Parisian Pigeons May Be a Plague to Some but They Once Saved the Capital from Prussians

Parisian bird-life has a long and multifaceted history embracing such intriguing aspects as the street celebrities — known as Charmeurs d’oiseaux in the Tuileries — to the ballooning pigeons which helped save the city from the Prussians.  

Jardin du Luxembourg and the Luxembourg Palace, Paris (Credit  Wikipedia)

Jardin du Luxembourg and the Luxembourg Palace, Paris (Credit Wikipedia)

Here Toronto writer Philippa Campsie of the Parisian Fields blog leads would-be flaneurs through the capital with a fascinating tale of some bird-linked escapades.

A bird lover’s guide to Paris


This is one of my favourite photographs from Paris. I use it as the wallpaper on my desktop computer, so that every day, when I sit down to work, I feel for a second that I am taking my place at a café table on the rue Payenne. And it brings back the day in 2012 when Norman and I and a friend sat there chatting over coffee, after a visit to the nearby Musée Carnavalet. This little fellow decided to join the conversation, lured by the crumbs from the biscuits that came with the coffee.

Years ago, some people made a precarious living luring little birds out of the air for the amusement of passersby, as shown in this postcard. The birds on his hands are called Robinet and Jeannette, according to the verse on the card.

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Since sparrows tend to cluster wherever baguette crumbs can be found, I wonder if there was any more art to it than that. Bird whispering? I consulted our book on the “petits métiers de Paris,”* which quoted from Célébrités de la Rue by Charles Yriarte, published in 1864. Yriarte describes watching the Charmeurs d’oiseaux in the Tuileries, who would lure birds with breadcrumbs, but who also seemed to exert a magnetic pull on the creatures, who perched on their hands and heads without fear. There was even a “Charmeuse,” known as Mademoiselle Henriette. Even when she had exhausted her supply of breadcrumbs, the birds would stay with her, following her when she left the park.

Looking at my favourite photo, it occurred to me that many of my happiest days in Paris seem to have a connection to birds. And Norman has taken some wonderful pictures of them. If you like birds, here are some places to see them.

There was the Christmas Day when we walked across the snowy Jardin du Luxembourg, stopping to watch the ducks in the pond that is part of the Medici fountain.


The Square des Batignolles also has resident ducks and the summer day we went there, we spent some time watching them perform elaborate grooming rituals. It is so important to look one’s best in Paris.


We also noticed a baby, not a duckling, to judge by his enormous (but unwebbed) feet.

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We saw a moorhen nearby; could they be related?

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On my birthday a few years back, Norman and I took a stroll across the Bois de Boulogne on a glorious June morning, listening to the weird, strangled cries of peacocks, and amused to see how the birds co-existed peaceably with a large population of semi-feral cats.

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When we arrived at the restaurant in the Bagatelle gardens, Norman presented me with my birthday present – a silver pendant showing birds on a wire, by the Canadian artist Iris Dorton.

The Bagatelle gardens are also home to some fine swans.


And magpies.


We’ve seen lots of crows. In Norman’s photographs, they sometimes appear as a bird-shaped absence in the middle of the image.


And they look impressive in bare winter trees.


The Quai de la Mégisserie is home to a cluster of pet shops, many of which sell exotic birds. One cold winter day we went into one to warm up and found ourselves surrounded by colourful and rather grumpy characters, far from home and longing for the tropics.


A few ignored us completely.

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And then, of course, there are the pigeons. They love Paris. Why wouldn’t they? There are handy little cubbyholes where they can nest.


There are interesting places to perch to get a good view of the passing scene.


There is food to eat and water to drink.


And places to play.


And lots of lovely parks where one can enjoy an undisturbed snooze (this one is in the Parc Monceau).


The municipal authorities are not keen on pigeons, however, and have taken it upon themselves to carry out family planning on behalf of the birds. They have set up large pigeon houses, where they place food and water, and when an egg appears, it is sterilized and prevented from hatching. They call these houses pigeonniers contraceptifs. It’s a relatively humane way of controlling the population, we suppose.


Still, it seems a little ungrateful towards a species that once helped save the city. This was during the siege of 1870-71, when the city was surrounded by Prussian troops, cut off from the rest of the world. The only way for humans to leave was by balloon, and once they left, they could not come back (ballooning was too unpredictable; indeed, one could never know in advance the destination of the outward journey). But pigeons could, and did, return, laden with messages. They travelled out by balloon, were given time to rest before the journey back, then taken as close as safely possible to the city, and released. Most of them found their way back to Paris with their cargo.

And what was that cargo? Microfilm. A photographer, René Dagron, figured out a way to take a picture of hundreds of pages of writing at a time, reduce it to a tiny size, and make copies on rolls of film. These pieces of film were inserted into goose quills attached to the tail feathers of the birds. A single pigeon could carry thousands of letters in this way, and because there were copies, if one bird failed to arrive (the Germans went after them with buckshot and falcons), another would get through. More than 60,000 letters were delivered to Paris addresses during the siege, thanks to the pigeons.**

Of course, pigeons are rather prosaic birds, so in his painting honouring the role of birds in the siege, Puvis de Chavannes used a more attractive dove, cradled by a young woman representing Marianne, the spirit of France, who is fending off a mean-looking German eagle.

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Poor pigeons. It seems their past has been stolen from them, and if the anti-fertility campaign succeeds, they have a diminished future. But I doubt if Paris will ever rid itself entirely of these enterprising and often entertaining birds.


Text and images by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball. Painting by Puvis de Chavannes from Wikimedia.

*Jean-Michel Le Corfec, Les petits métiers de Paris, Editions Sud-Ouest, 2008.

**The full story is told in the wonderful book by Richard Holmes, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, William Collins, 2013.

Reprinted by kind permission of Parisian Fields blog and Philippa Campsie. Toronto writers Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball are co-authors of the Parisian Fields blog.

Philippa has written two walking guides to Paris – Audrey Hepburn in Paris. “The Audrey Hepburn walking tour through central Paris links the locations of some of her best-known films…” and -Shopping with Jackie in Paris “The Shopping with Jackie Kennedy walk focuses on the places she knew back when she spent her year abroad in Paris…” Both can be downloaded from the web and cost just $1.98 each.

Norman is a retired university professor trained as an historian of technology, design and engineering, who can’t stop taking pictures of Paris graffiti and interesting cars. Philippa Campsie as she notes on the blog: “studied in Paris as a university student, and has never quite got Paris out of her system ever since.”



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