Isle of the Squab
Of the numerous animal inhabitants of New York City, the most widely recognized group may very well be the Pigeon (Columba spp.), or Squab. Although most New Yorkers refer to these ground-feeding birds generically as Pigeons, the Pigeon family actually comprises 289 species of birds throughout the world. The most common American pigeon, the Mourning Dove (Zenaidura carolinensis) is aptly named for its melancholy call. The Rock Dove, a stout bird with a small head, short neck, and thick gray and white plumage, (Columba livia), is almost exclusively the species of Pigeon seen in New York City.
Pigeons arrived in America in the 1600s from Europe. Originally raised as a barnyard animal used for their meat, many pigeons escaped and began to thrive in the wild, their populations growing and adapting to city life. Pigeons nest in any nook they can find, including building ledges and the girders of bridges. Their rarely seen young reach adult size after little more than one week of suckling on “pigeon milk”, a thick substance produced in the crop of both of the young’s monogamous parents.
From the 1930s through the 1950s, pigeons were commonly kept as pets in coops on the roofs of houses. Common pigeons could fly at speeds in excess of 45 miles per hour, but carefully bred pigeons that could obtain speeds of up to 75 miles per hour were used for communication purposes. During World War II (1939-1945), five pairs of pigeons from each coop in the country, many from New York City, received draft notices and were used to breed the Army’s extensive force of homing pigeons used in combat. Today as few as 50 pigeon coops remain in the City.
Although pigeons have a storied past and many admirers, some call pigeons “flying rats” for their often dirty appearance and diseases acquired by living on the city streets. The acidic droppings of pigeons can eat through limestone and stain brass, thus damaging architecture and statues around the city.
The City of New York acquired this property, located on 37th Avenue, 69th Street, and Broadway on October 1, 1924 by condemnation. In its November 8, 2001 issue, Time Out New York designated the Isle of the Squab as one of the 101 people, places, and things that make us proud to be New Yorkers.