When I was still working as a journalist I have had several encounters with the infamous Pigeon Squadron. Journalists and organizers of press conferences in Prague alike fear the raids of this informal group of people who turn up on media events or receptions and clear the buffet of any size in unbelievably short time.
It mostly went like this: It was a bit suspicious that a press briefing on an eccentric environmental topic was received with such an overwhelming media interest. While the last words from the panel have not even finished, a crowd of elderly people already gathered around the buffet. Unsuspectingly I went there to join what I thought was a queue when I saw that these people had piled up incredible amounts of food on their plates. After less than 5 to 10 minutes – before half of the queue has even reached the table – the buffet was entirely purged from anything edible. Only much later I learned that I have not witnessed a random proof of people’s immense appetite, but the raid of a well-organized gang – the notorious Pigeon Squadron.
The Pigeon Squadron (my translation of Holubí letka or Holubova letka) is named after the Czech journalist Miroslav Holub. Holub means pigeon, and the name fits remarkably well. In 1990 when Holub was a former editor of the magazine Zemědělec (Farmer), he discovered the sweet spot of press conferences. Without representing any media, he continued visiting these events in order to eat the food and bag the gifts. Soon a formidable group of like-minded people had formed around him: mostly former journalist from discontinued media, their partners, and other people from the media industry. First in Prague, later also in other Czech towns.
The “Pigeons” are usually characterized as senior citizens of scruffy appearance and sometimes endowed with offensive smells – making them fairly bad companions at table. They pick their targets from announcements of the Czech press agency ČTK or – in the Internet age – through electronic channels. What they cannot eat and drink on-site, they take home in their coat pockets or in plastic bags.
The Pigeons appreciate not only food. At one presentation of mobile phones five prototypes were passed through the rows of journalists. After only four of them had returned, the organizers decided to call the number of the fifth one: It rang in the pocket of a notorious Pigeon Squadron member. Similarly, when a piece of jewellery went missing, the organizers swiftly locked down the place and rediscovered the precious piece in a plastic bag of a Squadron member. “Somehow this must have slipped inside,” he voiced his confusion.
Attempts to neutralize this group have repeatedly failed: Attendance lists where journalists are requested to specify their employer are usually filled with random names. The ČTK has tried to inform journalists only through personal communication channels. The Pigeons, however, simply followed in the trails of their legitimate colleagues.
The only solution seems to be not to offer any food or alcohol at all. When I co-organized a press conference for a non-profit organization, we decided to offer only soft drinks. It was hilarious to watch an obvious Pigeon entering the venue, checking every single room and leaving again. Don’t feed the pigeons!
(Video: Visitors at the opening of an exhibition react confused when they are asked which painting they like most.)
Images by fuxoft and Petr Bardon
PS: I found only now the awesome photos by Jan Cága.