Pigeons have not always called Golden Gate Park home. Rock Pigeons (Columba livia) originated in the Eastern Hemisphere. Some of these pigeons were eventually domesticated by humans. Escaped domestic and racing/homing pigeons established populations in cities and towns. They were introduced to North America in the 1600's by Northern Europeans who settled in Nova Scotia, Canada. The Rock Pigeon is called the feathered rat by some. Although, the pigeon is highly prized for its speed and ability to return home by others.

In reality, early San Francisco was lacking in most birds. To introduce the city’s children to the various species of birds, a huge aviary was constructed in 1892 covering most of the eastern portion of what we know as the John McLaren Rhododendron Dell. A little children’s book entitled Katie of Birdland (linked here) gives each species a personality and human voice. According to Raymond Clary in his THE MAKING OF GOLDEN GATE PARK, 1906-1950, Rock Pigeons became such a nuisance in Union Square the 1920’s that the Parks Department would trap them with nets and deliver them to the Aviary for safe keeping. As the story goes, they were then sold to restaurants and presented as squib.


In 1930, with the creation of Fleischacker Zoo, the Aviary was removed but the pigeons remained. Being ‘rock’ pigeons, they do not roost in trees, but rock cliffs or the next best thing, buildings.
For as long as anyone can remember, the pigeons in the Concourse have been fed by the public. Prior to the closure of the area for garage construction most evenings a little woman would pull her shopping cart into the bowl and spread birdseed for the pigeons and starlings and bread crumbs for the seagulls. This tradition was passed down through the years. In 1982 one of these ‘bird friends’ was struck and killed as she pulled her cart across JFK at 8th Avenue. The task was quickly picked up by others and every evening around sunset, birds from throughout the Park and further would gather for the evening meal.


Watching the pigeons swoop in and out was a joy. Typically, one pigeon would bravely drop to the floor of the bowl and then the rest would quickly follow. As a dog or small child ran through, the birds would jump up, make several laps over the bowl, and one by one return to their dinner. I ask their provider if there was actually an individual leader and told most certainly there are leaders. One could sit and watch for hours as the group fly in large arches as one, only to break off and form around another leader.

As the Rec and Park Department do not appreciate the aerial antics of the pigeons, efforts were made to discourage their feeding and with the closure of the Concourse their number has diminished. Pigeons typically establish roosts and will travel as far as four and a half miles for food only to return to their roost. Though the demolition of the deYoung removed the actual structure they called home, many of their number have remained making first the construction scaffolding and now the finished new deYoung again their home.


As the the grand opening of the museum approached, with white strips of pigeon dropping running down the side of the building and pilling up on the walks around it, the staff of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco approached an east coast company for solutions. They sold the museum a set of speakers and a tape player which broadcast the sounds, they were told, of a native redtail hawk in distress. This the museum played continually until many regular users of the park complained and local print and tv new medias picked up the story.

 

As a result of the ‘press’ the recording is now only played occasionally, but the pigeons are not impressed. In conversations with authorities at the SF Zoo and falconers who make a living ‘discouraging’ pigeons, repeated recording accompanied by no real threat are quickly dismissed by the birds. One can sit and watch the sleeping pigeons not even raise a head as the hawk screeches every few minutes.


These pigeons are urban birds and like their human counterpart who camp in Golden Gate Park, will not be easily dislodged. When the Concourse reopens to the public next February, I for one hope to enjoy the wonder of these feathered creatures who will do their dance above the Concourse trees.