured birdseed on me and expected me to pay him for the unsolicited avian huddle.
I swore at him under my breath and ran off, the gaggle of pigeons still pecking at fallen seed on ground where I’d stood.
Reaching the other side of the square, I glanced back.
The stranger had executed the same trick on another man, whose grey overcoat was now entirely submerged in pigeons.
This man, though, appeared delighted. He struck a series of poses while a friend photographed him.
Good for him, I thought. I hope he enjoys the dry cleaning bill.
Recalling that experience now, I wonder about the factors that caused to me to become alarmed, the man in the overcoat delighted, by the sudden flock.
Mine was instantaneous fear response, his a placid curiosity, not unlike the divide between pigeons before me who flew off while their colleagues remained undisturbed.
A split-second instinctive response. Threat. Act. Or: No threat. Settle.
No threat. Settle.
When we look directly at what we fear, what do we learn?
In another photograph captured by a pigeon, two figures stand on a roof.
One leans over, examining a chimney.
The other, dressed in a full suit, heavy boots, and a sun hat, appears to stare directly at the camera.
Observing these figures, I remind myself that this view was not what the pigeon carrying the camera saw in that moment.
Rather, it’s a mechanical approximation of what our human eyes would have seen if we were at that pigeon’s height and location.
Though pigeon vision differs in key ways from our own (for one, they are able to detect the ultraviolet spectrum and magnetic fields), the creatures have a remarkable ability to distinguish between human-generated visual stimuli.
In a series of studies, pigeons were proven to successfully differentiate between paintings by Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso, watercolor images from pastels, and even “beautiful art” from “bad art” based on a set of criteria given to them by researchers.
As the rain tapers into a fine spray, I wonder: would pigeons recognize the photographic work of their own kind as “good art”?
I put my phone back into my pocket.
I take a breath.
I try to perceive the creatures around me as beautiful.
I blink at the birds. A couple blink back.
In the misty evening light, they do look quite luminous.
A few wear a rainbow sheen that glistens with their dampness.
One is white and spotted with black like a cow.
Some have light feathers and pale eyes.
Others are a dark grey with reddish eyes.
As I scan, the cow pigeon takes off.
Perhaps it’s frightened.
Perhaps it’s returning to a secret nest to tend to its squabs.
The rain grows heavier. I lift my hood.
A few birds turn to observe me.
What am I to them? I wonder.
A threat? A potential provider of food? Something beautiful? Something ugly?
An unremarkable aspect of the landscape?
In this moment, I surrender to whatever it is they believe about me.
Siena Oristaglio (all pronouns) is an artist and educator. She co-runs The Void Academy, an organization that helps independent artists thrive. She lives in New York City.