‘Destringers’ Save New York City’s Pigeons One Foot at a Time

Bird feet can get entangled in string, thread, and hair, leading to serious and deadly injuries. Dedicated volunteers catch the birds to help.

If you want to catch a pigeon, you’ll need to open your eyes. “The first thing you have to do is notice them, because a lot of people don’t see them on the ground,” says Helen Lukievics, a retired lawyer who has been catching pigeons for more than 20 years. Once you spot your target, remember to be coy. Don’t telegraph your intentions. “If you go after them, you’ll never get them,” she says. 

Lukievics has devised her own pigeon-catching method, luring the birds close by scattering bits of bird seed or pound cake at her feet, bending her knees, and stooping slowly until she is poised right over the chosen bird. She makes sure her shadow is behind her and that no loose clothing is flapping in the breeze: nothing to warn the unsuspecting creature that she is about to pounce. She knows she only has one shot, so she waits until she can’t miss.“If you’re impatient, you’re just going to ruin the whole caboodle,” she says.

At the perfect moment, her hand shoots out, firmly but gently pinning the pigeon to the ground. As the others scatter, she scoops up the bird, wrapping it in a black cotton T-shirt and plopping it into her bag.

Lukievics is an expert destringer—someone who is always on the lookout for pigeons whose feet are entangled in thread, string, or hair. Those fibers can wrap tightly around the birds’ toes, stopping circulation and causing gangrene, loss of the digit, and ultimately even death. Destringers try to catch the entangled birds before it’s too late, spotting them by a telltale hobble or limp, catching them, and then working the string or thread free so the birds can walk comfortably again. It’s a process so vital that destringers like Lukievics go out in the snow, the rain, and even in a pandemic.

Lukievics used to conduct the entirety of her destringing operations outdoors, unwinding string while gently restraining the pigeons with a contraption she christened the “pigeonnaire”—a black T-shirt stitched into a sack that keeps the bird from flapping its wings. Now she mostly conducts these procedures in her home where she has better lighting and is protected from the elements. 

For other, less experienced destringers, Rita McMahon, co-founder and director of the Wild Bird Fund (WBF), a bird rehabilitation center in Manhattan, suggests bringing the birds into the organization's Upper West Side facility. There, a team of volunteers, veterinarians, and rehabilitators are better equipped to make sure every bit of string and hair is removed, and they can also deal with complications like excessive bleeding or amputation. 

Even the WBF’s experienced bird volunteers and experts are devoted to the cause. “People who tend the birds do get kind of excited about working on a stringer,” says Rita McMahon, “It’s terribly gratifying because you can make it so the bird is whole again.”

String isn’t a problem that only affects pigeons, although they are prone to tangles since they walk around New York City’s streets, making them more likely to get snared in an errant tress from a hair salon or a piece of trash. McMahon has also seen herons and geese trapped by string and estimates that over 10 percent of the more than 4,500 birds the WBF treats annually come in with a “debilitating string problem.” During the pandemic, McMahon says people are being extra attentive to these birds, sometimes bringing in as many as 60 entwined pigeons in a single day. 

Destringers come in all kinds, says Laurie Lapatin, one of the WBF's most enthusiastic rescuers. Lapatin first became interested after she watched a woman in the park catching entangled pigeons. She says she’s seen people from all walks of life, young and old, bring birds into the WBF. The only unifying feature she can name is that all destringers notice when the pigeons are hurt and they care enough to step in and help. “There’s something about people like us that has that sensitivity and that sense of humanity,” she says. 

Getting the birds unstrung can require a bit of work. Sometimes the feet are only loosely snared and the offending fiber can be extricated in just a few minutes. Others have lived with the string or hair for some time and the fiber has worked its way deep into the foot, slicing through tissue and cutting off blood flow. 

First, McMahon soaks the foot in an antibacterial wash to get it as clean as possible. If there’s an open wound, she doesn’t want it to get infected. Then she wraps the pigeon so its wings are restrained but its head and feet are free. The pigeon could conceivably watch as McMahon starts to debride dead and damaged tissue, soaking the foot frequently as she detangles the fiber and slowly unwraps it from the foot. She compares the process to a knot puzzle. “You do not just cut,” she says. “Keep trying to unravel. That’s your main thing: unraveling, unraveling, unraveling so you get every part of the string or the hair.” 

Sometimes, though, the damage is too far gone and as McMahon is working, the foot will suddenly snap off in her hand. Pigeons and other birds are able to auto-amputate, so when an infection becomes severe and the bone is compromised, the extremity falls off, preventing the infection from spreading. But while losing that foot will spare the bird from further disease, it can also make it harder for them to walk and take flight. Occasionally McMahon has to amputate toes or even the whole foot herself, but her goal is always to keep the legs as close to the same length as possible so the bird won’t have to hop or hobble to get around on the ground. “You can’t hop through snow, especially when it’s chest high or neck high,” she says and the added weight will cause problems for the other leg too. 

While working on birds in her bathroom, Lukievics shines a strong light on the endangered foot, making sure she’s removed every last bit of thread or hair. She has QuickStop, a blood-clotting powder, to manage any uncontrolled bleeding and carriers on her balcony where the birds can spend the night. She lets them fly around the bathroom during the day where they perch on her shower curtain, their feet wrapped in purple bandages.

Lukievics loves getting to know each bird, admiring their beautiful coloring and spunky personalities. “Whoever was the first person to call them flying rats is somebody that has a black mark in my book,” she says. “They’re very beautiful and they’re very brave.” Lukievics has destrung pigeons all over the world from Paris and Amsterdam to Tokyo and Chiang Mai, and she’s developed a bit of a reputation. Her doorman occasionally brings her injured birds, as does a local dog groomer. Right now she has several birds recuperating at home, but she can’t resist heading out to look for more. “I know the next walk I take I’ll have a bag and a sack of seed,” she says.