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The haunted life of a pigeonnaper

A simple sportsman, he is forced to skulk in a shadow world, spied on by the police, pursued by savage humanitarians

Pigeonnaping is not, in the classical sense, a primary pastime. It is one of the derivative, getting-ready games, things that must be played before something else can be played. These deserve more attention than they have received from recreation authorities, for they are the challenge and curse of all minor-minor, or way-out-in-left-field, sports.

Of all the minor-minors, none is so beset with getting-ready games as is falconry. A falconer needs many things: hoods, jesses, mews, self-control and the disposition of a saint. But more than gear, more than virtue, he needs a hawk. No hawk, no sport. Getting a hawk for falconry, once the work of proud, clever professionals, is now a grubby do-it-yourself job, the objective of a whole complex of getting-ready games.

The best method of snaring a wild, adult hawk (the only sort worthy of falconry) is to use a bow net, trapping on mountain ridges or ocean beaches during the fall migration of the diurnal birds of prey. Bow netting is a tough getting-ready game in itself. First the trapper must design, manufacture and assemble the 80-odd parts of a bow net. Then, to bring a hawk down from a horizon-wide pool of sky into the 10-foot net, he needs sharp reflexes, luck and maniacal determination. But no matter how complete his equipment and experience, a man cannot net a hawk unless he has two live pigeons. One is used to bait the net, the other is flown about the top of a pole as a lure. Replacement pigeons are also needed, since used hawk bait is seldom salvageable.

It is at this point that the bravest spirits may be broken, for danger and humiliation lie in wait for anyone who wants to lay hands on common, ordinary, lousy pigeons. The technical term is pigeonnaping: a demanding, exasperating getting-ready game.

Pigeons can be bought, but only fancy varieties at fancy prices or obese squab breeds that are as useless on a lure pole as a bullfrog on a fly rod. Country pigeons are tough and active enough for bow netting but can only be caught at night in barns. The rural pigeonnaper has to convince farmers that he is not a dangerous lunatic but a fun-loving sportsman. Farmers are a skeptical lot and most pigeonnapers prefer to take their chances in city parks, zoos and streets.

Pigeonnaping means living in the evil underworld of city pigeons, the most disreputable class in the bird world. They are dirty and lustful. They cannot sing. They build nests of dung. They dress sloppily. But like all city species, they are suspicious and superb at survival.

Let us create a scene illustrating the nature of pigeons and pigeonnapers. It is a hot August afternoon. The place is a grass-worn city park with benches, a fountain and hundreds of pigeons. An octogenarian lady is describing her granddaughter's depravity in clinical terms to an elderly friend. By the fountain a small boy, carrying a sack, of popcorn, is surrounded by still another gang of free-loading pigeons.

Enter a pigeonnaper. He wears a heavy winter overcoat, its pockets bulging with bags of pigeon goodies—corn, peanuts and millet. The coat is essential, the basic snatching costume. Captured pigeons will be stuffed under it. But because the napping season comes in late summer the coat tends to make the snatcher conspicuous. The pigeonnaper sits down. The pigeons spot him as a bad 'un, fly up, light 15 feet away and glare.

"Look," cackles the old lady, "that queer man in the black coat. Something wrong about him. Eyes too close together. I can tell every time. The little pigeons are afraid of him."

The pigeonnaper humbles himself before the birds and people. He scatters his bait and croons, mimicking the obscene tone of a pigeon fancier. "Nice pidgey, come here, pidgey, thataboy whitey, come whitey, you dirty glutton. You'd show up for 10 miles on a lure pole. Have a peanut."

The napper sprinkles the bait closer and closer to his bench. When the birds are within arm's reach he snatches quickly, deftly, stuffs two struggling pigeons under his coat and runs. He will not return to this park until next season. Pigeons and pigeon lovers are slow to forget or forgive.

The natural suspicion of city pigeons makes snatching difficult enough, but the sentimentality of city people is an even more formidable hazard. Probably because they are unacquainted with genuine, attractive, useful birds, 90% of city dwellers like pigeons. They are for pigeons and against pigeonnapers. In addition to the I'll-help-a-pigeon-if-I-find-one-in-trouble majority, there is a minority of fierce pigeon fanatics. They feed and pet pigeons, coo to them and protect them as though they were whooping cranes or egrets.

The flocks of snatchable pigeons which surround pigeon-do-gooders have caused covetous pigeonnapers to abandon reason. A napper will sometimes try to negotiate with a pigeon fanatic. A geologist friend, a Washington, D.C. pigeonnaper, once discovered that a great coodle of pigeons loitered in a Constitution Avenue park where they were supported by a person named Golden Bill. Golden Bill insisted he had made a rich Klondike strike but had been cheated of his wealth by hanky-panky in registration of his claim. He came to Washington to seek redress from Congress. His boast was that his friends on the Hill would never give Alaska statehood until he had got his. Bill was an ineffective lobbyist but a hell of a man with pigeons.

Noting Golden Bill's way with birds and also that the old gentleman was nearly destitute, the geologist became obsessed with a fantasy: that he could arrange a sort of white slave trade in pigeons with Golden Bill. When he finally made his proposition he was so excited by his vision of a steady pigeon supply that he lost all caution. He ought to have been put on guard by Bill's surprising agreeability. On the pickup day the naive geologist came to the park, carrying a knapsack. A thin-lipped, cold-eyed, high-voiced agent of an animal protection society was with Golden Bill. They accused the geologist of persecuting pigeons. He babbled that his bedridden daughter was wasting away for the lack of being able to feed and admire real, live pigeons. He had been driven to under-the-bench dealings with Golden Bill in hopes of being able to transplant a pigeon colony to his backyard. He was wrong, but he was a father. It was pretty thin. Neither Bill nor the animal defender was moved, but since they had not waited until the pigeons were in his knapsack, they reluctantly released the geologist with a stern warning.

Pigeon fanatics can inflict bodily injury on nappers, as another acquaintance, Heavy (I shall call him Heavy because he is stout and because his business, Numbers, makes him shy of personal publicity), can testify. In his prime, Heavy was a superb snatcher. He had no patience for the come-hither-pidgey, two-bird-at-a-time grab. Heavy would drive up to a snatching spot in his long, black Cadillac, throw some corn on the sidewalk and drive off to wait for pigeons to come to the bait. When they did Heavy pulled up alongside the birds, jumped out and took half a dozen pigeons in one quick sweep with a short-handled crab net. He stuffed the net and birds under his overcoat, hopped in the car and was away.

One morning Heavy cruised up to a park and threw out his bait. He did not see, or overconfidently ignored, a little lady, frail and rusty as a grasshopper, sitting on a nearby bench. When the pigeons collected at the corn Heavy was back and at them with his crab net. Simultaneously the lady rose and ran at him. The ensuing sprint for the getaway car was like a race between Tony Galento and Wilma Rudolph. Heavy was willing but overmatched. Also he was handicapped by having to keep one arm at his side to hold the pigeons and crab net under his coat. Finishing with a strong kick, the lady caught Heavy at the car door. "Free those pigeons," she shrieked and whacked Heavy with her umbrella.

Heavy raised his arms to protect his face. His overcoat opened, and pigeons exploded from his midsection like fireballs from a Roman candle. The commotion attracted a crowd, all of them bleeding hearts demanding justice for the pigeons and the lady. Heavy decided to cut his losses. He abandoned his crab net and hat (knocked off by a rocketing bird), forced his way into the car and fled. He is now an ex-pigeonnaper. His nerve is broken and he buys fancy tumblers for bow netting at two bucks a bird.

The law protects pigeons

Of all those who harass pigeonnapers, the police are the sliest and most irritating. They are sly because it's what they're paid for and irritating because they're so self-righteous. In a reasonable world the law would be with the pigeonnaper, but despite the fact they are prime hosts for vermin, disease and filth, pigeons are protected by law in most cities, and cops delight in enforcing pigeon laws. Rapists, shoplifters and jaywalkers may infest a city, but cops will ignore them if given a chance to nab a pigeonnaper. To collar a napper, cops will hover in the shrubbery, disguise themselves as the corner post of a park comfort station and even, in extreme cases, run.

If caught, a pigeonnaper will be fined as heavily as the law allows. He will also be browbeaten, lectured, and exposed to painful humor. When his ordeal by law is finished, the press gets him. Staff humorists are assigned to pigeon-snatching stories. Caught nappers and Maffia bosses get equal space.

An English professor nearly had a promising career (18th century essayists) ruined because of the barbaric attitude of the law and press toward pigeonnapers. The professor was caught, with bird, in a zoo. He was turned in by a scoutmaster who had been tipped off by one of his bright-eyed, ruthless little good-deeders. The professor is a tall, beanpole type. His 6-foot-5 frame is topped by the wildest, lushest thicket of black hair this side of the Congo. For snatching he wears a long, once green, now mottled brassish overcoat. A red cigarette holder is habitually clamped in his teeth. When observed by the scouts, the professor was squatting behind the puma pen, rattling peanuts, simpering and sweet-talking a flock of suspicious pigeons. The scoutmaster was not a bad sort and later apologized for his part in the case. He can perhaps be excused for believing that he had come across an unusual, and very likely dangerous, deviate, one who had been looking for hints in Krafft-Ebing.

The professor was collared by a chortling zoo dick and after being fined, he was routinely turned over to a reporter from a morning tabloid. The story and photo appeared under the headline PICK UP PIGEON-PILFERING PROF. For the professor the most damaging part of the story was his insistence that he snatched pigeons just for the hell of it. Other nappers understood and admired his silence. He was the Nathan Hale of the sport. Had he admitted that he wanted hawk bait, every pigeonnaper, bow netter and falconer in the area would have been hunted down.

Difficult, often dangerous though it is, pigeonnaping, properly approached, can bring its triumphs. The beginner may be inspired by an account of the play which won the Eastern Pigeonnap ing Championship for Reedy Pagliaccio, an ingenious electronic computer salesman. Before the 1959 season opened, Reedy, a wary, heady snatcher, built a large, portable box trap. He painted it an official shade of gray. Across the top in conspicuous block letters he stenciled the initials of the city university. When the time to snatch came Reedy took his trap to a mid-town park, baited it and stood back to wait for pigeons.

Enter the resident fanatic

A cop appeared, of course, suspicious but puzzled. Reedy appeared to be about to nap a pigeon, yet he did not look like a pigeonnaper—no overcoat, no stealth. But cops are not much for subtle doubt.

"What the hell are you doing, buster?" he asked, alert for an easy pinch.

Reedy held up his hand in a silencing gesture and continued to study his trap. Finally he turned to the cop. "We need a dozen or so of these little fellows at the Med Center—right away."

The officer was fumbling. "Look, Doc, I don't know anything about...."

"Strange," Reedy said meditatively, "10 of these birds may save a hundred lives one day."

"I'm the last one to knock you fellows," the cop said defensively. "Just the other day I was reading at Benny's stand, in the Digest, about..."

"Officer," Reedy interrupted, "we especially need some of these white ones. Would you keep people off this path for a few minutes?"

The cop did his best, but he could not hold back the park's resident pigeon fanatic, a retired YWCA secretary.

"You have a twisted mind, twisted," the lady told Reedy. "Nothing, nothing, justifies the torture of innocent creatures. If you think I'll allow my friends to be taken away for vivisection..."

"Madam," Reedy said in a shocked voice. "Vivisection, no, no, my no. We must have birds in the best health and spirits. We have found that the sight of happy pigeons has a quieting effect on emotionally disturbed patients."

Buttered up this way, the lady allowed Reedy to continue. Reedy got 12 that day, a record. Not everyone, of course, has the time, talent and inclination to pursue records. But even the occasional snatcher will find rewards. Pigeonnaping strengthens the wind and legs, builds patience and sharpens the wit. Those of us who play are convinced that pigeonnaping is the legitimate queen of the getting-ready games.