Poultry Press is one of the stranger periodicals to regularly make its way through the United States Postal Service. It’s a monthly newsletter sent out to a readership that must be something like an Audubon Society for radical rooster lovers. It contains articles that decry factory farms where chicks can be found “peeping to death,” publishes rave reviews for books with titles like The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities, and displays ads for photo prints of skinny but proud poultry strutting toward the camera with the caption, “Walking to Freedom After a Year in the Cages.”
You might laugh at these efforts, at their out-of-proportion advocacy for our fowl friends. I know I still do. But if you take a moment to notice what’s missing from the soundscape on your next walk across our wintry campus, you might notice that the birds on our campus are persecuted, and you might see why there’s room for a publication that advocates for a world where mankind and birdkind can coexist happily.
I first noticed the absence of that comfortable mingling on our campus on a walk from Barnard’s Milbank Hall to Philosophy Hall at the start of February. Along the walk, I could hear an orchestra flying above me, but by the time I’d crossed Broadway and entered the Columbia gates, I only felt a ringing silence. Before, I might have assumed Columbia was quiet because the birds flew south. Now that I know that they’re just outside the gates, what am I to think?
I got to Philosophy Hall before class, and from my perch on the sixth floor, for the first time, I noticed an array of nails decorating the windowsills. I turned toward another student who’d just arrived and asked, “Why do you think those are there?”
“Probably to keep the birds away,” she said.
The Columbia community’s attempts to clear the skies of birds stretch back, at least, to the start of the 20th century, when Ivy League gun clubs would meet up for an afternoon to compete and see how many of the enemy they could expel from the skies. Awards were granted to the college that killed the most birds. In 1915, a Spectator article unveiled some of the ideological underpinnings of Columbia’s anti-bird standpoints when it mocked an elderly alumnus who’d been seen feeding pigeons on campus for “still believ[ing] that nature may be studied as well here in the city as up state [sic].”
Is one of Columbia’s unstated assumptions as an institution that we live somewhere outside nature? Must all organic elements be squeezed out of our cold neoclassical architecture and be replaced with anxious hysteria and neurotic anxiety? Do we conceive of the city as a place where all animal life must be cordoned off into parks and anything that trespasses beyond, into the rest of the city, reserved for humans, might as well be a subway rat?
The birds at Columbia struck back against their exclusion from campus life in 1935, when they attacked a student on the Low Steps. Perhaps as a move toward a truce, in 1936 facilities staff protected two sparrow nests that appeared above the entrances to Hartley and Wallach, then known as Livingston. These attempts at peaceful coexistence were fouled up only three years later, when a professor living in Furnald found that his pillow had been turned into a nest, gave away the eggs, and began to shut his windows. In 1998, a photographer noted that the first inhabitants of Lerner Hall were birds. But their songs are no longer sung on the ramps; they’ve been denied swipe access.
A city isn’t defined by an absence of nonhuman species, but by an insane stacking together of all sorts of life, of millions of humans and birds and rats and cockroaches, all living on top of each other. Birdsong is one of the most fundamental textures of the soundscape of our city, up there with the rumble of the subway. It seems like a mistake to go about eliminating this aspect of the city from our campus, because—to momentarily adopt the tone of the Poultry Press—it is tantamount to eliminating aspects of life. If we choose to live in silence, we choose to hardly live at all. But, then again, if I’m wearing headphones anyway, what difference does it make?
Have fun leafing through our fifth issue!