Last month, the National Audubon Society issued a paper documenting a decline in the populations of many common American birds, including bobwhites, whip-poor-wills, grackles, and grosbeaks. The study did not list the feral domestic pigeon as a species under siege, but apparently it is—at least, in certain local precincts. In Greenwich Village, residents are reporting a Columba livia domestica crime wave. Like the Upper East Side flock-nappings of a few years back, this recent spate of abductions has become a heated mystery, giving rise to the feeling, among residents, of having stepped into an episode of “Law & Order: Avian Victims Unit.”
Judith Monaco Callet was walking her neighbor’s dog one afternoon in April when she saw a man in an S.U.V. with tinted windows park on the west side of LaGuardia, near Bleecker. The man—Callet thinks he was Caucasian, and wearing a cap—got out of the S.U.V., crossed the street, and threw a big pile of birdseed onto the pavement. “Out of the corner of my eye,” Callet said the other day, “I saw a big black net, like a butterfly or fishing net. So I see it moving, and I’m thinking somebody’s lost a cat. The guy swooped the net up, closed it off, and there he went.” He made off with about fifteen pigeons.
A few feet away, in LaGuardia Corner Gardens, was Wilhelmine Hellmann, a retired electron microscopist, tending to her peach tree. “Wilhelmine shouted, ‘Get the license plate!’ ” Callet recalled. Callet managed to jot down the number before the S.U.V. sped away. She called the police and, later, the Villager, which noted the incident. “Someone is scooping up Village pigeons and no one knows why,” the paper warned.
In and around LaGuardia Corner Gardens recently, theories abounded on where all the birds have gone. Hellmann, snapping on a pair of yellow rubber gloves, asserted that her first sighting of the birdnapper, on Eighth Street, had left her stunned. “I can’t judge people, but that a person thinks he has a right to scoop up pigeons—that just drives me crazy,” she said. She wanted to put to rest, while she was at it, the stereotypical association of pigeons with breadcrumb-sprinkling elderly women. “That is a made-up concept,” she said, rooting around in the dirt for a dead rat. “There are plenty of little old men.”
Only a few weeks ago, Hellmann said, she was at the garden when a van pulled up. Same deal: sprinkle, net, swoop. Joe O’Connell, the resident rosarian, tried to scare the intruder off. “I was waving a shovel, screaming every word under the sun,” he recalled. “Boom—he was in the van with them and gone.” O’Connell said he had heard that the birds were being ground up to make meal for ferrets. He added, “This may sound like a paranoid theory, but does it have anything to do with bird flu?”
A few plots over from Hellmann, a gardener who gave his name as Jack was pruning his daylilies. A couple of years ago, he said, he’d seen something similar happen early on a Sunday morning. He put forth two explanations: either the pigeons were being eaten, perhaps in Chinatown, or they were being taken to shooting ranges in Pennsylvania. “You know something—just hit me right now?” he asked, his tone turning ominous. He looked across LaGuardia to the umbrellas of Señor Swanky’s. “Rich folk don’t like pigeons.” Jack pointed out a set of spiky metal apparatuses that, along with a parliament’s worth of owl decoys, had been installed on the window ledges of a nearby building. “It’s, like, follow the money.” Another gardener whispered, “Maybe it’s N.Y.U.!”
The next day, a reporter received a phone call from an anonymous man claiming to speak for Bird Operations Busted, a self-styled pigeon-liberation outfit. He explained that there are two kinds of birdnappers: netters and hoopers. “The hooper goes for particular birds, whether for breeding purposes, for his own collection, or for blackmail—‘If you want your bird back, you better cough up the cash.’ ” Netters, meanwhile, sweep up birds indiscriminately, delivering them to brokers, who pay two to five dollars a head. “So far, we have detected at least sixty-three vehicles being used for bird-netting in New York City,” the man said. Some hot spots: Thirteenth Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, Eighty-sixth Street at Third Avenue, the Roosevelt Island tramway.
Back at the garden, Jack remained unconvinced that his neighborhood wasn’t a target. He gestured toward a few lonely birds, perched on the roof of a supermarket. “There are a lot fewer than there used to be,” he said. “And another thing: we don’t see as many squirrels