Three pigeons were sharing what was left of a piece of pizza that was lying on the sidewalk on East 53rd Street near Woodlawn Avenue on Tuesday morning, between the hours we human beings usually eat breakfast and lunch.
No one walking past or around the pigeons paid them any attention. Who pays attention to pigeons? They are the most urban of birds, avian facts of city living as common as potholes. They are always here: They do not migrate, suffering our winters along with the rest of us, though I have yet to hear a pigeon whine about the wind chill.
More than a decade ago, Tribune magazine featured a series of etchings by renowned local artist (activist, playwright, columnist, actor) Tony Fitzpatrick. All featured pigeons.
"I did that in reaction to all of the people, including some aldermen, who were always going off on the birds, doing their best to get rid of them," Fitzpatrick said.
I wrote a story to accompany Fitzpatrick's etchings and learned a great deal about pigeons, at least about the sort that share our piece of the planet.
Most of my knowledge came courtesy of Megan Ross, who then was curator of birds at Lincoln Park Zoo. She told me at the time that there are some 300 species of pigeons and doves.
"What we commonly refer to in Chicago as a pigeon is actually a rock dove," Ross had said (she's now vice president of animal care at the zoo). She told me to look closely in order to appreciate that a pigeon is not just a dull gray mass. Each bird has 10,000 feathers, some of them pink or bronze, white or green. Watch them fly you will also see what Ross described as "fun flight patterns."
And, she added, "They have a nice courtship display." As well they should, since pigeons, it may surprise you to know, mate for life. Not only that, but male pigeons have the ability to lactate, producing milk for the babies just as females do. They can live more than 30 years.
But many people hate pigeons. There have long been efforts intended to limit their numbers. There are spikes on window ledges, or fake owls hooting. Many outdoor parking lots have loudspeakers screeching periodically with hawklike sounds in attempts to keep executives' shiny cars clean.
Little kids like to chase pigeons. I have seen older kids try to hit them with rocks or kick them into the air. Some adults hunt and kill them for food; the Internet is filled with recipes for pigeon.
A new book, "Trash Animals: How We Live With Nature's Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species" (University of Minnesota Press), is a gathering of interesting essays by environmental writers exploring the relationship between humans and such creatures as gulls, coyotes, hawks, carp and, you guessed it, pigeons.
What's on the book's cover? A pair of pigeons, which one essay refers to as "flying rats."
But it is another new book, a brilliant, important, haunting and poignant book, "A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction" (Bloomsbury) that will forever change the way in which you think of pigeons (all birds, really) and about the natural world.
Its author is Joel Greenberg, a researcher at the Field Museum and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. He was in fourth grade at College Hill Elementary School in Skokie when he first read about the passenger pigeon, and he has been fascinated ever since. How could he not be?
The book describes, in vivid detail, forceful narrative and handsome illustrations, the history of this species and the factors that contributed to its extinction.
Native to North America, the species existed in numbers so vast — 3 billion to 5 billion! — as to be almost unimaginable, traveling in flocks so large that they blocked the sun for hours or days. But Europeans arrived and began to change the face of the land and of the skies. Still, as "late as 1860, one flight near Toronto likely exceeded one billion birds and maybe three billion," Greenberg writes.
But then the effects of deforestation and hunting began to take their savage toll, and in little more than half a century, well, "It is unusual when the exact date of an extinction is known with a strong degree of certainty," Greenberg writes. Then he pins that date as Sept. 1, 1914, when the last of the species died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo. Her name was Martha.
"Martha's vitality slowly ebbed," Greenberg writes. "Keepers lowered her perch so that it was mere inches above the floor. She barely moved anymore, hardly the performance expected by the crowds."
Through their shared interest in birds, Fitzpatrick and Greenberg have become friends over the past decade, and the artist says, "I think Joel's book is as important as anything Rachel Carson ever wrote."
Carson was the marine biologist and conservationist whose 1962 book "Silent Spring" is generally credited with sparking the environmental movement. That book was first published in three serialized excerpts in The New Yorker.
That magazine recently gave Greenberg's book a lengthy review (as did, locally, the Chicago Reader), and it has been getting much national and international attention.
"For that I am thrilled," says Greenberg, who also blogs at Project Passenger Pigeon (passengerpigeon.org), an international organization he helped start and which is involved in the making of a documentary based on his book. The author of three books, most notably "A Natural History of the Chicago Region," Greenberg will have a reading/reception at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Notebaert, 2430 N Cannon Drive (naturemuseum.org).
He hopes his new book can be "a cautionary tale" and wants to use its story "as a portal into consideration of current issues related to extinction, sustainability and the relationship between people and nature."
His pal Fitzpatrick puts it this way: "This book also underlies the casual brutality we inflict on nature every day. I have a bird feeder outside my house and I watch it all the time, the birds coming and going. It connects me with nature, which is all around us if we'll just look. It keeps me sane."