Would you be nicer to pigeons if they were green?

I’ve often thought people would hate pigeons less if they just had some pretty colored feathers instead of their dirty gray look. Swiss artist Julian Charrière gave it a try: he gave dozens of pigeons in Venice a flamboyant, luminescent make-over and is seeing how people react.

Predictably, there is a minor backlash, what with innocent wild animals being used as a prop in a stunt for the Venice Bienalle architecture show. Not helping calm anyone, Charrière gave a vague, clumsily translated, robotic description of the painting process: “A «pigeon apparatus» was build with this purpose. The machine works as a bird trap with a conveyor belt mechanism, ones inside the machine the pigeon get automatically airbrushed in different colors. The machine was installed for a week on a roof.”

I have to believe that description was just part of his fun in provoking outrage.  He and his collaborator, German photographer, Julius von Bismark, previously painted pigeons in Copenhagen as part of a project “Some pigeons are more equal than others.” He says he wanted to upgrade the hated birds’ status. On another occasion, Charrière, 25, significantly downgraded the social status of a white dove by painting it gray like a pigeon. If the colored pigeons were JCPenney shoppers suddenly upgraded to Missoni, that poor dove suffered a reversal of fortune at Charrière’s hands (except that he was set loose.)

The Italian press says that he stuck to a baffling script in interviews that did not reveal anything about the painting process. Some Italian stories say he kept the birds in boxes and feeding them something that will wear off in a few months. Seems unlikely. They’re pigeons, not carnations. If you could just add dye to their food, can you imagine what Chicago pigeons would look like for St. Patrick’s Day?

Do people treat the pretty pigeons differently? Absolutely. In 2008, Venice banned feeding the birds, which are a huge tourist attraction in St. Mark’s Square. After the paint job, Japanese tourists chased the colored birds down, favoring especially the rare red one. I would not be surprised if some broke the ban and offered food.

Right now birders are chasing down rare warbler species, whose main distinction seems to be whether they wear eyeliner and if they have a splotch of yellow, green or blue and where.

His point isn’t so much to mess with the social lives of individual birds. The birds in the experiment were, in effect, paid for their effort with the extra food they surely got. True, they didn’t choose the paint. But if given the option, they absolutely would have. Being biased by good looks is by no means a uniquely human fault. What I want to know is whether other birds treated them better. In many bird species it is the female who choses the mate and she often uses looks, the more splashy, the better. I can imagine many Venetian pigeon moms disappointed when the eggs hatch.

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