To Catch A Pigeon

SciFri followed a biologist on a hunt for New York pigeons.

Ever try to shoo a group of pigeons that crossed your path? Tired of dodging close flyovers of those pesky gray birds? The urban pigeon may feel like just another city nuisance, but there’s a lot they can teach us about how wildlife is adapting to co-exist with us. How are pigeons in New York related to pigeons in Boston, or Washington D.C.? Why are pigeons thriving compared to other birds? How is their gene pool changing in response to the daily stresses of city living?

The science is there… if you can chase it down. That’s where Elizabeth Carlen steps in. She’s an urban evolution graduate student at Fordham University who studies how pigeons are evolving in these metropolitan areas. SciFri producer Christie Taylor joins Carlen on a pigeon hunt, following the birds in the urban jungle of New York City. Join in on the wild-pigeon chase by listening to the audio diary while scrolling through the photos below.

a woman holding a pigeon

Elizabeth Carlen, graduate student in urban evolution at Fordham University in New York City. Credit: Christie Taylor

a close up shot of a pigeon caught in a net

A New York City pigeon. Credit: Christie Taylor

Related Segment

Adapt Or Die In The Urban Jungle

a woman throws out food to attract a big flock of pigeons on a sidewalk

Carlen looks for groups of birds that are large, and ideally distracted by food. This makes it easier for her to get close to them, and more likely that she'll successfully catch at least one. Credit: Christie Taylor

a group of pigeons on a sidewalk

Credit: Christie Taylor

a woman shoots a net gun at a flock of pigeons on a city sidewalk

Carlen's secret weapon is a CO2-powered net gun. She's caught as many as 13 pigeons in her net in one sampling attempt, but three is a more common catch. Credit: Christie Taylor

a woman holding several pigeons in the crook of her arm while a man in a baseball cap comes up to pet one

A resident of the Upper West Side in Manhattan approaches to admire Carlen's catch. Curious New Yorkers are common spectators when Carlen does her work and she says she welcomes these encounters as opportunities to educate city residents about their wildlife neighbors. Credit: Christie Taylor

a woman holds a pigeon in a car as it flaps its wings. she takes notes in a notebook

Once caught in a net or held gently by the belly, city pigeons seem to stay pretty calm. But sometimes Carlen's car and clothes can get covered in feathers. Credit: Christie Taylor

Related Article

One Person’s Dung Is Another One’s Treasure

a woman wearing gloves holding a live pigeon with its wing splayed on her leg. new york city streets behind her

The pigeon's blood is Carlen's main prize. She takes a small amount from a vein under the wing. Credit: Christie Taylor

a woman holds up a small test tube of pigeon blood

Carlen has taken hundreds of blood samples so far. The next phase of her work: Sequence the DNA from these samples and look for genetic markers that might tell her more about the pigeons of New York, Boston, and other East Coast cities. Credit: Christie Taylor

a woman holding a pigeon in her hand

After Carlen collects samples and records her observations, she releases the pigeon and watches it return back into the wild of New York City. Credit: Christie Taylor

Audio postcard, words, and photos by Christie Taylor.
Digital editing by Lauren J. Young.

Support great science journalism!

Meet the Writer

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

Explore More