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Critters of New York

John Painz Has to Help the Pigeons

He rescued his first pigeon during the pandemic. Now he does it full time.

John Painz with a colony of pigeons on the west side of the Lincoln Tunnel area while on pigeon patrol in Manhattan, New York, U.S., February 24, 2023. (Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)

John Painz with a colony of pigeons on the west side of the Lincoln Tunnel area while on pigeon patrol in Manhattan, New York, U.S., February 24, 2023. (Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)

A little after seven on a recent Monday morning, Midtown was mostly deserted. The lights were still off in apartments and office towers, and few cars were on the street. Iron gates were drawn over gray-market smoke shops and the darkened Lego store. The wind snatched a McDonald's cup and tossed it like a tumbleweed down Broadway. There were no other people to see. But there were, as always, pigeons, and they were one reason for my visit. 

The other reason was John Painz, a writer and lifelong New Yorker with a deep appreciation for some of the city's least-loved residents. Painz, a volunteer foot soldier for the bird-saving collective NYC Pigeon Rescue Central—the only group in the city primarily dedicated to helping hurt pigeons—had invited me to join him on patrol. He had given me a corner, just south of the entrance to Herald Square Park, and told me to look out for "the tall guy with the net." It wasn't hard to find him: Nobody else was there. I waved, and he waved his net. 

John Painz poses for a photo with his net he uses to catch pigeons while on pigeon patrol in Herald Square. (Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)

Painz is indeed strikingly tall, well over six feet, with a scruff of salty beard and the brusquely friendly manner of a high school woodshop teacher. There is a slight hitch to his step, the result of chronic back aches, and he sometimes leans on the net like a cane. At 49, he told me, his body is "totally fucked." But so far, that hasn't stopped him from making his daily rounds, traversing pigeon "hot spots" like crumb-rich Midtown, and looking for injured birds. "Every time I leave the house, I'm looking," he told me. "It kind of sucks, because sometimes I just want to get from A to B." Still, he added, "you have to assume that 99.9 percent of people aren't looking."

"It's not to alleviate some guilt, or whatever," Painz told me. "It's impossible for me to just stand there and see a hurt animal and not do something." Painz rescues other birds, too, but he feels a special affinity for pigeons. Though most might consider them avian rats, Painz sees them as fellow New Yorkers: overlooked, undervalued, and deserving of help. Pigeons "were here long before any person that's alive in this city, and they'll be here long after," he said. "I don't think anybody has a true understanding of what this city would be like if it wasn't for these birds."

Painz walked slowly around the park, looking at the birds. "You'll know a sick pigeon because it will not move," he noted. But even healthy pigeons often don't want to get up, so in order to determine if they're hurt or only "chill," Painz will approach the resting birds until they fly away. On this chilly winter day, he did so very gently and with evident regret, saying, "Sorry, sorry," as they scattered. 

John Painz holds a hurt pigeon that he caught with his net while on pigeon patrol in Manhattan. (Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)

Painz rescued his first pigeon a few years ago, at the start of the pandemic, and not fully by choice. Walking near his apartment in Washington Heights, he spotted an injured bird crawling along the sidewalk, trying to stay in the sun. He googled "how to help a hurt pigeon" and found NYC Pigeon Rescue Central. When he reached out to them, he told me, he "legitimately thought that a team of fuckin' rescuers in helicopters would come, a van would pull up, and they would just fix him right there." But the rescue quickly disabused him of that notion, telling him, as he puts it, "You’re right there—go fuckin' save it."

"Normally, I'm not that person," Painz told me. But that day, he felt called to lend a hand. Perhaps it was the ambient strangeness of the pandemic's early days that moved him to take action; or maybe he saw something of himself in that hurt pigeon, chasing its sliver of sun. Life as a bird might be rough in New York City, but Painz, who was raised in Brooklyn, hasn't had it that easy. He is, as he put it, "chronically unemployed." And his series of mafia novels—dubbed "The Blue Files," which center on an erstwhile bank robber also named John who becomes a "problem solver" for the mob—have struggled to find a readership. But Painz remains undaunted: "I'll still keep writing," he said. As we rounded Seventh Avenue, a pigeon flock passed overhead, and Painz watched them admiringly: "Such resilient birds."

John Painz walks towards the west side of the Lincoln Tunnel area with his net he uses to catch pigeons (Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)

NYC Pigeon Rescue Central operates like a 911 call center: "bird down reports," or BDRs, come in via the group's website, and volunteers are dispatched to help. While the collective has more than a hundred members, Painz estimates there are only 10 or 15 core volunteers. Because many of them live in Brooklyn or Queens and work full time, while Painz lives in upper Manhattan, most birds downed above 14th Street end up going to him. If the pigeon is alive when Painz gets there (which many are not), he then transports it via subway to the Upper West Side headquarters of the Wild Bird Fund, New York City's only wildlife rehabilitation center, where the birds are treated and released in Central Park. 

Within the pigeon rescue, Painz is widely acknowledged as among its most devoted volunteers. Amy Aversa, another core member, first joined the group in the early 2010s, when it was a Yahoo! mailing list. She told me the collective has only ever had a handful of active members. At her peak, Aversa estimated she was bringing in around 100 birds a year. "John kind of came out of nowhere," she told me. Since joining the group, she added, Painz has "blown my numbers out of the water. I don't even want to know."

In case of an emergency, Painz now keeps supplies of bird seed, disposable gloves, and brown paper bags stocked in his backpack. A few weeks ago, he told me, he found a hurt pigeon—a "gorgeous white and brown one"—on his way to the urologist. He caught it and proceeded to Mount Sinai with the pigeon in a bag. It was only when a security guard stopped him to ask if he had "cats in there" that Painz thought, "What the fuck am I doing?" He turned and left the hospital, took the pigeon to the Wild Bird Fund, and rescheduled his appointment. 

At one point, Painz told me, he was rescuing "full time," and making the four-hour round trip from his apartment to a rescue to the Bird Fund and back multiple times a day. Saving pigeons had become an obsession. When a BDR came, he would answer it, no matter how late or how far. He was leaving home at all hours and going all over town, from the southern tip of Brooklyn to the north end of the Bronx. His girlfriend was ready to "murder" him. Eventually, they made a deal: Painz would at least be home for dinner. He has mostly, but not always, stuck to this. "Sometimes," he told me, "you find a pigeon on the sidewalk that needs help."

One night not long ago, Painz got a call from North Bergen, New Jersey, an hour and two trains away. "Alright," he remembered thinking, "I'm fuckin' going. I won't be able to sleep if I don't go." He arrived to find a pigeon with its wing gashed so deep that he could see down to the bone. Painz brought it back to the city, "crying the whole way," dropped it off at the Wild Bird Fund's headquarters, and never called to follow up. "I don't ask," he told me. "You can ask, four or five days later, the status of the bird. I don't ask anymore."

John Painz gives directions to tourists while on pigeon patrol in Manhattan. In the paper bag is an injured pigeon. (Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)

This particular morning, however, all the Herald Square pigeons seemed fine, so Painz left the park and headed west. He walked slowly and carefully, his eyes fixed to the street. Every few steps, he paused to peer into a doorway or under a window ledge, stooping close to the ground. Pigeons, he noted, especially like the warm, soil-smelling undersides of street planters, and whenever he passed one, he bent down low to check. 

For Painz, this is not an easy exercise. Both of his knees need replacing, his feet are "messed up," and reinjuries to his "fucked up back" often leave him bedridden for days. When we sat down for a snack, he pulled up an X-ray of his spine. "See? No discs left. Every step is fuckin' pain." Are the birds really worth all this effort? For Painz, it's not even a question. "I'll always do it," he told me. "It hurts like a motherfucker sometimes, but I'll do it. You just kinda save the ones you can and keep trying."

John Painz poses for a photo while on pigeon patrol. (Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)

Outside of Port Authority, a tough-looking guy in a PABT jacket was smoking a cigarette. As we passed, he eyed Painz's net and asked if we were looking for Flaco, the Eurasian eagle-owl on the loose from the Central Park Zoo, which he had heard about on the radio. ("Owl-eagle, eagle-owl—I didn't know they interbred, but hey, it's New York City!") When Painz explained his mission, the guy seemed genuinely moved. "You guys are doing great stuff," he said earnestly. "You know, there's not a whole lot of New Yorkers who care about the pigeons."

After we had crossed the street, Painz told me he'd been pleasantly surprised by the encounter: "I thought he was gonna say, 'Fuck you.'"

(Stephanie Keith / Hell Gate)
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