I was standing in
London’s Trafalgar Square staring up the tall column
to the statue of Admiral Lord Nelson thinking of
Arthur Ferguson when I was hit by a whiff of
grapeshot or something just as revolting.
The shot that hit the
fan or at least my shoulder came from a pigeon
sniper that fluttered its way back to the rest of a
flying flotilla. Maybe it was my imagination but I
swore I heard it coo the caustic equivalent of ‘I
have done my duty too’ as it withdrew to an able
Pigeon droppings are a
common occurrence at the Square. In fact, they’re so
common that the Greater London Authority put the
licensed seller of pigeon food out of business in
2000 in the hope of reducing the overall pigeon
population as well as the feral flyers feces.
However, a protest
from a vocal group determined to save the pigeons at
Trafalgar soon sprang up to feed the 4,000 or so
suddenly destitute birds that inhabit the area. A
compromise was reached that resulted in an earlier
feeding time (7:30am) with a reduction in the amount
of proffered pigeon food. The plan was to reduce the
food available to them and thereby reducing their
breeding practices while sending some of the flying
freeloaders packing. Experts say that well-fed
pigeons tend to produce more baby pigeons while
those on a diet tend to litter less.
The plan has had some
moderate success. But even so pigeons are still
plentiful at Trafalgar Square, so plentiful in fact
that there are those who still liken their numbers
to an infestation of rats in the movie ‘Ben.’
“Not difficult to
imagine Michael Jackson warbling out the theme song
to the young Schwab’s, is it?” said a London
businessman. “Flying vermin is all they really are.”
London’s Mayor Ken
Livingston was reported to have offered a similar
comment when he urged the Greater London Authority
to solve Trafalgar’s pigeon problem.
It was hard to
challenge the bird critic or the Mayor’s sentiments
as I was still wiping the pigeon droppings off of my
jacket while keeping a wary eye on the English sky.
However, an American
woman with camera in hand did take exception. “Oh, I
don’t know,” she said. “They make the square, don’t
you think? Part of its charm and all?”
“Charm?” snorted the
Londoner. “What? Like nothing gives you that warm
all over feeling like being shat upon?”
“Reminds me of home
actually,” I said, interjecting my way into the
debate. “Pampering the pigeons and having them dump
on you is much the way Congress convenes in the
“Congress?” echoed the
woman while the Brit waited to see where I was
“Yes,” I replied and
then verbally back-pedaled a bit. “Well, maybe not
exactly. It is an unfair and unflattering
comparison, I suppose. After all, cleaning up after
the birds only takes few moments and nowhere near as
much arm twisting, schmoozing or work it takes to
clean up some of the messes left by our politicians.
I do apologize if I maligned the birds.”
chuckled the woman.
“Hard to argue truth,”
said the Londoner. “Thank God politicians don’t have
The square and
monument to the 19th century Lord Admiral
celebrates Nelson’s brilliant naval victory over the
combined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of
Trafalgar in 1805. It is also a tribute to the then
47-year old not only won a major victory against
Napoleon’s water-borne forces but who paid the
ultimate sacrifice in the process.
The column and statue
that was completed in 1843 used to stand 185 feet in
height with a 17 foot bronze of England’s most
celebrated hero perched on top. However, a recent
$700,000 facelift and guano scrubbing that helped to
restore some of the lost luster to the monument had
another effect as well. Besides fixing Nelson’s one
good remaining arm that was struck by lightening
over 100 years ago, (his other arm, his ‘fin’ as he
referred to amputated stump from a combat in jury
still had its empty uniform sleeve carefully pinned
in place) the renovation actually lowered the
monument by 16 feet.
Still, Lord Nelson
stands tall; a testament to the small frail man
whose daring leadership in battle saved England from
Prior to the epic sea
battle Napoleon was planning on his fleet to defeat
the English fleet so he could begin an unobstructed
invasion of la Grande-Bretagne. And why not?
Napoleon had more ships in his mixed fleet than the
British and the bateau and barges needed to ferry
across the English Channel were being readied just
as soon as Nelson had been soundly defeated.
overwhelming victory at Trafalgar would thwart the
Emperor’s plans and forever leave the five-foot
four-inch English hero standing tall in the eyes of
his countrymen- hence the respect to the column and
A little known fact is
that after the sea battle Nelson’s corpse was
shipped back to Gibraltar in a barrel of captured
French Brandy aboard his crippled flagship, the
H.M.S. Victory. The brandy was used to preserve the
One version of the
story has it that he was placed in English rum. But
perhaps a more interesting and unusual tale alleges
that during the voyage English sailors slipped into
the storage area, found the filled barrel, and then
used straws to sip at the liquor in what became
known as ‘tipping the admiral.’
Historical purists say
that there is no evidence that this even happened,
pointing out that his men loved him and would never
do such a thing. Others though who know or have had
dealings with sailors of any nation are hardly
shocked or surprised by the rumor.
“Sounds foolish enough
to be true,” said the Londoner when I asked whether
it actually happened. “But don’t you think that if
something like that did take place then the straws
or barrel might have very well turned up on E-bay by
“Have you checked the
E-Bay of Cadiz?” I asked.
“I changed my mind.
I’m rooting for the pigeons,” said the Londoner.
“You’re not alone,” I
said getting back to Arthur Ferguson and the reason
why I had come to the historic square looking for
another kind of pigeon.
I had read that
Ferguson was an actor in London and one day in 1924
while visiting the square he saw an American
admiring Nelson’s column and decided to have a
little fun with the man.
“A pity, isn’t it?” he
said sidling up next to the Yank
“The column and statue
are going to come down…”
“To repay the National
Debt,” said Ferguson, convincingly.
“But that’s absurd!”
“Actually, it isn’t,
I’m afraid,” replied the actor. “I’m from the
Ministry of Works and it is my unfortunate task to
accept the auction bids. A terrible shame,
snorted and with a stiff upper lip stared up at the
“How much is the
highest bid?” asked the American.
“A little less than
six thousand pounds.”
“Then I’ll take it for
six thousand!” said the American. “And I won’t let
you take it down!”
And with that Arthur
Furgeson realized he was a method actor and a
convincing one at that. “It’s a deal,” he said and
with a handshake the grateful Ferguson accepted the
man’s offer, collected the money, and transferred
ownership of Trafalgar Square to the visitor.
So pleased with his
lucrative afternoon performance he next went on to
sell Buckingham Palace and Big Ben to other wealthy
and gullible buyers. Taking his one man show on the
road the Scot then sailed for the United States
where he sold the White House and the Statue of
Arthur Ferguson was
eventually caught, tried for fraud, and sentenced to
prison. He had found his pigeons in the park too.
And as I was thinking
about Furgeson several Japanese tourists were
purchasing pigeon feed from an unauthorized pigeon
feed seller so they could have their pictures taken
amidst a mass of the birds in the Square.
With their arms spread
out wide and feed in their hands the pigeons
descended upon the laughing tourists and used them
as a perch as they pecked away at the foodstuff.
After several pictures were taken, the tourist who
had fed the pigeons discovered he was covered in
guano. Wiping it off he then readied his camera as
the next tourist in line bought more feed for his
own dowsing and others lined up for the ordeal.
Arthur Furgeson was
right. There are new pigeons born every day.