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Two dozen pigeons mill around on the roof of a white sedan parked on the Mall. They pluck at their back feathers, shift from foot to foot, and fill the air with brisk little whiffing sounds.
Their behavior becomes even more antic when a gray-haired lady descends the steps of the National Gallery of Art’s West Wing across the street and heads for the car. She stops when she sees the gang of birds. She reaches into her purse, pulls out a key ring, and shakes it at the creatures, shouting, “Shoo, shoo!” But all that accomplishes is a lot of wide-eyed bird stares.
The woman gives up, gets into the car, and pulls out into the one-way traffic. As she speeds up to 10 mph, birds begin to bail out. A hundred feet down the road, however, a handful are still holding onto the sedan. They surf the car until the wind resistance becomes great enough to knock them into the air.
When the last of the joy riders floats down to the pavement, the group socializes for a bit. Then the pigeons walk back to their starting point.
While it’s true there are a lot of pigeons in the city, nowhere else do the species show such an affinity for automobiles as in two handicapped parking spaces on this stretch of Madison Drive NW. With the sedan gone, the birds have chosen a new vehicle to infest, a maroon Dodge Durango. Fifty roost on the roof. Others slide down the windshield, perch on the back windshield wiper, and huddle in the tire wells. They seem stoked—bobbing their heads and scanning the area, waiting for the next driver to show up.
This curiously localized Stupid Pet Trick has become somewhat of an accidental tourist attraction. A mob of families stand enthralled around the Durango, umbrellas and Smithsonian bags in hand.
“Honey, where’s the camera?” asks a woman. “Get a picture of that car. Get it before they fly away.”
Her fears prove to be ungrounded as a man with a beer gut and a camcorder takes a step out of the crowd. “Oui, oui! Merde!” he cries in delight. He runs up to the car, waving his arms. Half of the pigeons flap away. As the Frenchman returns to his family, grinning ear to ear, the birds boomerang through the air and settle back onto the car.
Phillip McCahill, who’s visiting from Pittsburgh with his teenage son Brian, is struggling to understand why the birds have targeted the Durango. He finally decides there must be a curse on the owners of the car. “They [must be] possessed, like The Exorcist or whatever,” he says. “Maybe it happens every time they wax their car.”
“They’re getting on the next car,” reports Brian McCahill, undercutting his father’s theory. True enough: The pigeons are abandoning the Durango in droves in favor of a Toyota Corolla parked behind it. Their migration seems to have been spurred by the arrival of the Corolla’s owner, 52-year-old William Young of Arlington.
Young, a birder who wears a White Heron Society hat, is at a loss to explain why he and his Corolla have become the centers of attention. But he’s happy to share his ornithological knowledge: Pigeons, he explains, are a hardy, invasive species from Eurasia. “Quite an amazing creature. They fly well, are extremely adaptable.” Fearless, too: They’re ignoring the paper cutout of a predatory martin that Young’s taped to his back window “to prevent birds from shitting on the car.”
“I wouldn’t call it amusing,” says Young, staring at his poop-encrusted roof.
Suddenly, there’s a honking from down the road. A silver Mercedes streaked with bird crap pulls into the front handicapped space. The pigeons go wild, leaping off the Corolla to swarm the new car en masse. A man in a black T-shirt and jeans climbs out of the vehicle, and pigeons swarm him, too: three to the shoulders, two to the buttocks, and one, like a bizarre ballroom headpiece, to his gray, straggly hair.
The tourists watch in awe as he opens his trunk to reveal a mother lode of animal grub. There are heavy sacks of Bird Basics mix, bushels of black-oil sunflower seeds, and jars of shelled peanuts. He dips into the trunk with both hands and showers seed upon the avian throng. He shakes out the remainders of the bags onto the ground. He puts a peanut in his mouth, and a white pigeon he calls Pretty Boy climbs up his arm and snatches it from between his lips.
After a while, a man in the crowd asks: “How long you been doing this?”
“Long enough to become a strange guy,” he replies.
“He’s the Pigeon Man,” whispers Mary Kulik, a National Gallery of Art employee. His presence is the subject of many rumors. The trunkful of seed, for instance: “The pigeons go in,” says Kulik, “and he slams it shut and traps them in there. And he eats them for dinner.”
Actually, the Pigeon Man is retired Capitol Hill resident Sandy Simon, and the only time he’s eaten a pigeon was in the Far East, where he worked as an American publishing representative. Simon, who claims “the women think I’m 59” but looks to be in his 60s, started feeding a Mall squirrel he named Rusty to fill an emotional hole left when the last of his pet dogs died three years ago. When Rusty stopped coming around, he moved on to the pigeons. He’s been coming every day since.
“Once you start, it’s very hard to stop,” he says. “An addiction actually is correct, but I just don’t want to admit to it.”
Just as Simon has made the birds a regular feature of his schedule, the birds have grown conditioned to expect Simon’s meals-on-wheels delivery each afternoon. That’s why they’re so enamored of cars parked here, even to the point of gripping onto the ones in motion. It’s not that they surf for the simple thrill of it; they want to make sure the gravy train doesn’t get away.
“I’m not saying they’re Fulbright scholars. Please,” says Simon. “[But] You don’t realize how smart they are.”
The downside of auto-loving birds becomes clear as a car barrels down the road, crunching a pigeon in the middle of the street with a wet pop. Other birds hurry over to pick at the greasy remains of their former kin. They continue to feast as another car rolls directly above them.
“[Drivers] aim for them,” says Simon. “Sons of bitches.”
Simon’s troubles don’t end with the motorized assassination of his pets. He says he’s often harassed by people who find their cars soiled. He finds this problem easier to wave off.
“Their car is their penis,” he says. “They washed it, they polished it. I couldn’t care less. The dumbest investment.”
With that, Simon climbs into his Mercedes. He honks the horn in a futile attempt to scare off the hangers-on. Then, to cheers and flash-bulb explosions, he takes the pigeons for a ride.CP