I always knew there were pigeons where I live. For as long as I can remember, they’ve been a constant fixture near the lift bridge where one enters the Placentia beach.1 They’d roost there, periodically lifting off, flying in a circle and then returning to the bridge. Sometimes, I’d spot them on the boardwalk, ambling along the shore of Placentia Bay, pecking at the various wild grasses they’d encounter.
Things soon changed, though. One day, a pigeon appeared in the front yard where I live. It was then followed by others. I’d always put out a few seeds for other birds—crows, starlings, sparrows, juncos and the lot. So, that’s what must’ve drawn them. It was a surprise, but to me, it was an unexpected spectacle to enjoy.
However, eventually, there’s one thing I came to learn. Some people really don’t like pigeons. It’s not even a dislike grounded in some annoying activity perpetrated by the pigeons. The ill will was just there. And the sentiment is not uncommon. I wrote a book focussing on eight of the animals people tend to dislike, one being the pigeon. I’m sure many would be happy for pigeons to return to their wild origins and never look back.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the pigeon is going anywhere. Besides, it’s not entirely fair. If we take a closer look at pigeons, we’d see they come with a rich and substantial history. Much of that time has been spent without hesitation, helping other species, namely our own.
Origins of Pigeons
Every pigeon we encounter, from the ones flying around Placentia, to those streetwise denizens of the cities around the world, are all the feral descendants of the rock dove (Columba livia). It’s a member of the family Columbidae, which has numerous members of pigeons and doves, Columba livia, being one of them.
Columba livia likely came from southern Asia around a million years ago. Over time, they found their way to new homes in North Africa, parts of coastal Europe, the Indian subcontinent, and Central Asia.
Then, fairly recently, they made it to North America. There’s reference to pigeons from the early seventeenth century in Port Royal, Nova Scotia in Canada. Apparently, the settlers were complaining about the eagles who’d taken a liking to the local population of pigeons.2
One thing we know for certain, rock doves have been actively evolving. There are now well over 300 breeds of domestic pigeon, including the feral pigeon, all of whom originated from the rock dove.3
Pigeons Lending a Helping Hand
Pigeons tend to occupy the backdrop of our lives, whether in our laid back rural landscape or our bustling and boisterous cities. Although, there was a time when their presence was more noted in our lives.
They’ve had their fair share of drama and intrigue. Around the world, in Mesopotamia, the Aztec world or in Ancient Greece, pigeons or their alter ego, the dove, played a central role. In Greek mythology, Venus is sometimes symbolised by a dove. Fittingly, her chariot is also depicted as being drawn by two doves.4
The first evidence of pigeons being used as a food source comes to us from Egypt in 3,000 BC where the remnants of a funerary meal, which included pigeons, were unearthed.5 Later, for the Romans, pigeons were a mainstay with many Romans keeping houses in order to raise pigeons for the table.6 Their guano was regarded as gold in ancient Egypt, Rome and into the Middle Ages.
Pigeons have been valued for centuries for their ability to carry messages. From the time of Julius Caesar to last century during our two world wars, pigeons have played a central role in ensuring all the major actors in the wars were in communication.
The Dickins Medal for the pigeon Royal Blue Source: Joseph Krol Wikipedia.
Pigeons always accompanied aircraft on bombing missions during the second world war. During D-Day, the paratroopers carried a pigeon they would release once they’d landed. Pigeons even received medals for their highly valued and honourable role in war.
In Modern Times
Nowadays, some pigeons are used in shows. Termed fancy pigeons, they are doted on and biologically manipulated to enhance their physical appearance. People spend large sums of money preparing their pigeons and then showing them at special events. Different breeds of pigeons are known for various qualities such as “pouters” or “croppers” which inflate their crops.
A blue bar Pigmy Pouter pigeon (Source: Jim Gifford Wikipedia).
Others choose to race their pigeons. In these instances, pigeons are useful in their ability to fly to specially identified locations. This is much the same as they’ve done over the centuries. Except now it’s just for competitory reasons. Many owners are simply driven by the thrill of the game.
And they take it seriously. They ensure their pigeons are in top condition with nutrients and medicinal and non-medicinal supplements to give the pigeons the added vigour they require to win. As would be expected, a lot of money is also illegally made in the betting too often accompanying the racing.
Our “Street” Pigeons
For most people nowadays, your everyday or “street” pigeons are just an expected attribute in our communities. They wander along the streets or fly from rooftop to rooftop, maybe alighting onto a bridge or wire. For the most part, they’re forgotten. That is until their actions are deemed undesirable.
Certainly, those street pigeons are mostly noted for their insistence on roosting and nesting along the ledges of buildings. They do so for obvious reasons. These features are closest to the cliffs their predecessor rock doves would’ve used in the wild. That and their propensity for perching on conveniently placed statues is largely for the same reason. Both of these habits are considered a nuisance. We erect any number of features to prevent them from coming to rest, for instance, pigeon nets or bird spikes.
Except for those who are lulled by the peace invoked when feeding the pigeons in a park, for the most part, that’s now how they’re regarded—a nuisance or pests. Even in more rural areas where I live, pigeons are often diminished by preconceived notions of their worth.
Love Me or Love Me Not
In all honesty, for some, pigeons are often respected, loved and even adored, but often only if they are of use. For some, of course, simply the presence of the pigeon, puttering around and coming for a hand-out is all that matters.
Perhaps one of the things we must bear in mind is how this small creature has been a superlative companion to our species in the past. Surely that must matter. Whether we recognise the great value of the pigeon or continue to level complaints about it, ultimately, it won’t matter.
For the pigeons who are a part of our life, they’ve only ever remained with us, as they’ve been pleased with the food and care they receive—a “voluntary captive.”7 Freedom is always within easy reach. For those contentedly roaming along the streets of our cities and communities, they’ve already found their freedom, forever contented nomads.
1The Town of Placentia incorporates the amalgamated communities of Argentia, Dunville, Freshwater, Jerseyside, and Placentia which sits on the beach.
2Schorger, A. 1952a “Introduction of the domestic pigeon” Auk No. 69, 462-463.
3Jerolmack, Colin 2007 “Animal archaeology: Domestic pigeons and
the nature-culture dialectic” Qualitative Sociology Review
III (1), 74-95
4Allen, Barbara 2009 Pigeon (London, England: Reaktion Books), 60
5Allen, Barbara 2009, Pigeon (London, England: Reaktion Books), 91
6Blechman 2006, Pigeons – The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird (New York: Grove Press), 11
7Donaldson, John 1860 British Agriculture, containing the cultivation of land, management of crops, and the economy of animals. Illustrated with 240 plates of implements, animals, etc (London: Atchley & Co., Agricultural, Architectural, & Engineering Publishers), 667.