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'Flying rats' ruffle feathers in modern and old Seoul

Pigeons at Suwon's fortress in February 2016. Robert Neff Collection
Pigeons at Suwon's fortress in February 2016. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

They seem to be everywhere in Seoul ― great flocks of pigeons swirling through the air in search of food or a place to roost.

Some people seem to enjoy having them around.

Occasionally, in Seoul's numerous small neighborhood parks, elderly people sit on benches and feed the pigeons stale bread and other goodies ― despite signs and banners asking them not to.

Sometimes shopkeepers and street vendors act as pigeon benefactors by tossing crackers and snacks onto sidewalks and streets.

Other people are not so thrilled with the pigeons' presence. Many are afraid of them and shriek with fear ― feigned or real ― when the birds take flight. Small children excitedly laugh and scream as they chase the birds scrounging for food in the parks.

Motorists and bicyclists frequently encounter these winged obstacles of passage ― often resulting in the death of the pigeon. And I suspect that more than a few cyclists have had some pretty nasty encounters.

Pigeons in flight at Suwon in February 2016. Robert Neff Collection
Pigeons in flight at Suwon in February 2016. Robert Neff Collection

In the past couple of years, while riding my bike, I have had two encounters that resulted in the death of the birds ― fortunately I was able to recover my balance and suffered nothing more than a good scare.

In 2009, a local newspaper reported that there were 35,575 pigeons in Seoul. It noted that before the 1988 Olympics, pigeons were encouraged to propagate and large nesting sites were built by the government along the Han River.

Large numbers of doves and pigeons were released during sporting and national events and they added to the city's growing number of "flying rats" and "chickgeons" (obese pigeons), as some residents refer to them.

During the Joseon dynasty, some of the wealthier members of Seoul society raised pigeons as a hobby. They built eight-roomed bird houses ("Yongdaejang") and spent vast amounts of money acquiring the best and most exotic pigeons they could afford.

Wongaksa Pagoda as it is now ― in a glass box. Wikipedia image ― photo-credit
Wongaksa Pagoda as it is now ― in a glass box. Wikipedia image ― photo-credit "Steve46814"
Westerners living in Seoul in the late 19th century also raised pigeons.

At the Russian legation, Antoinette Sontag raised several birds ― including pigeons. One morning, while feeding them, she spotted a large leopard in the legation compound. A hunt was quickly organized to end this feline monarch's reign but the hunting party was unsuccessful. The leopard was probably after something much larger than a couple of pigeons ― perhaps the small deer that were kept as pets.

As in the present, not everyone considered them to be precious. In the first part of the 16th century, the government archive at Seongju was damaged by fire when one of the attendants or archivists tried to scare away the pigeons.

Even now, pigeons continue to damage relics from the past. Pigeons and their droppings are partially to blame for the glass and steel box built in 1999 that encases Wongaksa Pagoda in Tapgol (Pagoda) Park. The government spent about a billion won to protect a national treasure from pigeon poop.

In the past, the number of pigeons seems to have been much higher than now.

The roofs of the fortress covered with a flock of pigeons in February 2016. Robert Neff Collection
The roofs of the fortress covered with a flock of pigeons in February 2016. Robert Neff Collection

It was not uncommon for visiting warships to send bird-hunting parties ashore in an effort to provide more variety to the crews' diet. They apparently had no problem getting enough pigeons to satisfy their need to hunt and their shipmates' desire for fresh meat. Eventually, however, the introduction of so many hunters with bird guns took its toll.

In the 1920s, one American wrote: "[The pigeon] was probably very common formerly but the hunters have greatly thinned its ranks. One may hope that it does not meet the fate of the American passenger pigeon once found in vast flocks in the States and now for some years extinct."

Perhaps one of the most interesting stories about Korean pigeons comes from the United States.

In April 1987, a racing pigeon was found in Florida with a note that read "Jewook Lee (NU) 256 Nonhyon Dong Kang Namku Hansin Apt. A. 402, Seoul, Korea." Considering this type of pigeon generally has a range of about 900 kilometers, it caused quite a stir in the pigeon-racing community.

According to Johnnie Johnson, a pigeon breeder and curator for the Brevard Museum of History and Natural Science, "the bird may have stopped for food on a Korean ship and a crewmember attached the address, hoping someone would write to him."

Mr. Lee, if you are reading this, we would love to hear the rest of the story.

Pigeons were not the only ones to roost on Wongaksa Pagoda. Circa 1910s. Robert Neff Collection
Pigeons were not the only ones to roost on Wongaksa Pagoda. Circa 1910s. Robert Neff Collection



Pigeons at Suwon's fortress in February 2016. Robert Neff Collection
Pigeons at Suwon's fortress in February 2016. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

They seem to be everywhere in Seoul ― great flocks of pigeons swirling through the air in search of food or a place to roost.

Some people seem to enjoy having them around.

Occasionally, in Seoul's numerous small neighborhood parks, elderly people sit on benches and feed the pigeons stale bread and other goodies ― despite signs and banners asking them not to.

Sometimes shopkeepers and street vendors act as pigeon benefactors by tossing crackers and snacks onto sidewalks and streets.

Other people are not so thrilled with the pigeons' presence. Many are afraid of them and shriek with fear ― feigned or real ― when the birds take flight. Small children excitedly laugh and scream as they chase the birds scrounging for food in the parks.

Motorists and bicyclists frequently encounter these winged obstacles of passage ― often resulting in the death of the pigeon. And I suspect that more than a few cyclists have had some pretty nasty encounters.

Pigeons in flight at Suwon in February 2016. Robert Neff Collection
Pigeons in flight at Suwon in February 2016. Robert Neff Collection

In the past couple of years, while riding my bike, I have had two encounters that resulted in the death of the birds ― fortunately I was able to recover my balance and suffered nothing more than a good scare.

In 2009, a local newspaper reported that there were 35,575 pigeons in Seoul. It noted that before the 1988 Olympics, pigeons were encouraged to propagate and large nesting sites were built by the government along the Han River.

Large numbers of doves and pigeons were released during sporting and national events and they added to the city's growing number of "flying rats" and "chickgeons" (obese pigeons), as some residents refer to them.

During the Joseon dynasty, some of the wealthier members of Seoul society raised pigeons as a hobby. They built eight-roomed bird houses ("Yongdaejang") and spent vast amounts of money acquiring the best and most exotic pigeons they could afford.

Wongaksa Pagoda as it is now ― in a glass box. Wikipedia image ― photo-credit
Wongaksa Pagoda as it is now ― in a glass box. Wikipedia image ― photo-credit "Steve46814"
Westerners living in Seoul in the late 19th century also raised pigeons.

At the Russian legation, Antoinette Sontag raised several birds ― including pigeons. One morning, while feeding them, she spotted a large leopard in the legation compound. A hunt was quickly organized to end this feline monarch's reign but the hunting party was unsuccessful. The leopard was probably after something much larger than a couple of pigeons ― perhaps the small deer that were kept as pets.

As in the present, not everyone considered them to be precious. In the first part of the 16th century, the government archive at Seongju was damaged by fire when one of the attendants or archivists tried to scare away the pigeons.

Even now, pigeons continue to damage relics from the past. Pigeons and their droppings are partially to blame for the glass and steel box built in 1999 that encases Wongaksa Pagoda in Tapgol (Pagoda) Park. The government spent about a billion won to protect a national treasure from pigeon poop.

In the past, the number of pigeons seems to have been much higher than now.

The roofs of the fortress covered with a flock of pigeons in February 2016. Robert Neff Collection
The roofs of the fortress covered with a flock of pigeons in February 2016. Robert Neff Collection

It was not uncommon for visiting warships to send bird-hunting parties ashore in an effort to provide more variety to the crews' diet. They apparently had no problem getting enough pigeons to satisfy their need to hunt and their shipmates' desire for fresh meat. Eventually, however, the introduction of so many hunters with bird guns took its toll.

In the 1920s, one American wrote: "[The pigeon] was probably very common formerly but the hunters have greatly thinned its ranks. One may hope that it does not meet the fate of the American passenger pigeon once found in vast flocks in the States and now for some years extinct."

Perhaps one of the most interesting stories about Korean pigeons comes from the United States.

In April 1987, a racing pigeon was found in Florida with a note that read "Jewook Lee (NU) 256 Nonhyon Dong Kang Namku Hansin Apt. A. 402, Seoul, Korea." Considering this type of pigeon generally has a range of about 900 kilometers, it caused quite a stir in the pigeon-racing community.

According to Johnnie Johnson, a pigeon breeder and curator for the Brevard Museum of History and Natural Science, "the bird may have stopped for food on a Korean ship and a crewmember attached the address, hoping someone would write to him."

Mr. Lee, if you are reading this, we would love to hear the rest of the story.

Pigeons were not the only ones to roost on Wongaksa Pagoda. Circa 1910s. Robert Neff Collection
Pigeons were not the only ones to roost on Wongaksa Pagoda. Circa 1910s. Robert Neff Collection




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