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Venice’s Grand Canal in the evening was a dining backdrop I’m not sure we’ll ever match again in terms of atmosphere and ambiance. A mother – a braver mother than I ever was—had brought her toddler son along to dine, and we watched as he ran up and down the aisle, stopping to poke at some small cylindrical containers holding an unknown substance. Many such vessels lined the edge of the deck between railing spokes separating diners from the water of the canal.
Curious, my husband joined the toddler and started to poke at the mystery substance. I slapped away the hands of my big toddler, though the parent of the actual toddler seemed unconcerned about the effect of the mystery substance on hers.
“Don’t touch that! You don’t know what it is!”
After coming up with several theories for what the containers held, we decided to ask a restaurant employee, busing tables nearby.
Searching for the right English words, as he spoke some English and our Italian was courtesy of Google Translate, he finally told us it was for “the flies that come with the morning.”
The flies that come with the morning. The phrases sounded kind of musical and poetic; we pondered what sort of insects these flies that come with the morning could be.
Until he passed again and had one more word for us:
I preferred the flies that come with the morning. Pigeons are ubiquitous birds, found in most places, where humans gather in vast numbers, dropping food. But, apparently, Venetian pigeons are special. They must be. After all, people who would never dream of holding pigeons back home and possibly even be disgusted by them can be seen in San Marco happily encouraging these rats of the avian world flock all over them.
We passed one young woman, beaming, t-posting with one pigeon perched on each outstretched arm. My camera involuntarily pointed itself in her direction until my daughter, urging me to better behavior, gave me a stern “no” and pointed its lens down.
My behavior? Throughout Venice, signs remind visitors not to feed the pigeons. This NBC article from 2006 reports 40,000 pigeons were spreading their poop around Venice; I would wager there are even more of them now just based on personal observation. Though many factors contribute to Venice’s problems with decaying buildings, the pigeons can only add to them. Yet kids rove around San Marco (and other areas to a lesser extent) handing out bags of pigeon feed, which tourists happily snap up for that photo to take home or post on Instagram.
Are Venetian pigeons special?
Here are pigeons in Venice:
Here are pigeons in Portland:
There is no difference except that the humans in Portland are ignoring the birds. No aura of enchantment exists in handling a pigeon near a Portland food truck. But snap that same bird straight outta Burnside and place it in front of the Doge’s Palace, it suddenly becomes an Instagram-op. The equation here seems to be that the perceived vermin-level of the pigeon is inversely proportional to the ambiance of the location.
So what was in those containers? Pigeon poison? While we’re still not entirely sure about the mystery substance, it was likely a pigeon contraceptive, which I understand Venice has been using to try to decrease the overall population of the flies that come with the morning.
So, resist the temptation to buy that pigeon food in Venice and, if you’re going to take photos of yourself covered by flocks of birds, I challenge you to do that back home as well.
As an interesting, unrelated yet pigeon-related, aside: I have, in my book collection, an out-of-print 1985 paperback fantasy novel called the Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm , who later went on to write better-known fantasy novels under the name Robin Hobb . It concerns a homeless Vietnam vet in Seattle – I eventually plan to write about books I’ve read set in Seattle, and this definitely makes the list.
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