Proposal: Redesign of Manhattan's Avian Ecology
Why settle for lowly pigeons when we could have luxurious peacocks?
In Manhattan an unsightly ecosystem has emerged. Pigeons, rats, and cockroaches go about their day, benefiting obscenely from our endless excesses and the perpetual supply of waste. In return, all we get for our graciousness is pestilence. To balance the scales requires a judicious surveyance of the creatures with utility and those without. From there we might begin to curate a biome on the island, that is more appealing to the humans, and less so for the beasts.1
To provide a template for how to proceed, I will make a comparison of two species of bird that live in Manhattan, one that is of meaningful utility and one that is not.2 Once the dichotomy is established I will offer a means of execution, and suggest potential futures for biodiversity design in the city.
The American Tree Sparrow, is an example of an animal that offers urban humans a meaningful day-to-day experience. Aesthetically, it is charming and subtle - the bird’s colors are not extravagant, its pallet is humble and earthy offering the comforting allusion to a more pastoral state of being.3 A necessary reminder of the splendid American wilderness that is lost to the swarm of hard working urbanites. The sparrow is also equipped with the instrumentation to produce delightful tunes, providing us a reprieve from the cacophonous calls of urban infrastructure.
On the other hand, the feral city or street pigeon is a perfect example of a species demonstrating poor urban utility.4 These birds reproduce quickly and in excess they often can damage property, spread disease, and produce distressing amounts of excrement. A 2006 study showed that Pigeons managed to inflicted 1.1 billion dollars in damages on US soil.5 Needless to say, the war on pigeons has been costly, and most attempts at culling the feathered usurpers had yielded public opposition. As it turns out, no one wants to see poisoned pigeons littering the streets. Moreover, the pigeon is an unwanted reminder of our consumption. Its appearance suggests gluttony. Bulbous and awkward, walking and occasionally flying in erratic fashion that would suggest inebriation - its character is a distillation of undesirable qualities.
My suggestion is this: more sparrow, less pigeon — or better still - no pigeon. Some may argue that the sparrow is not the ideal bird, which may be true. Perhaps the American Tree Sparrow is more befitting parts of gentrified Brooklyn, where the lo-fi, back-to-nature aesthetic is more in vogue. Manhattanites may call for a bird that is more representative of a classic bourgeois aesthetic. Nothing so overt like a peacock but somewhere in the middle. I only mean to contend that it would be a positive starting point in the process of balancing the currently unfair ecological dynamic in Manhattan. It is now well within our power to bring new and exciting species to the city, and going forward, we might learn more about how to properly curate our ornithological community.6
As we have industrial construction equipment to move land and water, so too do we have gene editing to layout biodiversity. Advances in genetic technology has presented us with the real possibility of using gene editing as a means of breeding the unwanted beasts out of existence. The messier methods of culling, like poison or traps, have become obsolete and instead the undesired animals will simply become infertile and disappear over a set number of generations. An invisible extermination. Such techniques are already being applied in Brazil and China with mosquitoes and tested in the Galapagos with rats.7,8,9 It will take time, but it is worth it for a humane way to redesign our urban environment.
It may even be reasonable to consider introducing more exotic or exciting animals as a potential stimulant of tourism. Just last week the arrival of a Mandarin duck in Central Park achieved a level of notable virality on social media.10 Such marketing opportunities would be irresponsible to ignore. It is not unreasonable to imagine a future in which biodiversity becomes an integral aspect of branding for residential developments or neighborhoods: I’d propose blue-yellow macaws for Chelsea and barn owls in the East Village.
In short, certain aspects of nature are more useful than others and it is important to point out that such manipulations have already been occurring with the land, water, and plant life in New York for centuries. Not because it is necessary, but because we are constantly trying to improve. So I ask, if the land, and the sea, and the trees, why not the animals too? Is it really more extravagant to remove the pigeon and install more sparrows, than it is to build an ever growing range of quarter-mile-high mountains of glass and steel?
1 Appeal; though it is not an equivalence of fairness it can serve as consolation.
2 The Urban Wildlife Society (https://www.urbanwildlifesociety.org/pigeons/pijvalu.html) has a list of lukewarm arguments for the pigeon, such as, “Their affectionate attention to their mate is sweet and romantic” and “They are the biblical dove of love and peace” and “Pigeons provide a good role model for society. The traditional doves of love and peace, pigeons mate for life and set a good example for people by the way they care for their mate and their young,” Alas all of these arguments are not unique to the pigeon, for many other creatures have similarly admirable values and moral symbolism. In fact, by the word of the Urban Wildlife Society, it seems as though many of the values embodied by the Pigeon are outdated and exclusive to a western tradition, and generally go against the more inclusive values of present-day New York City.
3 Varied chromatics do not guarantee beauty, for the city pigeon can often have varied iridescent colored feathers while still embodying an aesthetic of filthiness - it is the difference between seeing a rainbow in the sky versus seeing one in a puddle of gasoline.
4 Some may generously refer to it as a ‘dove’.
5 Jon Mooallem, “Pigeon Wars,” New York Magazine, October 2006, accessed November 07, 2018
6 Some sort of process of elimination in which the most useful birds survive and the more aggravating or least useful are genetically eradicated, would likely be an effective design methodology.
7 Kelly Servick, "Brazil will release billions of lab-grown mosquitoes to combat infectious disease. Will it work?” Science, October 2016, accessed November 07, 2018
8 Emiko Jozuka, "Inside China's 'mosquito factory' fighting Zika and dengue,” CNN, December 2016, accessed November 07, 2018
9 Emma Marris, “Process of Elimination,” Wired, February 2018, accessed November 07, 2018
10 Evan Simko-Bednarski, “A rare Mandarin duck is hanging out in NYC's Central Park and nobody knows how it got there,” CNN, November 2018, accessed November 07, 2018