The Birdman of Berkeley

By Randall Busang
Friday December 21, 2007

In July of 2002, a then-homeless Dan Hopkins rescued a young pigeon he saw being hit by a car at the intersection of Dwight and Telegraph. Miss Pidgy, as Hopkins named her, had a broken wing, so he carried her in a box during his stay in People’s Park.  

“A lot of people in the park couldn’t understand why I rescued a pigeon,” Hopkins said. “They kept saying stuff like, ‘Pigeons are nothing but flying rats.’” 

Miss Pidgy brought Hopkins luck. A short time later he found the apartment building where he and his wife, Roberta, still live in West Berkeley.  

Pigeons are monogamous, mating for life. Ms. Pidgy is jealous of other females including Roberta! The couple, vegans who do not use or wear animal products, maintain separate apartments so that Ms. Pidgy has plenty of space (in Dan’s apartment) to nest and maintain her egg-laying cycle. 

Secured with a leash, Ms. Pidgy likes to travel Berkeley on the handlebars of Hopkins’ bicycle. She quickly to learned to recognize his regular routes and her home neighborhood. 

Scientists have puzzled for decades over just how birds, especially pigeons, learn and remember routes. Birds have been proven to recognize visual patterns. Pigeons, as well as migrating geese, follow highways and other landmarks on the ground below. 

It now is believed birds also use a mixture of sensory tools including low-frequency sound and smell. Trace amounts of magnetite in their beaks, or the band just above, interact with the earth’s gravitational pull.  

Pigeons’ habits in returning to nest and mate first made the ancients realize they could be selectively bred to produce flying messengers. The first recorded use of a homing pigeon was in 775 B.C. when one was dispatched from the Olympic games to announce victory to the city of Athens.