The pigeons follow Michael Cook.
He has what they want: packets of Chips Ahoy! cookies that he buys at Deals Only just for them. Cook, who is homeless and uses a wheelchair to get around, suffers from a variety of medical issues and can’t have a pet.
“It’s hard enough to take care of myself,” he said.
But the pigeons can take care of themselves. They remember Cook and as he travels through downtown, they find him. If he is still and holds crumbs loosely in an open hand, they will hop onto his outstretched arm.
There’s a pigeon with fluffy feathers around her feet that at least one man in Astoria — the owner of Boomer’s All-American Cuisine, a food cart on Duane Street — refers to as Fancy Legs. There’s also the Black Knight and Hansel and Gretel. Dale Brechlin and his employees used to feed these and other pigeons until they were told not to.
You may not like it — and it’s technically against city law — but all around town, all the time, there are people from all walks of life, of all ages and political persuasions, out there feeding pigeons.
The city rarely deals with pigeon-related calls. City Planner Nancy Ferber can’t recall a single feeding complaint, but there have been a couple of dead pigeons on the sidewalk staff has had to scoop up.
In the 1980s, it was a different story.
In fact, the 1980s are the reason why innocently tossing bread crumbs to pigeons is now an illegal — if rarely policed — activity.
A pigeon problem
In 1981, Library Director Bruce Berney declared that Astoria had a pigeon problem and worried about the potential of accumulated droppings to lead to infectious diseases. He and other citizens urged the city to ban the feeding of pigeons, concerned about how the birds’ acidic droppings might also damage buildings.
There was the house in Uniontown a lot of people called “the Tippi Hedren house” after the actress who played the ill-fated heroine in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1963 horror film “The Birds.” One, if not both sides, of the house’s gable roof were constantly swarming with pigeons — not the best look for an area that was, at the time, looking to rebuild and rebrand itself.
Historian John Goodenberger had just returned from college in the late 1980s, hoping to make his way in his hometown. A new ban on feeding pigeons was in effect. The city was not under siege, but pigeons were definitely on people’s minds.
“I remember an unnamed leader of an unnamed institution chasing a poor old woman with a walker down the waterfront because she was feeding pigeons,” Goodenberger said.
Berney, in a memo to the City Council in 1981, wrote “I see very little difference between encouraging pigeons and feeding rats. One difference, of course, is that some people like pigeons, but no one likes rats.”
In news articles and letters, some people shot back, proclaiming their love of the pigeons and the joy they felt in feeding them, while others said enough was enough.
“You were either for them or against them,” Goodenberger recalled. “There was no middle ground.”
Astoria, neither truly urban or truly rural, has long maintained uneasy relationships with its local wildlife, suffering occasional panic attacks about whether a particular population of animals is growing too large and might overrun the town.
This year, some Astorians have wondered about the deer — another animal that evokes strong love-hate emotions. They feel like they’ve seen even more wandering through neighborhoods. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the city declared a war on the rats. In the 1980s, it was the pigeons’ turn.
Oregon is home to a native pigeon, the band-tailed pigeon, a swift-flying purple and gray bird found in forests in the west Cascades. But the pigeons in downtown Astoria are no different from pigeons found in any other U.S. city. They are rock pigeons, an invasive species introduced from Europe.
A white, calico or tan pigeon might show up in flocks from time to time, likely an escapee or the descendant of an escapee from someone who keeps homing pigeons. But rock pigeons are, for the most part, blue-gray with bronze, green and purple necks. Red of eye. Pink of foot. They bob, strut and coo. They peck at questionable leftovers on sidewalks. They are prone to startling up in a heart attack of furiously beating wings and scattered feathers.
Several years after Berney asked city leaders to declare pigeons a nuisance and as more complaints about the birds rolled in, the City Council looked at its options.
They could put interlocking spikes on tops of buildings to discourage pigeons from landing or roosting there, but that would only push the birds elsewhere. They could hire someone to routinely trap and kill pigeons in a humane way. Maybe they could give them feed laced with a birth control pill.
Or, they could cut off the obvious source of food: the people who scattered crumbs.
In December 1984, the city established a six-month moratorium on feeding pigeons in one section of downtown. One month in, the owner of Shallon Winery on Duane Street begged the City Council to extend the boundaries of the no-feeding zone to 16th Street.
People had started traveling to the outskirts of the ban area to feed pigeons, he told the council. The Clatsop County Historical Society planned to turn a building near the winery into the Heritage Museum, but Mayor Edith Henningsgaard was concerned about future problems around the building if people continued to feed pigeons nearby.
Nearly five months later, the City Council would pass an emergency ordinance banning the feeding of pigeons from Eighth Street to 16th Street, adding an extra six blocks to the original area. People who continued to feed pigeons, or any birds, in this area risked landing a $25 fine.
The rule would be modified again to include Uniontown and the Tippi Hedren house. It later morphed into a general prohibition against feeding wildlife in the city limits.
Not the end
Of course, the feeding prohibition was not the end of the pigeons. Flocks still flash overhead between downtown buildings and coo from their roosts. One pigeon walked right into the Bridge and Tunnel Bottleshop and Taproom on Duane Street this summer while owner Dwayne Smallwood watched. It wandered through, checked things out and left without buying a thing.
Micha Cameron-Lattek, co-owner of the nearby Street 14 Cafe, suspects it’s the same pigeon he’s seen patrolling outside the cafe door.
“It would just bob around, left to right. In the summer, when the door was propped open, it got courageous and walked in a few times,” he said. “We had to ask it to leave.”