Pigeons: Majestic creatures?

Larry, a bird enthusiast, feeds pigeons
Larry, a bird enthusiast, feeds pigeons in Washington Square Park on a hot day in Manhattan last summer.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images

Nathanael Johnson wants you to know that pigeons get a bad rap.

Yes, he's still slightly traumatized from the time he ate what he thought was a cookie crumb off his sweater — only to realize it was a pigeon "crumb," if you will — but still. Pigeons are majestic, he says.

So are snails, and crows, and coyotes, and all of the other urban wildlife you likely encounter — and dismiss — on a daily basis.

'Unseen City' by Nathanael Johnson
'Unseen City' by Nathanael Johnson
Courtesy of Rodale

In his new book, "Unseen City," Johnson explores the cultural perceptions and the wild realities of animals in urban spaces. He was inspired to write the book by his young daughter, who was "fascinated by trees and pigeons and squirrels and gross stuff in the gutter."

"I had this experience of 'C'mon, we gotta get to daycare, please leave the cigarette butts and pigeons alone.' Then, looking closer, and saying, 'Oh my gosh, what is that that you found? I've never seen this before,'" Johnson told MPR News host Tom Weber.

"If you go out in the wilderness and find something interesting, that's a cool experience. It's almost more magical, though, when it's been there right under your nose all along, and you're seeing it for the first time."

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Pigeons, for the record, are "beautiful birds" if you look close, Johnson says. And they're no different from the much more beloved dove: Scientifically, there is no difference between them. They belong to the same bird family, Columbidae.

"For hundreds of years, these words were used interchangeably," Johnson said. "At some point, people just started using 'dove' to mean everything that's good, and 'pigeon' to mean everything that's bad. This is incredibly, powerfully welded to our cultural thinking."

While pigeons are often criticized for being dirty, diseased or overcrowded in urban areas, these characteristics are a response to human behavior.

"Everything that's wrong with them, everything that makes them gross in our eyes, is really our own fault," Johnson said.

The same can be said for other urban wildlife who have a bad reputation.

"We push these animals, we breed them. Often, we rearrange their habitats, and when they thrive in those habitats that we've made, we're somehow disappointed," Johnson said. "I think there's this huge problem in the way we think about nature ... We really want it to be nature, trapped in amber, just this one beautiful thing that we remember from our childhood. But nature isn't that way. It's dynamic, it thrives on change, and if we're going to have a healthy relationship with our environment, we've got to accept that. I think the first step is making friends with the non-human neighbors that are around us."

Just watch out from crumbs.

For the full interview with Nathanael Johnson on "Unseen City," use the audio player above.