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But a Montreal researcher is discovering complexity and beauty in the world of the Urban Pigeon
We've all met those intrepid scientists (if only in magazine stories and TV documentaries) who study rare animals in the world's far corners, muddy-booted field researchers braving monsoon or quicksand to seize the truths that may prolong the days of gorillas, tigers and other noble beasts.
Then there is Louis Lefebvre. Mud-free, middle-aged, something of a Renaissance man, this French-Canadian biology professor at McGill University launches research expeditions within a few minutes walk of his office. On the McGill campus in deepest downtown Montreal, he explores the ways of animals that Woody Allen called "rats with wings."
Louis Lefebvre studies pigeons. Common, everyday, fecund, soot-shaded, park-bench-spattering street pigeons. "I think they're neat little animals," he says without embarrassment. "I also like the kind of people that like pigeons - this sort of marginal type of person." By which he means those urbanites, often the elderly or loners or both, who go out of their way to feed pigeons. Perhaps the researcher is just keeping his eye on his goal: "I'm interested in why pigeons do so well. So the more there are, the happier I am."
A 44-year-old Montreal native, Lefebvre has published two novels (neither of them appears to be about pigeons) as well as poetry. As a scientist, he is curious about the advantages animals derive from group living. To investigate the question he has studied pigeon-flock dynamics and looked at how new information or behavior (how to capitalize on new food sources, for example) is transmitted between the birds. …