Rescuing the Birds Many Hate

JUST as they ignore the pigeons that make up so much of their city’s meager wildlife, passers-by paid little attention to the curious scene on 29th Street and Ninth Avenue one brisk morning in December. 

Jennifer Dudley, 44, a strawberry-blond opera singer, studied the corner of a mail distribution center entrance. A rumpled pink bathroom towel stained with bird feces lay on the ground. Nearby were a splay of cracker bits and the bottom half of a crudely cut plastic cup. 

“They probably told him to shoo,” Ms. Dudley said, hypothesizing that building security had ushered the wounded pigeon from its resting place. 

Another clue: “This should be green,” she added, standing above a mound of dark excrement a few steps away. “He’s definitely sick, but not starving to death.” 

Pacing down the street, she pointed to a grate. “He came down this way but didn’t stop because he knew he could get caught.” 

She turned the corner and smiled. Tattered and ill, head burrowed into its chest, the pigeon shivered in a building crevice. Its left wing hung lamely. 

Ms. Dudley reached into her bag of tools and removed a pair of towels. She snatched the pigeon before it could hobble away, held it to her bosom and stroked its head with her finger. The bird put at ease, she examined its flaky skin, pried open its mouth to find signs of dehydration, massaged its throat to check for lumps and then lowered it into a paper shopping bag for transport to a rehabilitation center. 

The amenities at the building had been left the night before by the person who reported the bird to New York City Pigeon Rescue Central, the group to which Ms. Dudley belongs. The city provides virtually no official services for its ubiquitous and little-loved gray birds, first brought here from Europe as food by settlers. So the rescuers fill a niche. 

The group, one of a few in the city dedicated to pigeon welfare, functions through a Yahoo message board, active since 2004. Membership officially exceeds 400, but the core is a fastidious, perpetually concerned team of about dozen pigeon lovers, animal activists and eccentrics, some perhaps finding meaning in fighting for a neglected cause. 

The board hums with constant discussion about topics like the ethics of euthanasia and tips for fostering baby birds. New Yorkers who spy wounded pigeons can fill out a “Bird Down Report” online or can call the rescue group’s hot line, which leads to the voice mail of one of the group’s founders, Al Streit, who also helps run the rescue and advocacy group Pigeon People with his wife, Gela Kline. Other requests are referred to Mr. Streit by groups like New York City Audubon and New York City Animal Care and Control. Ms. Dudley said the group averaged about 20 rescues a month, more during the spring and summer baby seasons. 

Not everyone deems the group’s mission a worthy cause. Rescuing a single injured animal can have a meaningful impact on the population of an endangered species. “If you rescue a whooping crane with a broken leg, that’s going to make a difference,” Dr. Charles Walcott, a former director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said; but pigeons are not whooping cranes. 

“I think it’s very nice that someone is willing to take care of these sick animals in the city,” Dr. Walcott said, “but as a nasty biologist I think it probably doesn’t make any difference in the big scheme.” 

But, he added of the rescuers, “This is their connection with nature, and I think that’s totally laudable.” 

Not far from the scene of the day’s rescue, Ms. Dudley sat at a diner eating eggs, her fellow customers oblivious to the wild bird nestled comfortably in her bag. “He’s in heaven,” she said, peering in. 

Ms. Dudley was born in Maine, studied theater at New York University, fell for opera and is now a freelance mezzo-soprano soloist. A state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator, she fosters several pigeons at home. When she leaves her apartment, she likes to keep classical music playing for them. 

When asked what pigeon fanciers are often asked — “why pigeons?” — she offered her meditation. “Lots of us see how pigeons are maligned and ignored,” she said. “If you have that thread running through you, you know what it’s like. I know what it feels like to be ignored. At worst, maligned. I think lots of us feel that way, even if they won’t say it.” She checked the time on her smartphone; the bird in the bag was soon due for its appointment. 

Ms. Dudley arrived that afternoon at the Wild Bird Fund, at 87th Street and Columbus Avenue, the only place of its kind in Manhattan that treats pigeons. The clinic currently operates inside Animal General, a veterinary hospital lending its space until the Wild Bird Fund opens its own across the street. 

Caged pigeons in the prep room observed Ms. Dudley enter with Rita McMahon, a rehabilitator. Ms. McMahon and another rehabilitator secured the rescue pigeon against an operating table. It did not resist as they fanned out its wings and strapped it down with medical tape. The room was cleared and the X-ray fired on the spotlighted bird. The resulting skeletal image, suggesting a broken collarbone, resembled a stark work of modern art. 

The prognosis was bleaker for another bird, named Skipper, that Ms. Dudley had brought from home. An X-ray indicated a yellow node on its left wing was swelling and starting to eat away at the bone; an infection was also festering on its leg. Ms. Dudley nuzzled Skipper’s head as she listened to the report. “He’s such a fighter,” she said. “He flew in through my window.” Euthanasia was proposed but, to Ms. Dudley’s relief, quickly dropped; Ms. McMahon suggested a new antibiotic treatment. 

A week later, the rescue pigeon rested in the Wild Bird Fund’s temporary bird rehab center: Ms. McMahon’s apartment. The living room was filled with animal carriers containing pigeons trembling from lead poisoning and suffering from broken bones. The rescue pigeon stood in a newspaper-floored cage, looking sullen and confused. A piece of granite was provided for perching, along with a bowl of vitamin-infused water. 

The scrawny baby pigeon in the cage below looked worse off. Arina Hinzen, a rehabilitator working at the center, had to periodically use a needle to drain an inflated air pocket on its neck caused by a ruptured air sac. “Without us he would probably die,” she said. Two weeks later, its wing unhealed, Ms. Dudley’s rescue pigeon would be euthanized. But at the time there was still hope. When Ms. Hinzen reached into its cage, the ragged bird tensed and puffed up. She pulled out her hand. “At least he’s safe now,” she said. “That’s what matters.”