I’ll start with an apology. I’m about to tell you a story about pigeons and buildings—particularly New York City buildings—and once you’re done, you may not see those buildings in the same light ever again.
This won’t be news to anyone, but New York City has a pigeon problem. And what pigeons like to do best is roost on building facades. This results in a constellation of guano (a more elegant word for poop), which can stain and, due to its acidity, eat away at stone facades. But since 1989, one company has single-handedly pigeon-proofed almost every important building in the city.
It’s often said that good design goes unnoticed: It serves its function quietly, without drawing much attention to itself. This is particularly true when it comes to pigeon-proofing. To this day, spikes remain the most common form of bird deterrence, but Birdmaster’s main tool (yes, the company is called Birdmaster) is much more subtle. The company uses special, tightly woven netting stretched so tight you can’t really see it—unless you know to look. Birdmaster identifies where pigeons roost the most (or where they’re likely to), then wraps those potential “bird seats” in netting that matches the color of the building.
Birdmaster’s portfolio includes museums, office buildings, bridges, and hospitals around the country. It also reads like a who’s who of NYC landmarks: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, Carnegie Hall, the New York Stock Exchange Building, the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Square Arch—and most recently, the Morgan Library. After a 6-year, $13 million restoration, the classical revival-style building reopened last month with a brand new garden and a gloriously restored portico mirroring how the building looked when it was built more than 120 years ago—minus the pigeons.
Historical buildings are particularly prone to pigeon roosting. Compared to their modern counterparts, these buildings boast a panoply of three-dimensional curlicues, pilasters, arches, and ledges that give them charm, character, and plenty of landing spots for pigeons.
The problem is that pigeons are extremely territorial: Once they build a nest somewhere on a building, they consider that building home for generations to come. “These birds protect their site, their mission in life is to create poop and babies,” says John Pace, who emigrated from the U.K. in 1989 and founded Birdmaster that year. Pigeons evolved from the rock dove, which, as the name suggests, lived on rocky coastal cliffs. “We just happen to build these beautiful edifices that look like cliffs,” he says.
Take the Morgan Library. The building was commissioned by J.P. Morgan himself and built by McKim, Mead & White (who also designed the Brooklyn Museum and the Boston Public Library). It opened in 1906, on the corner of Madison Avenue and 36th Street—and because pigeons are so territorial, Pace says those that live there today are likely direct descendants of those who lived there in the 1900s.
Breaking the habit
But the pigeons haven’t lived there for about two years, when Pace first put up his netting as part of the restoration. “They’ll have places where they like to stay warm and dry and out of the wind and the rain,” says Pace. “Part of our skill is recognizing those areas and birdproofing them.” (He calls this process “breaking the habit.”)
I recently visited the building with a friend, on a clammy Sunday afternoon. Having spoken with Pace beforehand, I knew the netting was stretched somewhere on the portico, so I went looking for it straightaway. Even then, it took my eyes a minute to zero in on the thin veil tightly wrapped around the portico.
Unlike me, my friend didn’t know what to look for, so it took her much longer to spot the net. This, of course, is by design. “The whole essence of bird-proofing is that we make it so the average person doesn’t see,” says Pace. “If you go to St Patrick’s Cathedral [in Midtown Manhattan], there’s a big bronze transom arch with a statuary on it and that entire thing is covered with netting, but because your brain isn’t expecting to see it, you don’t see it.”
Much of New York City—and almost every single building along the National Mall in D.C.—is covered in various shades of Birdmaster’s netting. At the Met, it’s wrapped all around the column pedestals flanking the entrance. At the New York Public Library, it’s draped over a series of porticos as well as the fountain sculpture on Fifth Avenue. (When I was there last week, I witnessed a tourist taking at least five photos of an arch, then asked her if she’d noticed the netting. “Not until you told me,” she said, baffled.)
‘Once you see it, you can’t unsee it’
Right about now seems like a good time to bring up the fact that there’s a bit of a netting controversy in the architecture sphere. Pace is the first to acknowledge that this form of bird deterrence has never been a favorite among architects. He recalls a recent Zoom meeting with an architect restoring the Treasury Building in D.C, who declared, “There’s going to be no netting on this building.” (Eventually, there was.)
A similar interaction went down at the Morgan Library. When Beyer Blinder Belle, the architecture firm in charge of the restoration, stepped in three years ago, parts of the facade had cracked, the metal lantern had corroded, and the limestone had eroded, in part due to decades of guano seeping in. Something had to be done about those birds, but what?
“I was one of the people that needed to be convinced,” says Frank J. Prial Jr., a principal at Beyer Blinder Belle. “[McKim, Mead & White] were very careful in the way they modeled the stone, so if you cover it up with netting, it’ll look like a Christo project,” he says, only partially in jest. Encouraged by a colleague who’d worked with Pace before, Prial was quickly convinced that Birdmaster’s netting was the way to go. “[Pace] has learned to think like an architect,” he says. “The netting needs to speak to the building, follow the lines of the building.”
This was particularly key at the Morgan Library because it’s a landmark building, both inside and out. So, every alteration, netting included, had to be approved by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. This called for architectural drawings specifying the exact placement of the netting, tiny hooks, and the little bit of spring wire installed on some of the ledges. But most of all, it called for a simple assurance: that the building could one day be returned to its original condition. Ultimately, Prial hopes the birds will break their habit and stop associating the building with home (though it could take a few years). So if the netting ever becomes redundant, it could be removed without a trace.
Broadly speaking, of course, netting is far from perfect. As Prial puts it: “Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.” This might explain why the Met, according to Pace, “doesn’t want everybody to know the building has a net on it.” But as far as I’m concerned, these nets, and the skill with which they’re applied, may be one of the stealthiest pieces of design ever created. Why shouldn’t that be celebrated?