Opposite the Hamidiya mosque in Pydhonie, Mumbai, four flights of stairs above an orderly row of century-old grocery stores, oil vendors and umbrella sellers, the Nachij family’s pigeons take shelter from the blazing sun in bookcases.
We appear at their doorstep without warning in late September, and Yusuf Nachij, the pigeon owner, is not home. His brother Shafi invites us to haul ourselves up into their house and on to their balcony, where the family pigeons perch, some in airy cages, others in wooden boxes with sliding glass fronts, left partially open. Here they coexist—we counted six of varying sizes and hues—with potted plants, clotheslines, a Tata Sky dish, as well as their human family, and settle unperturbed into the hands of a visiting uncle to pose for the camera, clearly acclimatized to human eccentricity.
“It’s an enthusiasm of my brother’s,” Shafi explains to us. He uses the Urdu word “shauq”. “Our father and grandfather used to keep pigeons too.”
For many Mumbaikars, grateful for the existence of pigeon-proofing at home and fibreglass at work, pigeon-shauq is inexplicable. Having thrived in urban India in recent years, the rock pigeon is one of the few species which can compete with the city’s human population for ubiquity. Long after sparrows and mynahs have given up trying to survive electromagnetic waves, pollution and the disappearance of trees, pigeons have peaceably gone about the business of surviving and multiplying.
“In homes they’re considered pests, while commercial properties mostly want to get rid of them for aesthetic reasons,” explains Joshua Rao, general manager, marketing, of Mumbai-headquartered Pest Control (India) Pvt. Ltd. Rao estimates the firm’s bird-proofing business at around Rs.10 crore annually, with demand more or less constant over the last five years.
To pigeons, air conditioners are vents from which to bring forth fledglings that will achieve adulthood in 30 days. High-rises are roosts whose height prevents possible predators, like cats, from accessing their nests. Most of all, Mumbai’s humans have made generous neighbours.
“The main reason for pigeons thriving here is that food and breeding areas are abundant,” says Asad Rahmani, director, Bombay Natural History Society. “There is no scarcity of nesting sites for them, and they are not afraid of human beings. Pigeons flock to cities all over the world. You find great hordes of them in Delhi, in London, in Leningrad. They are never found in big numbers in nature, but in human habitats, they don’t have many predators.”
Unlike sparrows, whose nutritional prospects have suffered as fertilizers have annihilated the soft-bodied insects their fledglings need to eat, pigeons can feed their young in cities because of the “crop milk” they produce: a protein-rich, semi-solid secretion regurgitated and fed to babies. “They thrive in totally different environments from sparrows,” Rahmani says.
Human beings seem anxious to be on their best behaviour around pigeons. It’s like posing for a family album—quite literally so at Apollo Bunder, where generations of Hindi movies featuring people skipping through flocks of pigeons has given rise to a microeconomy of chana (Bengal gram) sellers and tourist photographers. “Little bit closer,” they encourage tourists who want pictures of doves eating out of their hands with either The Taj Mahal Palace hotel or the Gateway of India in the background. “Why don’t you bend down a little so that they can reach your hand—yes, perfect.”
But local pilgrims are just as anxious to propitiate pigeons at the kabutarkhanas that dot busy junctions throughout Mumbai. “It’s a tradition that Gujaratis, especially Hindus and Jains, brought with them when they came to this city,” explains Vivek Brahmbhatt, who runs the 110-year-old grain store Gokaldas and Sons on Mint Road, opposite the General Post Office. “They symbolize peace, they’re considered sacred.”
From 6am-7pm, every day, Brahmbhatt, standing behind tall sacks of jowar, corn and chana, does brisk business selling grain by the rupee to passers-by who feed pigeons at the Mint Road kabutarkhana. At this junction, just behind Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, pigeons, flapping around the high iron fences of an old three-cornered enclosure, can block out the sun. The air is thick with feathers and the sweetness of digested protein. It is a benevolent daylight reiteration of the nightmare in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Brahmbhatt sells grain to religious old people who feed pigeons because they believe it is equivalent to feeding a Brahmin (kabutarkhana pigeons are never seen feeding after dusk); women with small children who run enthusiastically across the street to sprinkle food at the gurgling, flapping birds; traders and shopkeepers with businesses in the area who stop by as part of their daily routine, having developed a neat, practised right-arm, medium slow pace action.
“They are mute animals,” says a pandit in ascetic saffron and yellow clothes, unperturbed by the corrosive kabutar shit drying on the railings and stone steps of the enclosure as he steps out of the kabutarkhana, dusting his hands. “Caring for small, mute lives is a good deed.”
Small, mute lives can also be toxic, and many citizens worry that pigeons may cause respiratory ailments and carry infectious diseases. Are pigeons pests? Rahmani is cautious. “They do roost in houses,” he says. “They can spread disease. Their faecal matter is highly acidic, and can destroy buildings and monuments. So from that perspective they might be considered pests if they are found in abnormally large numbers, but in small numbers they are most certainly not.”
“Excuse me,” says an elderly gentleman as we watch the pigeons drink water out of the old pyau (drinking fountain) at the centre of the Dadar kabutarkhana, which looks much like it must have when it began in 1933, with women throwing grain collected in used ghee tins and children running through showers of sunlit grain. “Can we take injured pigeons inside?” In his plastic bag is a shoebox with a breathing hole cut out for a bird which fell from the sky in front of his shop in Parel. “I don’t know what happened.” The kabutarkhana, fortunately, has a pigeon caretaker and a cage in which sick and injured pigeons can be left to recuperate.
Abhay Mokashi, journalist and Dahisar resident, has campaigned against unchecked pigeon-feeding for years, wary of health risks and public hazards. “There’s a new kabutarkhana near my house,” he says. “Those pigeons are so bloated from all the grain that one gets run over by a car every 15 days. They can barely fly.”
The city NGO Plant and Animal Welfare Society (PAWS-Mumbai) sometimes takes in pigeons injured by vicious humans. Sunish Subramanian Kunju, founder of PAWS-Mumbai, says frankly: “In societies and housing complexes, one person may want to feed a pigeon while 10 others may not like it. It might be that if someone can’t take their displeasure out on the human, they will harm the bird.” He says that it might be best for pigeon lovers to find birds in spaces away from irritated neighbours. “You have to compromise.”