Brigham Young High School
The Day the Pigeons Died

The pigeons of Academy Square

I had been attending BY High School for several years by 1965. Like most other students on Lower Campus, I went about my daily activities almost oblivious to the existence of the many pigeons around me.

These birds were always present, but they studiously remained inconspicuous. Only on very rare occasions was someone bombed from on high with white fecal mater, and when this happened it gave us an opportunity to learn to accept that there are universal forces beyond our control. One of life's hardest lessons is that accidents happen -- in this case, to have been literally "shat upon".

One day in 1965, someone in Authority or close to Authority must have received an airborne indignity from one of the high-flying members of the BY High pigeon community. Meetings were held, Plans were made, and Steps were taken against the Offenders. As students, it was a process with which we were only too familiar; as administrators and faculty, the procedure was probably second nature.

But those who chose to combat these Offenders were highly educated people in a college town -- in today's language one might say that they were "politically correct." If anyone had any idea of using violence against these pigeons, these notions were quickly dismissed. Firearms, poisons and traps were never seriously contemplated as weapons in this war.

No, the chosen method of dealing with these Offenders By Their Presence, involved the discreet use of a chemical, potassium nitrate, commonly known as "saltpeter." I do not know whether this chemical's reputed effect when ingested has ever been scientifically proven, but today one might say it is supposed to have the opposite effect of Viagra. For hundreds of years military leaders have been rumored to have used saltpeter in military food supplies to lower the libido of men in uniform -- never mind that potassium nitrate is an everyday ingredient in cured ham even today.

And so the orders went forth from those in Authority to the BYU Physical Facilities and its ground crews:
Scatter saltpeter-laced corn kernels
on the grounds all around BY High --
spread BYU's tastiest anti-aphrodisiac
wherever Lower Campus pigeons might fly.
As students we scarcely noticed the tiny yellow kernels under our feet as we went from class to class, but when dead pigeons began to appear on the sidewalks, we did take notice. And for the first time we became aware of the drifts of corn kernels on the grounds all around us.

We asked our teachers to find out if BYU was poisoning the pigeons.

"No," was their response. "They are simply receiving a humane dose of saltpeter." The teachers appeared to know all about the population-control campaign against the pigeon family.

"What does saltpeter do?"

And for the first time we began to understand saltpeter jokes.

"But why are the pigeons dying, if saltpeter is not a poison?" we asked.

"I don't know," replied our chemistry teacher, Mr. Owen Bennion. "It doesn't make sense to me."

Dead pigeon, BYH 1960s

It was students who solved the mystery.

"The pigeons are being fed for the first time in their lives," they observed. "They're overeating, which causes them to have trouble flying, and when they fall from great heights, sometimes the fall breaks their necks."

No better explanation has ever been offered.


There was a general murmur of disgust and disapproval among the student body. "We should do something -- we should protest!" After all, it was the 1960s.

Concerned students wrote editorials and letters to the editors of various publications -- some were published but most were rejected. We told teachers and administrators that we felt the killing of our pigeons was wrong, but their only reaction was to joke about it.

Thinking aloud one day, I said, "We should build a giant pigeon and suspend it in front of the Education Building, along with a sign that says, 'Save Our BYH Pigeons!' "

My friends thought it was a great idea. I knew this was not the sort of project that could wait until next week. We must strike now because fresh saltpeter-laced corn was being spread every Monday morning, and by Monday afternoon the sidewalks were littered with dead and dying pigeons.

I lived in Springville while attending BYH, and that night at home I constructed a framework using small scrap lumber one-by-ones, until it resembled the general shape of a bird.

"What are you doing?" my parents asked, since I was building it in the middle of our living room floor.

"It's a project for one of my classes," I fibbed. "It is supposed to represent a pigeon. Do we have an old white sheet that I can use to cover it?"
A frame design for Flight of the Protest Pigeon.

My parents had become accustomed by then to my many strange BYH projects. After trying to sound interested by asking a few more questions, which I answered as vaguely as possible, they retreated to other family activities. Wanting to be supportive, my wonderful Mom soon came up with the needed white sheet.

I cut the sheet into an oversized pattern and loosely stitched the white cloth to the frame. It looked better than I had anticipated, except the beak of the bird did not look right. Remembering a large orange balloon in our basement, I retrieved it, cut off the air nozzle end and pulled it over the beak. It stayed in place perfectly, and looked like it had been designed for that purpose.

We had a fairly new sky-blue Chevrolet pickup (which is still parked in my son's driveway today -- now considered an antique vehicle), and its bed easily held my pigeon effigy with its six-foot wingspread.

I found a lot of new clothesline rope in our garage, which I appropriated and threw in the back of the pickup.

According to plan, I drove to the school at about 4 am, and there met several friends at the half-circle driveway in front of the Education Building. The list of my fellow protesters is dim in my mind, so I'll just name the usual suspects: Phil Thomas, John Boshard, Jim Petty, Roger Sheffield, Leo Beckwith, John Gardner, and Lynn Tolley.

We had never noticed how very tall our four-story building was before. We had some vague idea of throwing the rope up until it caught on something, then pulling the pigeon up into place to dangle over the front steps. After many attempts, we concluded that Plan A just wasn't happening.

Our ace-in-the-hole was our secret access to the bell tower. First entering the photography lab, we could open the door to the bell tower steps by pulling a string, hidden in an unused keyhole of said door. From the bell tower we crossed a small bridge to the large flat roof. But we didn't want to reveal our secret, either, which would certainly end our ability to access the roof.

With the clock ticking ever closer to the early-morning arrival of the faculty, we emerged on the roof and discovered we could throw both ends of the rope over a cornice, to make it look like we had done so from the ground. Those on the ground tied one end of the rope to the giant pigeon, then pulled it up slowly, allowing our large sign to dangle from its belly: "Save Our BYH Pigeons!"

It dangled a bit off center from one of the cornices on the left side of the building, but we felt it still looked quite impressive. Someone suggested that we call Provo's Daily Herald to ask them to send a photographer over, but we decided this was an internal family thing, just between BYH and BYU, and so held off on alerting the public media.

The Flight of the BYH Protest Pigeon
The Flight of the BYH Protest Pigeon.

We hid all of the peripheral evidence, then headed for our first class.

It took the powers-that-be several class periods to figure out how to lower a brave janitor down from rooftop to cornice, and to somehow remove the pigeon. Unfortunately, when the noon hour came, the giant pigeon had already disappeared from view.

Several students reported that they later saw the pigeon effigy propped in the corner of Principal Lowell Thomson's office. I never saw it again.

But that afternoon, Mr. Thomson passed me in the hallway and said quietly, "How in the world did you get that darn thing up there?"

I quickly observed that Mr. Thomson did not appear angry, and in fact looked somewhat amused, so I took a chance and said quietly, "Believe me, it wasn't easy!"

That would have been the perfect time for our tall Principal to grab me by the shoulders and proclaim that I had just admitted my guilt -- instead he just shook his head and walked off. I hurried on to my next class relieved, but still just a little worried.


The next day the half-dozen BYU students who worked on the grounds crews showed up with brooms and dustpans. They swept all of the sidewalks and asphalt courtyard between buildings. We even saw them up on the roof, sweeping up the adulterated corn that had been spread there.

We were impressed, and when we passed Principal Lowell Thomson and Assistant Principal Wallace Allred in the halls, we thanked them for listening and taking action. They just listened and didn't say anything. In the time-honored relationship between students and school administrators, administrators never acknowledge such things to students.

I have seen quite a few photographs of the renovated Brigham Young Academy building on Academy Square, and I only rarely see any descendants of the BY Academy/BY High pigeons in these photos (see photo below), yet I know they are there, just as they have been since 1892.

And I know they are enjoying the view, sometimes circling serenely, other times hanging out on the roofs, propagating, and on rare occasions, initiating unsuspecting passersby on Academy Square.

By Larry Christensen, BYH Class of 1966

Bike button link to BYH Recollections A to Z
BYH Recollections