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All the Lovely Pigeons

By Calvin Trillin

(TIME, March 25) -- I suppose it's still faintly possible that those who engineered the mysterious snatching of 4,000 pigeons from Trafalgar Square had only the best interests of the pigeons at heart. There is that ray of hope to cling to.

I can imagine many people in England trying to reassure one another with such thoughts as they read increasingly grim speculation about the pigeons in the morning papers. "Don't look so glum, Alfie," Alfie's wife says, as she puts the eggs and grilled tomato and thick-cut bacon in front of him. "Maybe this was some nice gentleman who has a home for older pigeons in a lovely part of Sussex where they don't have to be around those nasty foreigners."

It may be, of course, that Alfie was looking glum because, breakfast traditionally being the only edible meal in England, he knew his day had already peaked well before 9 in the morning. But he was probably thinking of those pigeons. The English are known for having almost unlimited sympathy for animals that are unromantic or even animals that Americans might describe as having been hit upside the head with an ugly stick. The United Kingdom is a country in which the monarch harbors corgis.

A corgi looks as if it were put together with the unrelated body parts of three or four other breeds--the parts, as it happens, that each breed most longed to get rid of when it looked in the mirror every morning. ("If I could just get some other dog to take this little sausage of a torso, I could go places on these legs.")

Apparently, there was at first hope that the pigeons had been taken by some poor lad who desperately wanted to race pigeons but lacked the wherewithal to buy his own flock. Alfie was able to imagine the Trafalgar Square pigeons soaring gracefully over the Somerset moors or being pampered by a kindly pigeon fancier like that nice detective on NYPD Blue.

But I heard on the radio that the pigeon-racing authorities dismissed that theory, explaining that Trafalgar Square pigeons are too old and out of shape to be competitive racers.

"I was thinking they might have special races for older birds," Alfie may have said when that news came out. "Like the over-50 division in tennis."

I have to say that I was pessimistic from the start. Any sensible analysis of the case has to start with a brutal but undeniable fact: people eat pigeons.

When the New American Cuisine began to take hold in Northern California, I remember beginning each visit to San Francisco by checking to make certain there were still pigeons in the parks. My fear was that between my trips to the city, all the poor birds might have been snatched up, smoked and served on a bed of radicchio.

I don't think the Trafalgar Square caper indicates that smoked pigeon on radicchio has replaced bangers and mash in the hearts of the English. The pigeons could be served as anything. As Escoffier, or one of them, may have said, "Chopping up is the great leveler."

In fact, a young man, who told The Sun that he had taken 1,500 of the pigeons and sold them to a middleman, said, "As far as I know, they go to curry houses all over Britain."

We all hope he's wrong. People who would snatch Trafalgar Square pigeons for restaurant stewpots would snatch almost any animal, no matter how repulsive--although the Queen will be relieved to hear they'd probably draw the line at corgis.

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