#PigeonTok is rebranding the unloved birds as pets, not pests.
Finding love at a pub is not so strange, especially if there are few pints involved. But it is rare for the new beloved to be a pigeon. That’s what happened to Hannah Hall, who met her pigeon, Penny, in a beer garden and then took her home.
Hall went viral after posting a TikTok about her meet-cute with Penny, and she has since become a mainstay of #pigeontok, where millions of people watch videos that show a different side of the urban bird more often viewed as a pest than as a pet. Some TikTokers reveal how they found their pigeon—as in, it was on the street, and then it was in their arms. Others offer tips and tricks on how to befriend your own feathered urchin. Hall continues to post videos of Penny and has amassed hundreds of thousands of followers who watch, with awe or disgust, as she builds a life with a pigeon.
Pigeon proponents argue that the birds are so much more than rats with wings—that, because of our shared history, humans owe it to pigeons to take them in. In the comments of these videos, the pigeon-pilled declare their readiness to adopt and love a street bird. And despite the outwardly absurd pretense—you know, the whole “I took a wild, disease-carrying animal off the dirty city sidewalk, and now it’s baby” thing—these videos seem to inspire an emotion that can be rare online: sincerity.
Many #pigeontok stars justify their love for a near universally reviled animal by explaining that pigeons are feral, not wild—that is, their ancestors were pets, but they have been left to fend for themselves, like abandoned cats and dogs. That’s pretty much true, says Colin Jerolmack, a professor at New York University and the author of The Global Pigeon. Today’s street pigeons are the descendants of domesticated rock pigeons (Columba livia), which are native to North Africa, India, and parts of coastal Europe. Pigeon bones found in caves in Israel and depictions of pigeons on ancient-Greek gravestones suggest that humans domesticated the birds about 5,000 to 10,000 years ago and, until the mid-20th century, never looked back. (Some experts, Jerolmack among them, even think pigeons domesticated themselves, as cats did.)
For thousands of years, the story of pigeons has been inextricable from the story of humans. People bred pigeons for their meat, guano, and sensational navigating abilities. Julius Caesar reportedly announced his conquest of Gaul through pigeon messengers. Carrier pigeons were strapped to American paratroopers’ chests on D-Day. Pigeons were brought around the world, and every so often, they escaped, establishing flocks outside aviaries; today, feral pigeons can be found everywhere except Antarctica.
From the April 1946 issue: Pigeons and people
After World War II, society started to lose its respect for pigeons. Fertilizer could be made more efficiently with leftover bomb ingredients, communication technology boomed, and farmers realized that chickens could be bred fatter and faster. The following decade saw a golden age of pigeon racing and then … nothing. Left without any real purpose, pigeons came to be associated with other perceived threats to social order. “We hate them because we don’t have any use for them,” Jerolmack told me. “The sad way to think about them is that they are our historical detritus.”
That’s all very sad, but even the most committed pigeon lovers have to understand why the birds are seen as dirty. They can carry parasites, and a fungus that grows in their poop can make people sick. (City pigeons, it should be noted, aren’t especially diseased compared with other outdoor animals, and their potential for spreading bird flu is low.) It’s unpleasant to have anything unexpectedly fly near your face, let alone a pigeon that spends its time on sidewalks where people spit and dogs defecate. All of that makes them easy to vilify. Back in 1963, a New York City health official linked two deaths from disease to pigeons despite extremely flimsy evidence, and city officials recommended that all of the Big Apple’s pigeons be exterminated. (In case you couldn’t tell by the plethora of pigeons in Times Square, on the Empire State Building’s ledges, and inside LaGuardia Airport, that didn’t happen.) This was around the time pigeons picked up a new nickname: “rats with wings.”
Perhaps pigeons’ maligned character is exactly why young people are falling for them now. Samantha Hautea, a Ph.D. student at Michigan State University who studies sociotechnical systems and digital culture, told me that TikTok is a hub for both self-expression and social activism, even in the form of sharing news and views. Because TikTok gives users the ability to express themselves and connect with others, new ideas—such as pigeon redemption—can take off. #Pigeontok is also ready-made for the internet, Hautea said: It involves animals—an accessible point of reference—and a sentimental narrative.
Read: Kids, go catch a raccoon
People today might be willing to reconsider the pigeon in part because the world is such a hostile place. People, especially Gen Z and Millennials, are more aware than ever that the living world is threatened. TikTok scrollers may be “looking for species they can lift up and help,” Rob Dunn, an ecologist at North Carolina State University, told me. Some researchers think people have an innate impulse to connect with nature. Why not the nature that’s pecking at someone’s used napkin outside your office?
Pigeons’ renewed popularity is of particular interest to Dunn, who co-developed the concept of the “pigeon paradox” in the aughts. He and his colleagues hypothesized that the future of conservation will rely in part on humans’ interactions with urban organisms, because people are more likely to care about wild species if their exposure to nature is positive—and an ever more urbanized world means the creatures people see most are in cities. The paradox is that the most common urban creatures—like pigeons—either aren’t noticed by people or are actively disliked. But if people could learn to love pigeons, rats, or even cockroaches (I know, that one’s a stretch), along with other urban organisms, perhaps conservation would move up our priority list.
Plenty of people really are convinced that pigeons are lovable. Elizabeth Carlen, a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis who studies urban wildlife, told me she likes how hearty pigeons are, and how, when they fly, “it almost looks like glitter sparkling in the air.” Tiffany Bellissimo, the founder of a New York bird sanctuary called Dreaming of a Chance, gets a kick out of the distinct habits of all 70 pigeons at the shelter’s two aviaries. There’s Dante, the sassy one. There’s Cheyenne, whom she calls “the most pure at heart animal in the whole world.” There’s Bubbles, who likes to play the xylophone while Bellissimo is in Zoom meetings. “It’s incredible to get to know each of their personalities and interact with them,” Bellissimo told me. “I mean, who wouldn’t love a bunch of pigeons coming over to eat out of their hand?”
All of the pigeons at Dreaming of a Chance were bred and raised in captivity, but the distinction between these pigeons and those you might see eating soggy French fries outside a Macy’s is murky. Lost racing pigeons or unwanted domestic pigeons can end up commingling with feral populations. In a 2020 study of pigeons in Italy, scientists found that flocks were more likely to contain a mix of feral and domestic pigeons—varieties such as the Racing Homer and the Piacentino—in regions with a tradition of pigeon breeding. If you’ve ever noticed an unusually beautiful or unusually friendly pigeon in an urban flock, it might be a runaway—or the descendant of one.
Read: The case of the disappearing homing pigeons
Despite their love for the birds, neither Carlen nor Bellissimo recommends taking in a random pigeon. Pigeons off the street can be sick, and most people aren’t ready for the medical treatment they need, Bellissimo told me; if a person wants a pigeon as a pet, the best thing to do is adopt one from a shelter. And people really do seem interested: Bellissimo said she’s received an increase in inquiries in the past year about where to find adoptable pigeons and how to care for them. (Because Dreaming of a Chance is a sanctuary, their residents are not up for adoption.)
Better than heading to your local park with a bag of birdseed and a net, Carlen said, is simply observing feral pigeons from a distance and letting the compassion you feel prompt you to care for animals in general. In New York City, I recently observed a particularly Dickensian group of pigeons loitering around a half-eaten funnel cake. I needed to walk through them and wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. Then I felt bad about my ick, remembering that Bellissimo told me rescued pigeons sometimes smell like cigarettes because people throw butts at them.
The next day, I observed to my boyfriend that he probably really could pick up a pigeon if he wanted to. Later, I commented on a particularly large group of pigeons while we were walking to the subway: “Did you know they mate for life?” “You seem to be thinking a lot about pigeons,” he said.
And I am. The more I look at them, the more I think pigeons aren’t just in the city; they’re a fundamental part of it. Over the course of centuries, pigeons have gone from sacred to profane. At the very least, they deserve my respect—even if one ends up pooping on me.
#PigeonTok is rebranding the unloved birds as pets, not pests.