N.Y.C.’s Patron Saint of Pigeons
Mother Pigeon feeds and cares for the maligned birds, and makes art of them, too.
The state bird of New York might officially be the Eastern bluebird, but if you ask Tina Piña Trachtenburg, it should be the pigeon.
For six years, the Brooklyn-based artist and animal advocate — who goes by Mother Pigeon — has lived a pigeon-centric existence. She feeds them, fosters them, and takes fashion inspiration from them, decorating coats and crowns with fake pigeon feathers. She starts petitions in the birds’ favor. She even quotes them in emails, signing off with the salutation “coo coo.”
In an average week, the self-described "pidgelante" spends five days in her workshop crafting felt-and-wire pigeons that she sells on Etsy and in parks. That’s usually how she spends the other two days of her week, sitting in a public park, her faux pigeons arranged in a “flash flock” around her. Aside from the fact that they don’t move, her creations are pretty convincing. At a glance, it can be hard to tell them apart from the real birds.
A lot of people don’t like pigeons, thinking of them as “rats of the sky.” But the urban birds also have champions. In January, a man in New York City made headlines when he helped a thirsty pigeon enjoy some water from a drinking fountain. And of course there’s always the infamous Pigeon Lady from Home Alone 2: Lost In New York City. Though she seemed scary at first, she was just a homeless woman who had found a friend in the birds: “I’m like the birds I care for. People pass me in the street. They see me but they try to ignore me. They prefer I wasn’t in their city.”
For Mother Pigeon, that’s precisely why she has a yearning to help the creatures. When she moved to New York City from her native Texas in the 1980s, she had no idea “how maligned they were.”
“As the years went by, I realized how much people can’t stand [pigeons] and it just made my love for them grow even more,” the 54-year-old told OK Whatever. “I wanted to protect them and give them a light that they’re not getting.”
To her, they deserve just as much respect as any other living being on the planet. On her official website, Mother Pigeon describes them as “beautiful and unique,” like “a rose or a bed of wild flowers.” Having them around us, she said, is a privilege.
Since falling in love with the birds, she’s dedicated her life to being their ally. At any given time she’ll have treats in her pockets for the avian friends she encounters; she estimates she goes through about 100 pounds of birdseed a week.
Mother Pigeon also works with the Wild Bird Fund, a wildlife rehabilitation center on the Upper East Side, helping to treat and care for sick and injured pigeons.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of them end up at her house, too. “They are literally all over my roof because they know me. My roof looks like a scene from The Birds,” she said.
Not that she keep any pigeons as pets. She doesn’t condone doing this with any wild animals. Still, many pigeons visit her of their own accord, and she cares for the sick or injured ones in her home until they can be released back into the wild. She has also given the roughly 150 birds that visit her rooftop names. There’s Albert, Ruthie, Splotchy, Chocolate Chip...
When Mother Pigeon first started crafting the fabric and wire birds, she did so just for fun. “It was really cute and my friends loved them and were buying them,” she said. Encouraged by their positive response to the normally-hated birds, Mother Pigeon started selling them on the streets. The reactions she got from the public were positive, as well as “really hilarious.”
“People don’t see them when they’re real, and they find them disgusting. But then when they’re made to look like a toy or a sculpture, they’re like, ‘Awwww! How cute! I like these pigeons but I don’t like the real ones.’ ”
The faux pigeons she makes are life-sized (9 inches tall) and available for “adoption” through Etsy, at her flash flocks in the park, or simply by texting her. (She lists her phone number on her Instagram profile.) Mother Pigeon also makes felt replicas of fledglings, baby pigeons in nests, and pigeons with two heads. A lover of all urban wildlife, she has even expanded her repertoire to include realistic, adorable raccoons, rats, crows, seagulls, and squirrels.
Her work is thoroughly New Yorkian, but if you look closely, you’ll also notice a strong influence from her religious Mexican parents. Christian iconography appears in much of Mother Pigeon’s work. She makes "pigeon religion" pendants that resemble patron saint medals, and hands out pamphlets with titles like “The Adoration of the Pigeon” and “The Exaltation of the Rat.”
Not all the reactions Mother Pigeon gets from the public are good. She’s had people confront her, kick over her fake pigeons, or intentionally scare the real pigeons away.
Still, that hasn’t deterred her. She does what she does not just because she loves pigeons, but because she loves all animals in general.
“I really have a deep love and appreciation for animals, all animals, and I put that love into the pigeons because that is what I see and they are around me,” she said.
So would her champion animal be different if she lived somewhere else?
“If I lived in Cannes or something, it would probably be a cardinal or another beautiful bird,” Mother Pigeon said.
Underdog animals are her focus, and whether that means campaigning on behalf of pigeons, squirrels, or cardinals doesn’t matter. So long as she can help others see them as more “than a pest, as something that adds beauty to this world,” then Mother Pigeon is satisfied. She’s done her job.