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My story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where there are no humans. On the island of Manhattan, which has been abandoned for a long time, there are communities of animals with human-level intelligence. This includes pigeons. Physically, these birds appear to be the same New York pigeons we see today eating garbage and basically making a mess of things. However, by the time the story takes place, they have developed a complex multi-party democracy that, by coincidence, runs more or less along Westminster system lines.

These are urbane and cultured pigeons, with a rich tradition of literature, philosophy, mathematics and, their specialty, diplomacy. Recognizing that their battle prowess is, frankly, pathetic, the pigeons specialize in manipulation, subterfuge and information control. They can't win a straight fight against their enemies, so they have gotten very good at getting their enemies to fight each other.

Here's the issue: Why do these pigeons stay in Manhattan? The other animals, that's easy enough to handwave, as the bridges and tunnels are destroyed and the rivers are now plagued with alligators. But that should prove no issue to the pigeons, who can just fly over them. And, indeed, this could be seen as the smartest thing for them to do. On the island they have to deal with other intelligent animal communities. Away from it, they're the smartest things around.

But I don't want that to happen. I want the story to remain in Manhattan (perhaps the greater NYC area at most). So why in the world don't the pigeons leave?

While I am prepared to use a science/tech explanation as a last resort (e.g. there's a special enzyme only found in foods there, intelligent animals have nanobots that can't operate off island, engineered retrovirus needs other animals to remain active, etc.) I'd ideally prefer to use a more social or political reason. An explanation for why colonization beyond the island just isn't practical, as reasoned by the pigeon government itself.

But then, what would this explanation be? Why do these pigeons stay in Manhattan?

EDIT: All the answers so far point to a solution that I feel silly not considering before: they simply don't want to. I mean, similar to that one answer, I'm someone who doesn't really like leaving the city that much, and as much as city living can be a pain, moving to a desolate countryside full of dangerous animals appeals not at all to me--I mean, if nothing else, where would I get my lox bagels? Why wouldn't it be the same for birds that think like humans?

And I'm someone WITH opposable thumbs. It would be even rougher for a bird, or even a flock of birds especially when, as pointed out, your only real advantage is your intelligence and communication skills. Out in the wild, there's no one to negotiate with, and whatever animal you meet is more likely to care about eating you than hammering out a multilateral trade agreement.

Maybe there were a few tries, but they all turned out like Roanoke and eventually the pigeons decided it wasn't worth it.

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    $\begingroup$ no opposable thumbs? $\endgroup$
    – EDL
    Sep 13 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ For the same reason the real pigeons do not leave their territory. $\endgroup$ Sep 13 at 14:39
  • $\begingroup$ I know it may be crazy unlikely however, I feel that the NYC pigeons may have heard a horror legend/rumour/ myth of a rogue court alchemist turning all pigeons into spoons. Not leaving the known safe-zone they don't have to take any chances with that cthulhu-level madness. $\endgroup$ Sep 13 at 16:36
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    $\begingroup$ Why do you insist on them not leaving? Your story focuses on NYC, so who cares about other pigeons? The whole world could be full of intelligent pigeons (and other animals too - I don't buy that all animals would be unable to leave the island with human sized brains) but it wouldn't change a thing. Your story is set there, so this is where all action happens. $\endgroup$ Sep 14 at 11:26
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    $\begingroup$ C’mon, have you ever talked to a New Yorker? They don’t think that there is any other place worth living in. $\endgroup$ Sep 14 at 15:29

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To these animals, Manhattan is the civilized world. Anywhere else is just lawless wilderness inhabited by feral creatures that will prey on each other without a second thought. To move away from there would be like an average urban dweller to move to deep in the Amazon.

The isle does not keep them in, it keeps the dangerous wilderness out, allowing for the civilization to thrive. Even if you have a few intelligent predators, most would rather not venture outside due to the much more dangerous and territorial uncivilized predators.

Perhaps the immediate surroundings of the isle are like the wild west, a dangerous and unconquered land inhabited by a few madlads. But the connection to the rest of the country will make successful colonization impossible due to the flow of dangerous animals migrating to the area.

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah Queens is hell $\endgroup$
    – Humphrey
    Sep 13 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ This pretty much explains the perspective of current New Yorkers as well. $\endgroup$ Sep 14 at 15:30
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Because, like Dr Doolittle, they can talk to the animals

If these pigeons are physically the same as their ancestors today, there are a whole lot of things they can't do. They can't develop a tool-using society because they lack opposable thumbs or an acceptable substitute. They aren't strong enough to lift heavy things and their body shape plus limits on airspace mean they can't effectively cooperate to lift heavy things. The only thing they have going for them is their intelligence and communication skills.

Outside Manhattan their intelligence and communication skills are of limited use - they can talk and philosophise with each other, but it's not going to be of a huge benefit to them. On Manhattan, however, they can communicate with other intelligent animals that can do things the pigeons are physically incapable of. (While it is not stated in the question that they can communicate with other animals, if they put their minds to it I'm certain they can create Pigeon English as a common language for the various species on Manhattan. Sorry about the pun.) If they can trade their special services - for example carrying messages and aerial recon - with a ground-bound species that is stronger then they can get more done. If they can befriend apes or at worst monkeys who can use tools then even better.

In short, if your primary advantage is the ability to talk your way out of trouble then you are best off in the vicinity of those that will listen. An intelligent eagle in Manhattan may be hard to convince to pass up an easy meal, but an eagle anywhere else can't be negotiated with at all.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for “pigeon english” $\endgroup$ Sep 14 at 21:02
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    $\begingroup$ The notion that an intelligent pigeon couldn't figure out how to use tools seems absurd to me. They have beaks that are precise and capable of gripping, and claws for more large-scale maneuvers. No, they're not likely to use a jackhammer created for a human, but they could easily etch circuit boards and the like. Also, it's trivial to attach cables to an object to lift from multiple points. With the help of larger animals, they could easily build machines they can operate independently to do human-scale operations. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelS
    Sep 16 at 4:58
  • $\begingroup$ Animals that could use LARGE tools might be very useful associates. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Sep 16 at 23:15
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The rest of the continent is ruled by crows

Corvids are notoriously smart, with some species already having intelligence on par with apes, capable of manufacturing tools, and understanding physical laws. Now imagine if the aftermath of nuclear war (or whatever that had caused the extinction of hairless apes) had granted sapience to pigeons, of all birds, what this would entail for birds that were already much smarter than a piece of rock? So pigeons don't want to leave the island, because that's the conditions of the treaty they established with the corvids - they don't try to mess with their society, and in turn, crows leave them alone as well.

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I have met people in Manhattan who haven't left Manhattan in 20+ years.

Perhaps your pigeons have the same mindset. You know the one.

I could see this being real funny in a story. "Ew, you crossed the bridge??"

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    $\begingroup$ This doesn’t quite ring true, somehow. Plenty of individual people are unadventurous homebodies — but has there ever been a large community where everyone was like that, except when people were held in either by practical necessity (e.g. island-dwellers without sufficient boatbuilding tech to leave) or coercive control (e.g. cults)? Similarly, if the pigeons have developed such a rich culture and society, they must surely include a wide range of different pers– I mean, pigeonalities? $\endgroup$ Sep 13 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine For most of human history almost everyone lived in a culture like that. If "travel" means "walking" (only rich people could afford to keep a horse) so it takes a whole day to travel 20 miles, and you have no money to buy food etc (even if you could find somebody willing to sell food rather than keep it for themselves), so you have to carry everything you need on your own back, what is the motivation for travelling? $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Sep 13 at 23:47
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    $\begingroup$ I like this. The vast majority of New Yorkers that I know (I know a fair number) are disdainful of the rest of the US and profess great attachment to NYC. Most of them cannot fathom living anywhere else, even if their particular living standard there leaves much to be desired. $\endgroup$ Sep 14 at 12:21
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not making value judgements here. I'm agreeing with this answer in that it seems to fit the style and psyche of New Yorkers. $\endgroup$ Sep 14 at 15:58
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    $\begingroup$ @alephzero: Sure, widespread leisure travel in the modern sense is a recent thing. But population expansion is close to a constant of history. Can you point to a single example of a reasonably thriving society close to an uninhabited region, without some very strong reason preventing them from settling it? $\endgroup$ Sep 14 at 18:02
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They are racist bigots.

Outside of Manhattan there are other pigeons. Those pigeons. Not that smart. Not smart at all. Really just animals. Now don't get me wrong - the pigeons out there are easy on the eye and some have nice voices. They are fine with their own kind. But you let one of those green-necked Lotharios get at your daughter and next thing your know you have grandkids who can't count. You go out for a little fun in the country with a cute rock dove and a year later some halfbreed shows up that knows you are its dad.

No, city pigeons need to be with city pigeons. There is too much risk in mixing with the outsiders.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't think that objecting to bestiality makes you a racist bigot. Because if the other pigeons are not intelligent, they are animals. Also, you are a rapist because the other pigeon lacks the ability to consent. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Sep 16 at 23:17
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As a last ditch science option (with some political angle), at one point in time they couldn't navigate outside of Manhattan.

The calamity that killed off the humans disrupted the Earth's magnetic field, it didn't disappear it just got alot more chaotic. As some birds have been found to sense magnetic fields, I will assume that pigeons can as well. Thus when ever some adventurous pigeon tried to leave they get extremely dis-orientated and to others they appear to go "mad", and lose any ability to navigate and no self-respecting pigeon isn't able to navigate. Thus those that tried to leave (but cam back) become outcasts.

The pigeon-government has realized what happens and starts setting up children's stories about the big bad that happens when you leave. Pigeons are threaten with banishment for breaking laws. Thus over time your pigeons will end up fearing any attempts to leave, lest they become "mad" and lose their minds. Whether the magnetic field still cause problems no one knows, as no one dares find out.

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Q: They have developed a complex multi-party democracy that, by coincidence, runs more or less along Westminster system lines

Political affiliation and lessons from the past

Earth was once human. Current pigeons ancestors thrived in human cities, they were influenced by humans, human culture and human remains. Their system is in fact human.

There are two important players in the pigeon political universe: one of these hates these non-pigeon human influences and wants to ignore human culture alltogether. They prefer to talk about NY pigeon independence, pigeon supremacy over other animals, wanting to conquer the world (pigeonize, spread pigeonism)

The other political group, the largest group, still adheres to human habits and parts of human culture. They keep a strong tradition of being peaceful, because the pigeon (dove) had always been a symbol of peace in human culture, and also, wise old pigeons always warned for human error and human inflicted disaster. Don't repeat the same mistakes.

The pigeonist pigeons have not been elected into the government since NY parliament exists. These mainly male chauvinist pigeons are a loud group, but they have been a minority for 160 years now, since the Crows cleansing debacle and the events that followed this most unfortunate episode in the history of NY pigeon rule.

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Same reason my intelligent dolphins haven't: they're not interested. Taking over the world is a lot of hard work, they'd rather just hang out and have fun.

And yes, that's a very Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy style answer and may not be appropriate to your context :)

But seriously, whether an intelligent species has the potential to take over depends on more than just their level of intelligence. An intelligent molusc for example would lack the capability to manipulate its environment for example. An intelligent bird may be severely handicapped by its inability to use tools effectively as it has no arms (yes, it could hop about on one leg and use the other, or hold one in its beak, as some birds have found out, but we're talking efficient here, not capable as such). Or as the Guide puts it, they may simply not be interested as long as there's free food available.

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  • $\begingroup$ That does bring up a decent question: why is there food there? There's food there now, but that's because humans truck it in - if the humans are gone, well, what then... $\endgroup$
    – poncho
    Sep 14 at 18:16
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Let's not forget basic biology here. They are Rock Pigeons who have been adapted to nesting in rocky crevices.

The cityscape if simply full of rock crevices. Yeah, they can talk and chat and think, but they still gotta go back to the nest. (The similarities between caves and human dwellings are also compelling!) This basic biological adaptation keeps them in the city, simply because there are no viable nesting sites outside the city.

So what keeps them in Manhattan? Simple: the other parts of the city are effectively different countries. Maybe those countries are ruled by other pigeons, maybe other creatures (like those corvids or worse, those falcons), but you the cultural and political divisions are just so that outside of Manhattan is another country.

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The ruling class discourage it

In order to maintain control over the pigeon masses the ruling politicians discourage migration and strip the citizenship of any who leave, preventing them from returning.

A real world parallel might be Western citizens who traveled to the Middle East to join ISIS. Their citizenship's were sometimes completely stripped and they face harsh sanctions if they were to return to their countries of origin.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome PigeonKing! Seems like this question was made for you $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Sep 16 at 12:02
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Population Pressure

It's quite simple. Much of the push to settle areas is due to population pressure. The pigeons simply haven't filled the island yet, and due to unknown dangers, the few who have gone beyond the island haven't returned.

I'm not familiar with how prolific pigeons are, but the same mutations that gave them intelligence (or related ones) may also have reduced their fertility rates, if that's an issue.

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Because they are homing pigeons

Pigeons have a remarkable sense of navigation, and will return to their nest, even at distances of hundreds of miles. Humans have been taking advantage of this ability for thousands of years for communication and sport.

So even if the pigeons temporarily leave the city, their instincts bring them back home.

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