The Universal Language of Pigeon

Published in HCI Books' The Ultimate Bird Lover. Book publication date February 2010

Arming your kids with corn and sending them into a flock of pigeons is a surefire way to connect with locals when you travel. Pigeons swoop, crowds gather, international relations ensue. You may not speak the locals’ language, but if they’ve got pigeons and you’ve got kids, you’ve got a lingua franca.

Some of my family’s favorite travel memories involve pigeons. In cities all over the world we’ve used the birds to make connections with people.

Like the bevy of Italian models who interrupted a photo shoot in Venice’s Piazza San Marco to marvel at my then nine-year-old son, Adam, who, by throwing the corn straight up but not out, made the top of his head the site of multiple pigeon landings. The models called him “PEE-jin boy” and took pictures before giving him corn-throwing advice. Italians speak with their hands, and it was interesting to watch a half-dozen drop-dead gorgeous women mime effective grain-tossing techniques to a little boy.

Nearby, our daughter, Dana, then six and already a skilled animal whisperer, had attracted her own fans. She laid a trail of corn and, by repeatedly cooing, “Yo, whitey, my man,” coaxed San Marco’s sole albino pigeon to walk a straight line, pecking each piece as he went, right into her hands.

The summer before he started school I took Adam to Bolivia. He liked the boat ride across Lake Titicaca and thought “Andy’s mountains” were cool. But what he most enjoyed was just hanging out in the capital, La Paz. He liked having his shoes shined by teenage boys who nodded earnestly while he explained the powers of the action figures he carried in his pockets, and he liked eating cotton candy in Plaza Murillo, a popular public space and heart of the city.

One sunny Sunday in the plaza, anchored by grand government buildings and a neo-classical cathedral, Adam spied a boy about his age sitting on a bench with his parents watching the pigeons gathered in the center of the square. We knew what to do.

I bought seven bags of corn from a vendor, gave Adam one, and sent him into the flock. He threw a handful into the air and the pigeons went loco, whirling to get the grain. As they swarmed around Adam’s feet, the little boy stood up and clapped.

I called Adam over and gave him two bags of corn. He went to the boy and offered him one. Then they ventured, the little American in a Pokemon windbreaker and the little Bolivian in a sweatsuit of red, yellow and green, the colors of the Bolivian flag, into the middle of the plaza, where they threw corn, dodged dive-bombing pigeons and laughed together from the bottom of their bellies.

After four more bags of corn had been happily tossed and consumed, the boy ran to his parents’ bench and returned to Adam with a soccer ball. The parents motioned to me to join them and asked if Adam could play for a while.

While the new friends kicked the ball for an hour, the parents and I, mixing simple Spanish and English, talked about life in our respective countries and about the joys and challenges of raising a family. There was little difference between their experiences and hopes and my own.

And, looking at our sons, running and grinning and enjoying the day and each other, we knew there wasn’t much difference between them, either.