Are pigeons beautiful? I think they might be, but I rarely stop to look. Sometimes though, walking to the Jackson Red Line stop on my way home, I notice them. There are dozens here, heads bobbing up and down like Lake Michigan waves. The pigeons peck at bits of Cheetos and empty dope bags, discarded Jimmy John’s bread and soft pink worms flushed aboveground after a heavy rain. They are a collective and they are unbothered. They part easily, carelessly, for the Columbia students in their white platform sneakers, the hustlers who hang out on the narrow green of Pritzker Park, the Harold Washington Library visitors in their rain bonnets and heavy coats, and me. Powdery gray and blue, charcoal and snow-white, the pigeons have iridescent rings around their necks like permanent makeup, something else with a reputation for being trashy that I happen to like. 

When I started trying to find the pigeon lady, or ladies, or whoever it is feeding the birds downtown, I’d never seen her, but I’d heard stories from people who live outdoors in the Loop. Sam sees the pigeon lady on weekday mornings, driving down Wells and tossing seed out of her passenger window with a bucket. Mark sees her in the same spot on weekday afternoons. And according to Kelly, two different pigeon ladies feed all the birds on Lake Street between State and Wells. 

The more I heard, the clearer it became to me that the pigeon lady is less of a gender or individual and more of a calling. The pigeon lady is white, she’s Asian, she’s Hispanic. She’s elderly and she’s middle-aged. She drives an SUV, she drives a sedan, she has a driver—a man who is her husband, or maybe her hired chauffeur. She is a driver, according to my friend Jeff; he says the pigeon lady is a male taxi driver who rolls down his window, stretches out his hand, and feeds the birds who land on it each morning while idling in the cab line at Union Station.

For months, I was consumed. I’d never seen her, yet I believed, for I’d seen her wake: feathers, scattered seeds, and a handful of rustling birds. Every time I would walk through downtown and stop to say hey to someone I know, I’d also ask if they knew about the pigeon lady: every time, they’d laugh and say, “You just missed her!” Some complained about the pigeon shit that flurries down on them while the birds wait for the pigeon lady to show up with their hand-delivered meal, others don’t mind, and even kind of like the show. I wanted to see the show, but what I really wanted to do was meet its star. 

Back in Michigan, after my siblings and I left home, my dad kept pigeons for a few years until they all either got eaten by possums or flew away; for a while, one named Coobles used to join him in the garage, sitting on his hat whenever he smoked a cigar. I knew someone in recovery who owned hundreds of pigeons, channeling urges to relapse into tending to, and talking with, clouds of birds roosting in handsome, handmade coops. But this passion was all peripheral to my life. I didn’t care about pigeons either way, other than picking up, once I lived in the city, some vague knowledge that pigeons were brought to America by European settlers and have been more or less wronged by us humans ever since. I felt guilty about that, but not enough to break city code and feed them, and not enough to learn more about how they cohabitate with us. What I did care about—what I do care about—is people, especially the ones lit up inside by a singular passion. Weird people, people possessed, people other people might term freaks. The pigeon lady could be a freak, I thought, and feeding pigeons could be the mission of her life. Jeff calls pigeons “city chickens”—she could also be cultivating them as a food source. After all, squab remains popular throughout the world: you can go buy pigeon at multiple Chicago butchers today if you want to. 

A few weeks ago, Guy, who lives on a corner in the Loop, told me a story about watching the pigeon lady catch a pigeon with a blue butterfly net and pull it into her car. Maybe she caught it for food, or maybe for companionship, her very own Coobles to keep her company. Maybe she loves them, and thinks they’re beautiful. Regardless, the pigeon lady is motivated enough about feeding these birds to spend hours a day and what I could only guess was hundreds—if not a thousand—dollars a year on birdseed and gas to do so. I wouldn’t know why until I asked her. 

Courtesy Lloyd DeGrane

“I LOVE PIGEONS. They are gorgeous and funny and smart and social. I almost missed the red line watching this column of them perched on a building. They are perfect creatures and everyone who hates them is wrong.” —@nlcoomes

My search for the pigeon lady begins with Guy on a 13-degree Tuesday in January. While I keep an ear out for any sudden beating of wings, Guy—a white man in his early 30s with a quiet voice—is hustling where he sleeps, in front of the doorway of a recently shuttered shop. Last time we spoke, Guy told me about two pigeon ladies: one who comes and throws feed on his corner every morning between 10 and 11 AM, and another who comes later in the afternoon, less often, and with a driver. When I ask Guy if I can come hang out on his corner and watch for her, he agrees, and so one morning, I arrive with breakfast. Together, we wait. 

“I just don’t like it because we sleep over here,” Guy explains when I ask him what he thinks about the pigeon lady. “When they toss the food out, the birds come over, and they expect the food every day, so they pop up. They shit all over the place, they shit all over the blankets.” Indeed, on the ground behind us are the squares of cardboard he uses as a sleeping mat, plus bird droppings. 

Above us, pigeons ruffle and coo, shuffling on the elevated rails. It’s so cold out Guy can store the donated food and drink he gets against the empty storefront’s locked glass door without fear of it spoiling. We keep our masks on to hide from the wind. We talk about the cold, how kind the Starbucks workers across the street are, the increasingly poor quality of dope, and a video Guy saw in which Bill Gates says the vaccine makes people believe in God but not the Christian God. Guy doesn’t wholly buy the video’s truth. I try and fail to explain deep fakes. I ask Guy if he’s ever talked to the pigeon ladies (“I just yell at them and tell them, ‘Don’t do it!’”) and whether they listen to him (“No, they still do it.”). As the minutes tick on, we watch the pigeons gather around us like summer storm clouds. 

“Want to go get warm?” Guy asks, and inclines his head toward a nearby 7/11. We go in and stomp our feet hard. Guy nods at the young man working behind the counter. “He usually lets me stay inside for a couple minutes,” he says. We take turns peering over the worker’s shoulder through the glass window behind him, watching for a vehicle to suddenly slow down, birdseed to spray. It’s 10:30 AM. After our couple of minutes are up, we resume our posts. 

“There she is,” Guy says, so quiet I almost don’t hear him. 

A silver, slightly beat-up SUV rolls toward us with its hazards on. Slowly, magnificently, the SUV’s lone occupant—I see the slightest glimpse of a woman with black hair and round cheeks—reaches over the passenger seat and pours out a bucket of bird feed. I stare, mouth agape under my mask. Here she is. Here is the pigeon lady. Too awestruck to move at first, I stumble forward, but the SUV rolls on and makes a right turn before I can catch up.

Guy is standing patiently where I left him, not exactly waiting for me but not not waiting for me, either. I feel vaguely embarrassed. “I didn’t expect to see her so soon,” I say lamely, and thank him for noticing her approach. We watch as pigeons—I quickly count at least 200—bob and dart, one mass hunting for fallen food. I missed my first chance to get the pigeon lady on the record, but at least now I can confirm for myself that she’s real. 

“I know she probably thinks she’s doing something nice by feeding the birds,” Guy sighs. “But sometimes a car comes by and runs them right over.”

“crazy that they’re just doves with a bad branding strategy” —@emilymester

At 11 AM, I say goodbye to Guy and walk east to meet up at Macy’s with Lloyd DeGrane, a documentary photographer who’s been visiting folks downtown and handing out harm reduction supplies for years. We usually walk together, and today he’s going to take me on a tour of all the spots he’s seen the pigeon lady. Because it’s so cold, we take the underground Pedway. I’ve never used the Pedway before, and marvel at its backlit stained glass and dropped coffee cups and my fellow pedestrians: tired county employees, fragrance counter managers clad in black and vaping on break, sanitation workers sweeping brooms, a man who is angry because we don’t give him any cash (we have none). We pop up for air at City Hall, and check the corner of Clark and Randolph, but there’s no feed and no birds. 

At 12:40 PM on Lake, between State and Wabash, we see a solitary pigeon, but no pigeon lady. At 1:05 PM at Madison and Wells, the spot where Sam and Mark hustle in shifts, 30 or so pigeons peck at fresh yellow seed, a sign we just missed her. Sam is hurrying down the street. Mark is dopesick, he tells us, and he’s on his way to help him out. “Can I use your phone?” he asks Lloyd. While we walk together, Sam tells me the pigeon lady he sees drives a white sedan. “I hate it,” he says of her feeding the birds. In addition to Madison and Wells, Sam says he saw her once at Clark and Lake, a tiny woman standing on top of the planter boxes and throwing bread with gusto. 

Lloyd and I wander some more. Under a viaduct off Ida B. Wells, I finally meet Elmo, someone I’ve heard casually about for years. Elmo, a middle-aged white man with graying dark hair, is originally from Kentucky; I can still hear the land in his voice. Sometimes he catches pigeons just for fun. He calls to them, clucking his tongue in such a way that the birds, hypnotized, walk right into his hands. Lloyd shows me the pictures, and later, asks Elmo if he thinks pigeons are beautiful.

“They’re intelligent,” Elmo answers. “They’re rats with wings. I got one now that’s always hanging out at my tent. He wants to sleep with me, but I chase him away every night.”

“I’m getting a pigeon tattoo on my foot!” —@panoramiccolors

We say goodbye to Elmo and walk back north. At 2:42 PM, on the northeast corner of Clark and Lake, a short man with a gray ponytail and purple coat walks in our direction. 

“Look!” says Lloyd. The man is quickly and discreetly throwing handfuls of seed out of his black duffel bag. After he passes us, I turn around. Here is a chance for me to reclaim my reporter pride, and begin to get the answers I seek.

“Excuse me!” I say, huffing as I try to speed walk his way in three pairs of pants. “My name is Katie and I’m from the Chicago Reader, can I ask you a couple questions about what you’re doing?” He smiles shyly. 

“Next time,” he says, and keeps moving. 

“What’s your name?” I call out as he opens a glass door to a small shopping mall I’ve never noticed before. 

“Angel,” he calls over his shoulder, and disappears.

Elmo by the river. Courtesy Lloyd DeGrane

“Walk under the bridge that goes over Irving Park Rd for the train and L tracks.  Particularly on the South side of IPR, east of the @cta entryway.  Tell me of the beauty of these winged rats then.” —@DivisionTweets

One afternoon in mid-January, I spent some time trying and failing to articulate to myself why I was increasingly obsessed with the pigeon ladies, and why, in turn, the pigeon ladies were obsessed with feeding the birds regardless of financial or social cost. It had something to do with beauty, I finally decided. We all value beauty, even if the parameters of how beauty is measured and defined shift from culture to culture. We’re passionate about what we find beautiful, and disdainful of what we don’t. 

That’s as far as I got. 

Irritated, I turned to the masses. “For a story I’m working on for @Chicago_Reader : are pigeons beautiful?” I asked Twitter. I thought I was asking a cheeky, fun question that could drum up some good quotes and allow me to procrastinate a little longer. I did not expect, when I turned my phone back on later that night, to have hundreds of notifications. Six hundred and twenty-two of you voted in my poll. 

The results were clear, but not without a strong showing from what ended up being the minority opinion: 62.4 percent of voters said yes, pigeons are beautiful, while over a third—37.6 percent—said no. 

“You do realize your little brother @coobles321 showed pigeons at the Fowlerville Fair and got first place AND Best Of Show, right?” replied my mother in a tweet. Apparently, the judge decreed them “nice birds, exceptionally pretty with tight feathers from frequent flights.” 

I did not realize. Nor did I understand the degree to which pigeons figure into Chicago political lore and law, until Chicagoans sent me links telling me so. In 2019, state representative Jaime Andrade Jr. was giving a live Channel 2 interview on pigeon waste and feathers at the Irving Park Blue Line Station when one pigeon flew by and pooped on his head. In another video, Andrade actually confronted a pigeon lady—a woman just outside of a parked SUV and a man who was assisting her—who was feeding the birds shortly after the station was power-washed. “Please don’t feed the pigeons. Please,” Andrade said, to which the woman responded by cussing him out. 

Andrade’s experience isn’t the only time a pigeon lady and the law have come into conflict. In 2012, Alderperson James Cappleman was sweeping up bread crumbs on the corner of Broadway and Wilson when the woman who’d set them out emerged from her car. A heated encounter ensued, during which the woman, later identified as Young Kang, allegedly shoved Cappleman and threw bread crumbs in his direction.

“What is a criminal? Hey, I take care of God’s creatures,” Kang later told the Sun-Times. “That is criminal? […] If I am wrong, I still have to do it. I have to save the life. What’s wrong with that? If they have to hang me, if they have to kill me, I’m going to die.” 

I don’t recall my family’s pigeons inciting violence or passionate declarations of life-or-death, although my brother’s Twitter handle makes me consider that Coobles played a more prominent role in our lives than I thought. I’m obsessed with Kang’s quote. I’m obsessed with the moment a calling becomes a compulsion. Quests can show you the whole world, but they also can narrow your range of vision until you see nothing else, not even your own two feet, blistered and sore, as you chase a light only you can see.

“A beautiful gang of pigeons have taken over the Reader box in my neighborhood and I am SCARED of them [heart-eyes emoji]” —@miccocaporale

Whether for or against, people are very, very passionate about pigeons. Beauty is entwined with passionate love, and what we love, we’ll do most anything to protect and care for—even if we’re utterly wrong, even if that care is actually harmful to what we love, and to ourselves.

“NO. Keep wildlife wild. We do not need to be actively going out and feeding wildlife,” Mason Fidino, a quantitative ecologist at the Lincoln Park Zoo, nearly shouts over the phone. Pigeons, he says, can eat “practically anything” and breed multiple times a year. Feeding them artificially inflates their population beyond what can be naturally sustained. That’s bad for them, but it’s also not great for us. 

Throughout its natural history, the rock dove, what we now call a pigeon, nested along cliff crevices and caves. “If you ask a pigeon about skyscrapers, they’d think, ‘Hey, look at this nice cliff face I can nest in,’” says Fidino. Like humans, pigeons are highly adaptable: “There’s a reason we’re all over the world, just like the pigeon is.” And like us (and other animals), even when they fight, pigeons like to live together. 

Pigeons are not themselves dirty; this reputation is unjust. As Fidino points out, for an animal to evolve with dirtiness, that trait would have to provide some kind of survival benefit. What they did benefit from was nesting in large, cooing groups. More pigeons equals more poop, and pigeon waste does carry at least four different diseases harmful to humans who breathe it in. But, says Fidino, “you have to be really breathing it in, day in and day out, in significant quantities.” You have to share even closer quarters with the birds than do most fellow city dwellers. You have to be Sam, or Mark, or anyone else who lives under the station platform, or viaduct, or Lower Wacker, and breathe in the dust from the pigeons who roost above your head day after day.

Courtesy Lloyd DeGrane

“not many birds can say they’ve been to war” —@emilymester

“You ever freeze a pop?” Guy asks me. Two days later, I’m back on the pigeon lady hunt on a decidedly warmer morning, but it’s still January. I’m still in three pairs of pants. 

“Yeah,” I answer. 

“You know how it’s frozen but you can still squeeze it, still move around the ice inside?”  

I think back to my childhood, freezing 24-ounce plastic bottles of Faygo Rock & Rye because slurping them like slushies made me feel fancy. “I do,” I reply. 

“That’s how my feet felt,” Guy explains. I ask him if he can feel his feet now. He can, and they hurt, a lot. He peeled off his socks at the 7/11 yesterday to take a look. Their color is good but they’re swollen: he’s planning on going to the hospital soon. 

At around 10:30 AM, two Streets and Sanitation trucks pull up right where the pigeon lady throws her feed. A blue garbage truck follows. Across the street, I see a CPD SUV crawl to a stop and park against the flow of traffic. “I’m finna walk off,”  Guy says, and quickly slouches away. Two police officers get out of the SUV and cross the street. One of them nods in the direction Guy vanished and asks me, “Do you know where he went?” 

“No,” I answer.

I forget to ask the officer if he’s seen the pigeon lady. It’s technically against municipal code to feed pigeons in Chicago, though, so maybe that’s for the best.

My phone rings. It’s Lloyd, and he’s excited. He’s run into Kelly, a white woman in her upper 30s with blue eyes and a round, serene face who hustles outside of the State Street Chick-fil-A. Right now, Kelly lives on the Blue Line, but tomorrow she’s signing the lease and picking up keys for a one-bedroom apartment, her first place in four years. Today, she has a story for me.


Sleet, rain, snow, she’s out here. She usually comes the same time every time, between three and four [in the afternoon]. But the funny thing is, as soon as she gets out of the car, before she even puts anything out, these birds are, like, following her! So as soon as the first drop of rice comes, there’s this whole flock. That’s what was amazing to me. She didn’t even lay any rice, and these pigeons are flying up in the air, waiting. 

I am thinking it’s gotta be, like, maybe two five-pound bags of rice? You can tell when she’s running low—in the beginning, she just takes her hand and throws it, and then whatever’s left, I just see her take the bag out and sprinkle it out. 

A lot of people get mad. Well first, everyone hates pigeons because they have no fear factor, they don’t care what it is. [Laughing] A lot of times, she pours so much rice that the pigeons are fighting over it. So there’s pigeons that are diving down, and there’s rice flying up in the air because they’re fighting over the pieces—I wish I had recorded some of the things. But yeah, some people get mad. But the cops, there’s signs up on the el, $200 fine—but like, everybody knows her and the cops talk to her. 

“I love birds but once saw a pigeon eating a leg of fried chicken on an el platform and was like, noooo you’re eating your family” —@Petit_Smudge

After talking with Kelly and tooling around for a couple hours more on foot, Lloyd and I head to the Wit Hotel. It’s shortly before 3 PM, and the day is cold and rapidly cooling further. I long for a hot toddy. 

“Kelly said between three and four,” I casually remind Lloyd, trying to measure his tolerance for a long stakeout and hoping it’s as low as mine. “I’ll probably head out around four.” I know better, of course. Tranquil and rangy, Lloyd is a camel. For every coffee I need, for every snack, for every stop to pee, he could walk to Detroit. But today, for once, Lloyd’s cold too. 

“I’ll get on the bus around then,” he allows. 

All around us, the pigeons are gathering. Soon, they number close to a hundred. It can’t be long now, I say. We stand, shoulders a few inches apart, shivering and squinting in the direction of the setting sun’s light. 

I want to ask the front desk staff of the Wit if they’ve seen the pigeon lady. Lloyd suggests I pop in right now, since once we see her, we’ll likely be running towards her and away from the hotel. I’m just starting to get some answers (“Oh, you’re talkin’ about the pigeon lady.”), when one worker interrupts another and points to her left. Outside the window is Lloyd, waving his arms as frantically as his peaceful demeanor will allow. 

“I just saw a big cloud of pigeons swarm!” he says when I burst outside, and points at the dark blur rising and falling into the pink and red sky a few blocks due west. We both take it as a sign that she’s just thrown out seed and our stop is next. Excited and chatty, I open Voice Memos on my phone, ready to finally get the pigeon lady on the record. Lloyd preps his camera for a woman, a driver, her big bags of feed and stylish knee-high boots. 

She doesn’t come, of course. 

“Feeding pigeons is not as contentious as the prospect of dibs in Chicago, but it’s similar. Like dibs, pigeons are part of Chicago.” —Mason Fidino

“Goddammit,” I say at 4 PM. I’m shivering now, and feel much like Linus in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, waiting with deranged and wild hope for folklore to show up. “Are you kidding me?” 

Lloyd laughs a little and shakes his head. I feel like a big, disappointed idiot all over again: once for biffing it that first morning with Guy, when I saw the pigeon lady and froze, and now for freezing again, more literally. My stamina can’t hold. We call it, and at 4:04 PM, fist-bump to our defeat. I descend the State and Lake Red Line stairs into the earth; he heads to catch the 136 express bus. 

The State and Lake stop is humid even in the cold. At 4:09 PM, I’m surreptitiously trying to film a bundled-up busker blasting Natalie Merchant’s “Kind and Generous” from his speakers when my recording is interrupted with a phone call. It’s Lloyd. 

“She’s at Dearborn and Washington!” he yells. 

“Motherfucker!” I yell back, and try to do math. That’s about three blocks from where we were. If I run back up the stairs and to him, I’ll definitely miss my train, but will I miss her? I’d hate to pay double fare. On the other end of the line, Lloyd’s the most excited I’ve ever heard him sound. 

“She’s right here!” he says. “I’m watching her. Blue Toyota SUV, heading north. Now she’s pulling away!”

“Is there a driver?” I ask. 

“There’s a driver,” he confirms. “Hundreds of pigeons, I can’t believe it.” 

I can. It was always going to end like this.

“We think of them as pests because they are around in large numbers. But that does not make them ugly, it’s our way of thinking that’s ugly.” —@AloiArtTalk

From his bus stop, Lloyd texts me a zoomed-in photo of the aftermath. I see wet winter asphalt, the unexpected green of a bike line, and 50 pigeons, round dark heads and steel-colored wings, blurring together as they rush to the picture’s center, where the sidewalk is dotted with pale yellow seeds. The closer I look, the more I’m surprised to see how every bird is different, in ways both subtle and profound. Some have gray heads, some are a soft, chocolate brown. A few are speckled like Holstein cows. Others are so black as to be almost blue. I can hear my train coming. I look a little closer, and feel simultaneously defeated and at ease. I still don’t know what the pigeon lady thinks, but these birds are beautiful to me.