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Meet Oakland’s unofficial pigeon whisperer

on December 11, 2019

Amid the normal hustle and bustle of Chinatown, the block of Harrison Street between 12th and 13th Streets is the sleepy backside of the neighborhood. There aren’t any markets or restaurants, but there is a small Buddhist temple. And pigeons. Lots of pigeons.

Nan Guang spends his afternoons in the Pu Guang Temple chanting ceremonial prayers to the ancestors and welcoming the many Chinese elders who come through the doors. The temple, though small, has space on the back wall for five large golden Bodhisattvas—Buddha-like figures that symbolize the path to enlightenment. The Bodhisattvas sit above fruit offerings and a long table with ten prayer books covered in yellow and red silk. Dozens of intricate lanterns hang from the ceiling framing a light blue dome and chandelier. Where the wall and ceiling meet, there are hundreds of tiny golden Bodhisattvas. Nested between two of them is Hui-Guo, or “Smart One,” a small, dark pigeon who has made the temple his home for the last year.

Guang sports a shaved head, a white long-sleeve shirt that he’s rolled up to his elbows and burnt yellow loose-fitting trousers with matching Nikes. He comes out from the temple’s back room and holds some rice up to the ceiling, calling “Hui-Guo!” and clicking his tongue. Hui-Guo perks up, perches on Guang’s hand and begins to eat.

Although pigeons are one of the most maligned urban creatures, Guang has a special relationship with the birds. He’s Oakland’s unofficial pigeon whisperer. From the downtown temple, he cares for dozens of sick or injured birds per year. “I’ve always made friends with animals,” says Guang, petting Hui-Guo.

With Hui-Guo still perched on his hand, Guang pushes open the glass double doors. Guang smiles and releases the bird. Dozens more pigeons fly down when they see the monk.

“I think they just want a little bit of food,” says Guang, back inside the temple. An older Chinese woman comes from the backroom holding a bowl of uncooked rice and hands it to Guang, who then goes out and feeds the pigeons.

He bends over and picks one of the birds up. Normally, a pigeon has three toes. “This one has a little bit of trouble,” the monk says, turning the white and black speckled pigeon over to show that it has only one toe on each foot. One of the remaining toes has hair caught on it. When string, wire, or hair gets tied up around a bird’s toe it creates a condition called “stringfoot,” which can cut off the bird’s circulation, causing limited mobility. At worst, it can completely cut the toe off.

The bird looks scared, as if it’s suddenly aware of its defenselessness. It begins to shimmy out of Guang’s grip and flap its wings.

“Oh, my goodness. Don’t be scared. Let me help you,” Guang says to the pigeon. Not letting it get away, he holds it close to his chest and takes it back into the temple.

Guang has been caring for Oakland’s pigeons for a decade, and it stems from his belief in selflessness. Guang is Mahayana Buddhist, the largest sect of Buddhism, and believes all living beings are equal and rely on each other. “From a Buddhist perspective, all living creatures are equal. We can’t hurt them,” he says.  “Not even an ant. It doesn’t want to die. It wants to stay alive, you know?”

Hui-Guo the pigeon nestles between the Bodhisattvas at his home–the Pu Guang Temple in Oakland. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay
Hui-Guo the pigeon nestles between the Bodhisattvas at his home, the Pu Guang Temple in Oakland. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay

*****

But not everyone is a fan of the feral rock pigeons, or Columba livia, that populate North America. That includes Garry Hardiman of Special Service Bird Control, a company based near Sacramento that specializes in pigeon abatement. “They are the nastiest birds of them all,” said Hardiman, who is also known as “Birdman” throughout the Bay Area.

Hardiman isn’t going to be untangling birds’ toes while he’s around them. He’s focused on moving them away from his clients’ homes and businesses. “When they take over a place, their poop has acid, which causes damage to a roof,” said Hardiman in a phone interview. “Before you can really do anything about it, there’s lots of cleaning,” which he said requires extra precautions. In the some of the worst cases, like abandoned buildings, he and his team clean wearing Hazmat suits.

Since pigeons are homing birds, once they’ve claimed a place as their home it’s really hard to get them to go away. “I have a highly-specialized business because of that,” said Hardiman. His business boomed when companies began installing freestanding solar panels and discovered that they had accidentally created places for pigeons to nest. Now clients pay Hardiman to make those pigeons move on.

When Hardiman arrives at a client’s place, he gives an assessment of the situation. If a client has pigeons on one side of the house, to really get rid of them, he has to install netting, cages, and fences anywhere on the building that the pigeons might find desirable. “They’ll just go on the other side of the building if you only do one side,” he said. Sometimes his clients push back to lower the price, but he prides himself as being thorough. “What I do isn’t cheap,” he said. But then again, “Once I’m done with a place, they don’t ever come back.”

Daniel Wilson, who runs community relations for Alameda County Vector Control, sympathizes with both Guang and Hardiman. Vector Control’s mission is to protect people from diseases that are carried by bugs, rodents and other animals like pigeons.

Wilson said pigeons are linked to spreading histoplasmosis, cryptococcosis, and toxoplasmosis which are a disease, a fungus and a parasite, respectively, that cause flu-like symptoms. But since these have to be passed through inhaling lots of pigeon waste, most people never contract an illness from a pigeon. For a human to get sick, he said, it would have to happen in a very concentrated situation—like if pet pigeons were living inside for years and the owner didn’t clean up after them. It would have to get to the point “where there is so much waste that it dries and it gets airborne and then [people] inhale it. But it usually has to be pretty messy situation,” Wilson said.

And he noted that while some Oaklanders hate pigeons, others tolerate or even love them. “People really enjoy pigeons. You know, if you’ve gone around the city of Oakland, people put out piles of rice or breadcrumbs for them,” Wilson said.

“They’re really smart birds—that’s why people are able to train them,” Wilson continued, referring to many people who raise and even race pigeons and doves for sport or pleasure. But he admits that they also cause a nuisance. “If people are providing food on a regular basis to pigeons, they can make quite a mess with their waste,” Wilson said.

Out of the several thousands of calls Vector Control has received this year, Wilson said, less than a dozen of them were complaints about pigeons. When people do call about pigeons, it’s usually because of poop and nests—the messes caused by people feeding them. Since pigeons usually live in flocks of 20 to 30 and live consistently in the same spot, Wilson’s heard a number of complaints when their populations build up.

If a resident or business owner calls Vector Control, a specialist will come to their residence and educate them about their options. Feral pigeons are not a federally-protected bird under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so a resident could then contact an exterminator to euthanize them. Or they could call someone like Hardiman, who takes humane approaches to abate them.

But for Wilson at Vector Control, sometimes convincing people to change their behavior with feeding pigeons can solve the problem. For example, Wilson said he responded to a call from residents in the city of Alameda who complained about their neighbor, who they thought was harboring pigeons. When Wilson went to talk to the pigeon feeder, he said, “This guy had five burlap bags hanging in his open garage, full of old bread, and he was just feeding them on a regular basis.”

Wilson told the pigeon feeder about the damage pigeons could cause to a residence and that he could be sued for damages to his neighbors’ buildings. “Oh my God, he was on the verge of tears, the thought of changing what he does every day,” Wilson recalled. Eventually, Wilson said, he was able to convince the man to feed the pigeons away from the house to avoid a neighborhood feud. 

******

Though Guang’s care for feral rock pigeons may be unusual now, pigeons were actually one of the first domesticated animals. “Pigeons are non-native to the United States, but they were imported as domestic animals—and of course escaped and flew off,” said Wilson. Pigeons were brought over by early European colonizers who selected them for their ability to be mail carreirs, food, and even racing entertainment.

Today’s feral rock pigeons generally do not serve any of those purposes, but they still have excellent homing capabilities. And they’ve adopted cities as their home “They really depend on living around us, because it’s a good source of food,” Wilson said.

Elizabeth Young of Palomacy with three rescue pigeons explains why feral pigeons are smart.

Elizabeth Young, the founder and executive director of the volunteer-run nonprofit Palomacy, has worked to rescue pigeons and doves for the past 12 years. The group focuses mainly on domesticated pigeons, but will find homes for feral rock pigeons if they can’t be released to the wild.

“Rock pigeons are highly intelligent. And that’s not just an opinion. They’re frequently used for cognitive cognition testing and animal testing, intelligence testing. And they always rank very high. They have amazing memories, amazing visual acuity,” said Young, sitting cross-legged a pigeon named Pip stood on her right arm while in her left arm she cradled a small rescued feral pigeon named Dear Heart.

Dear Heart was wearing blue pigeon pants—custom-made cloth diapers so they can stay inside without creating a mess. Later when Dear Heart was hopping along the cement floor, Young explained, “She was attacked by a predator when she was just a nestling, but got lucky and was taken to a rescue. And so she can’t fly and be released, but she can have a very happy life.”

Four other pigeons, all wearing pants, hopped around the room at a Palomacy volunteer’s house in Berkeley, cooing at each other. One even flew onto Young’s head multiple times.

The rescue pigeon Dear Heart shows off her blue pigeon pants which are reusable diapers for pigeon who spend time indoors. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay
The rescue pigeon Dear Heart shows off her blue pigeon pants which are reusable diapers for pigeon who spend time indoors. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay

Young pointed out that in almost every urban environment, in almost every climate, feral pigeons have been able to thrive despite a lack of help from most humans. “Pigeons are victims of their own success,” said Young. “We have millions of rock pigeons living wild and free in the in the States. And they live on our scraps.”

Young pointed out that pigeons are able to thrive off of everything from dirty water to French fries when they can’t get their native diet of seed and grains and still they breed successfully in cities. Pigeons, which mate with one partner for life, “have two babies at a time and they can have five or six clutches in a year,” said Young. A pigeon named Pip who was wearing black and orange pigeon pants began walking circles and cooing around another pigeon. “He’s courting a blind married pigeon that doesn’t want anything to do with his romance,” said Young, looking for words to describe pigeon puppy love.  

A pigeon named Pip lands on Elizabeth Young's head. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay
A rescue pigeon named Pip interrupts volunteers packing 2020 Palomacy calendars to donors by landing on Elizabeth Young’s head in Berkeley, CA. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay

Despite pigeons’ ability to breed and multiply quickly, Young says they don’t hurt their environment. “They don’t displace native wildlife. They’re using resources that other natives wouldn’t use,” said Young. She also echoed Wilson from Vector Control, saying that it’s extremely unlikely for a person to get sick from a pigeon.

Young believes that humans benefit from pigeons living in cities. “If it wasn’t for pigeons, a lot of us wouldn’t see any wildlife at all,” she said, referring to a scholarly article written in 2006 by biologist Robert Dunn called “The Pigeon Paradox.” The article argues that “people are more likely to conserve nature when they have direct experiences with the natural world.” In other words, urban wildlife like pigeons offer people in cities a window into nature.

But since pigeons are one of the three non-protected birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act—along with the English sparrow and the starling—no government institution is responsible for their wellbeing. The fate of any injured pigeon is up to the people it happens to be around. And for people who want to help pigeons like with problems like stringfoot or broken wings, there aren’t many options in the Bay Area.

“If you see one that’s hurt, or maybe you find a baby pigeon, the only place you can take it is WildCare in Marin,” said Young, referring to WildCare Wildlife Hospital. It’s the closest animal hospital to Oakland that doesn’t turn away feral pigeons.

Hardiman said that very few people in the pest control business bother taking an injured pigeon in for emergency care. When Hardiman is contracted for a job, he said, it’s common for him to find a baby pigeon in a nest. “I’m the only pest control guy I know who’ll drive a baby pigeon 30 miles out of the way to wildlife rescue,” he said.

Young said the some other pest control companies will throw nestlings into the trash.

Other gestures of kindness can be a problem in cities, said the bird experts. “Feeding [feral] pigeons is so controversial,” said Young. “Feeding them is comforting to do,” she continued, but “one problem with humans feeding them is that you can artificially increase their numbers.” And that can mean angst from the neighbors and an unintended buildup of pigeon waste.

So in the end, Guang’s kindness could be filling a local gap in pigeon care—but it could also be bolstering the pigeon population to be bigger than it would be otherwise.

*****

For Guang, nurturing pigeons isn’t controversial.

“I don’t think some pigeons can have cause much impact on us humans. The bigger environment­–it is we humans that are destroying the environment,” he says, speaking in Mandarin Chinese through a translator. It is a Friday afternoon, and he is wearing a long gray coat and mustard yellow trousers at the Temple as he took a break from studying for his English and Piano class finals.

Guang didn’t set out become a pigeon whisperer. He has always fed and taken care of animals since he was a kid. “They always know where to go,” Guang says. “They know who to trust. They know who might cause trouble.”

Guang is originally from the multilingual Guangdong province in southern China, where he grew up speaking Mandarin and Cantonese. Becoming a monk felt like it was destiny. “I always went to temple with my mom to pray,” he says. He was also inspired by the film The Shaolin Temple (1982) about a young monk who learns martial arts to avenge his father’s murder. At age 16, Guang met a master who agreed to take him on as an apprentice and he went studied at the Buddhist Academy of China in Beijing.

After completing training, he moved to Singapore to teach Buddhism to children and adults in the Bright Hill Pujue Chan Monstary, which is almost 100 years old and regularly attended by hundreds of people.

Thirteen years ago, he decided to leave for the U.S. when an acquaintance who lived Chino Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles, told him an opportunity at a temple. Guang thought it was a good idea, but when he arrived he was shocked that Los Angeles looked run-down. “When he picked me up at the airport, I thought I was at the wrong place. I said, ‘Is this the US?’” he said. “Because in my imagination the US would be different, the US would be very beautiful.”

And at the temple, he quickly realized the opportunity was actually a scam. “He asked me to volunteer at the temple for five years for a green card,” said Guang. “But I managed to run away.”

Guang spent the next two years working at a temple in New York. He credits his Buddhist master for helping him get on his feet and get his green card. Guang moved to California when the Pu Guang temple in Oakland needed a new master after the previous one left.

After living in a big American city with extreme weather, the small temple in Oakland and the city’s mild weather appealed to him. Guang found himself feeling safe and comfortable in Oakland. “Many people might be worried that public safety in Oakland is not good,” he said. “I’ve been living here for almost 11 years. It’s very good here.”

Guang is now 43 years old, but he looks much younger. He’s graceful and well-settled into the temple. He has a small office in the back that he’s also converted into a makeshift recording studio. A silver microphone with a moveable arm is mounted onto the desk. He regularly sends his friends and family videos of himself singing music he describes as “Chinese Blake Shelton,” saying it’s modern Chinese country music.

On weekdays, he spends most of his time at the temple, but recently has started attending Laney College. “This is the first time I’m taking an English class,” Guang says bashfully in English. Until now, he’s been self-taught. He speaks well but in short, simple sentences. 

As for the birds, his relationship with them began as soon as he arrived in Oakland. “At the beginning, a lot of pigeons flew to the door of our temple,” he says. “I didn’t feed them. Some people passing by the door would throw some food… Later I slowly started to give them leftover food, and gradually they became familiar with me. Every day, when as soon as they see me back here, they would fly to me.”

He doesn’t have to worry about the neighbors complaining since they’ve been leaving food outside the temple for pigeons for over a decade. But he knows pigeons can make a mess. He began raising Hui-Guo before the bird could fly, but now he’s been trying to get him to live outside. “It always comes back and poo poo everywhere,” he says, motioning at the waste Hui-Guo had recently dropped on a plate from his perch up near the ceiling.

The Pu Guang temple serves mostly monolingual elderly Chinese immigrants. “I teach them how to be strong and live the rest of their lives happily, and lead prayers with him,” he says of his day-to-day interactions with congregants at the temple. “Buddhism is not really a religion, it’s more of an education… Why do we people have so much trouble? So much pain? So much annoyance? It’s because we are too selfish, greedy and angry.”

Nan Guang, a monk at the Pu Guang Temple, explains a Buddhist’s perspective on animals. Video by Jocelyn Tabancay

There are always a few volunteers, mostly women over age 65 who come in to meditate, prepare food or help with bookkeeping. Once or twice a month, there are big ceremonies at the temple that feature all-day meditation or special meals. But on most days, people are free to come in and out as they please.

On an ordinary Saturday afternoon, a young family comes in after their son, who looks like he’s 5 years old, becomes enamored with the golden Bodhisattvas and wanders into the temple. He tries to sit on a stool meant for the master, but a volunteer ushers him off it quickly. Right after, a woman with a walker comes in for just a second to bow to the Bodhisattvas and move on her way up the street. Another woman comes in with her mom to see Guang for the noon prayer.

Guang rings a sound bowl and begins singing a meditation dedicated to the congregants’ ancestors. “I’m telling them that we think of them and ask them for their blessing. I put a little bit of food outside for them, too,” Guang says of the fruit he had placed outside next to the incense burning by the door.

His avian visitors arrive just as randomly. When they do, Guang has a knack for taking everyday supplies like scissors, razor blades, or a screwdriver and turning them into pigeon first aid kits. He uses them to cut off strings that have stuck to a bird’s foot and to separate string from toes.

Nan Guang helps a pigeon with a condition called stringfoot when loose hair, wire, or strings get caught up in a pigeon’s foot which then causes limited mobility and sometimes amputation. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay

One early afternoon while feeding the pigeons, he comes across a pigeon that is hobbling around. Guang notices its feet are tied up with string and goes to pick it up. “Ay, hey. Hold on. Hold on,” he says as the speckled pigeon flaps its wings, trying to free itself from his grip.

He motions for a volunteer to come over, and hands the bird to her. She holds it out with the bird’s feet pointed to the sky. “Look! Oh my goodness! It lost a finger,” Guang exclaims in English.

For the bird’s remaining toes, Guang begins his work. For the next 30 seconds, he’s confidently cutting the hair away with a box cutter and untangling it from the animal’s feet to make sure it won’t lose any more digits. Guang uses a screwdriver to pull the hair away from the foot so it is easier to cut through. The gesture also protects the bird’s toes from being sliced off as Guang works on cutting through the hair.

When the pigeon’s toes are freed, Guang takes the pigeon back and holds it like a football to his chest, saying a short prayer to it. “Take refuge in Buddha,” he tells the pigeon.

Then he releases it outside. Guang smiles and lets out a yelp of excitement as the bird reunites with the dozens of other pigeons pecking at rice on the sidewalk.

Yinuo Shi assisted with translation for this story.

After helping the injured pigeon, Nan says a prayer to it before releasing it back outside. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay
After helping the injured pigeon, Guang says a prayer to it before releasing it back outside. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay

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