To Catch a Thief


A pigeon netting happens like this: The netter parks a nondescript van, scatters some birdseed, waits off to the side until a large flock of pigeons swoop down, then tosses a net over them and speeds away. It’s so fast that it hardly draws attention.

Except from Bob, who is apparently always watching.

Bob wouldn’t give out his real name. His code name comes from the acronym of his underground network—Birds Operation Busted. He claims to have a task force spread throughout the city, monitoring the parks and street corners where pigeons often gather.

Because no governmental agency has focused on the problem, Bob says he’s taken nabbing the netters upon himself. Bob says several surveillance cameras are set up in apartments all over the city (though he won’t specify where); his members scour over hours of footage trying to find new evidence of nettings. He pulled out his laptop and played a DVD of the first netting ever to be caught on film.

“Unless you know what’s happening,” said Stephanie Boyles, of PETA, “It looks like they’re just feeding the birds.”

Despite all the hard work, B.O.B. has only managed to get one netter in trouble and that’s only because the netter attacked a B.O.B. member and stole his digital camera. The netter was fined for assault and then freed. Gordon King, B.O.B.’s pro bono lawyer, says the laws prohibiting the netting practice are murky. “Our view is that it’s clearly illegal,” he said. “But the DEC [Department of Environmental Conservation] has an enforcement problem and a lack of personnel.”

Pigeon pilfering isn’t exactly at the top of every governmental department’s priority list. Besides, pigeons are complicated animals where the law is concerned. Under the Department of Health they are listed as a nuisance animal, which means people can hire pest control services to exterminate them. At the same time, the Environmental Conservation Law protects wild birds—which includes pigeons—and trapping them is a violation. Meanwhile, the A.S.P.C.A.’s Humane Law Enforcement Department has received many concerned calls over the years, but they say it’s hard to act on them. Joe Pentangelo, an A.S.P.C.A. officer, says they need a lot of proof—license plate numbers, vehicle description, and even photos—to issue a violation to a netter and so far, callers have come up short. “We’re really busy,” he said. “It’s not that we’re unsympathetic. We’re not blasé about pigeons. We are concerned.”

Once in the van, Bob suspects that the netter takes the pigeons over the state line and sells them to brokers for two to five dollars a piece (he also believes they’re sold as squab in restaurants and used for dog-fighting practice). The brokers then sell them to pigeon shoots, which are still legal in Pennsylvania. Heidi Prescott, Senior Vice President for Campaigns at the Humane Society of the United States, has been working on shutting down the pigeon shoots for 15 years. She’s also heard the gun clubs get their target supply from the city streets. “The New York nettings,” she said. “We’ve heard rumors of that for years, but there just hasn’t ever been an investigation.”

Investigation or not, the nettings are real for Betty. She’s been up at 4 a.m. every day for the last three years to protect the birds on the Upper West Side. Betty (she refuses to use her real name because she fears retribution from the netters and she doesn’t report her dog-walking income during tax time) says the nettings occur on average three times a month. She stands in the bird food that the netters sprinkle and hoots and hollers until the birds fly away and the netters give up. “These guys are pretty doggone slick,” she said. “But I’m not a small woman. Having me come up to them so quickly, I startle them!”

Pigeon lovers, like Bob and Betty, are a minority in this city. Most residents view pigeons as pests and believe the netters are doing a service by taking them (and as a result, their droppings) off park benches. “I’ve never seen an animal that brings out such polarized feelings,” said Andrew Blechman, the author of Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird. “Most people don’t give a fuck about them.”

Pigeon haters shouldn’t get excited just yet: Removing the birds will not make them go away. Karen Purcell, the leader for Urban Bird Studies at Cornell University, says that if the habitat is right—like abundant leftover pizza and donuts on the sidewalk—bird population will remain the same despite the exit of a few or a few hundred.

Bob blames humans for pigeons’ messes and their population explosion. “The real dirty thing here is the person who drops all the scraps,” he said. “We are the filthy species.” When birds eat human food like unprocessed flour, the birds’ droppings turn into a concrete consistency.

As for the future, Bob sees underground B.O.B. networks forming around the country and public awareness driving the netters out of business. “This is a message to the netters,” said Bob. “Don’t you do this because we’re after your butts!”