The humble pigeon is worthy of our awe and admiration...here's why!
Updated: Jun 13
To many people, pigeons are nothing more than a nuisance; to others, they are recognised as one of the few examples of wildlife hardy enough to survive in our increasingly barren cities.
Pigeons are also known as Rock Doves and the ones who live in cities around the world today are descendants of the birds we’ve brought there over the centuries for our purposes–as food, for hunting, as messengers, for racing, etcetera. They have survived because they are hardy, adaptable and, like most of the relatively few animals who manage to coexist with us in cities, very intelligent. Pigeons are actually remarkably so; they can be taught to distinguish between impressionist and cubist art and even appear to pass the ‘mirror test’, joining a very select number of animals–humans, primates, dolphins, and elephants–in their ability for self-recognition. They are on par with primates in their ability to count. They can even recognise words: in one study, pigeons were taught between 28 and 58 different words and were able to distinguish them from 7,832 meaningless letter combinations. What’s even more startling is the fact that they were able to discriminate completely new words they had never seen during their training!
So we brought pigeons here, but why do they stay? Well, it’s because this is the perfect environment for them. Pigeons do particularly well in our cities because their original homes were sea cliffs and rocky ledges across Europe and Asia, where some of their wild counterparts still live today. To a pigeon, a city is not all that different to their ancestral home; there are plenty of perfect ledges, crevices and safe, dry roosting spots, and best of all, there is a constant supply of food from the rubbish we leave about on the streets.
But I’ve heard pigeons are diseased!
Contrary to what pest control companies have insisted over the last 50 years or so, pigeons are not major carriers of disease. (They were actually fairly beloved animals until fairly recently in history!) In fact, unlike many wild birds, they appear not only to be potentially immune to avian influenza, but incapable of spreading it.The average person is actually more likely to get an illness from a pet bird than a pigeon! Multiple studies have demonstrated that there is very little risk from pigeons, even for people who work in occupations that bring them into close contact with the birds. (Here’s just one study, carried out over a 60 year period.)
Spreading the idea that pigeons are particularly diseased and dangerous animals, however, means big money for pest control, and their propensity to breed remarkably quickly has made them the perfect target. Provided there is enough food, these birds can breed several times a year. Additionally, a third of any given flock is made up of visiting pigeons from nearby areas, scoping out new opportunities. When a pest control company comes in and shoots or poisons large numbers of them, any remaining birds take advantage of the fact that there is suddenly more food per bird and begin to breed as quickly as possible, and any visitors settle down and bring others with them. This means that killing pigeons results in the opposite of what the pest control business claims to achieve: the number of pigeons doesn’t shrink, it grows–and that’s a very profitable cycle for business. It’s not only cruel but counterproductive…and that’s how pest control companies like it.
Not everybody will tolerate these intelligent, adaptable birds on their property, though, and this, in and of itself, is not a problem. It is relatively easy for most locations to convince pigeons that they aren’t welcome. One of the simplest ways to do this is to put up spikes. You have probably seen these on many ledges and on other platforms. They don’t hurt anybody, but they discourage the birds from nesting or hanging about. Cleaning up our rubbish, as well as educating people about the problems with feeding large amounts of seed to pigeons, is another important tactic. (Certainly a very enjoyable pastime, but probably not the best one for the birds.) If you’re interested in learning more about how several different cities have used other non-lethal techniques, such as well as dedicated nestboxes and designated feeding areas, to humanely deal with pigeon numbers, you can check out the UK’s own Pigeon Control Advisory Service.
A few more fun facts about pigeons:
Unlike many birds, pigeons mate for life and stay together year round. If you notice a pigeon bobbing down the street or flying through the sky, keep an eye out: you’re very likely to see their mate nearby.
Pigeons are powerful fliers, and can travel 44 mph (70 km/hr)–up to 600 miles in one day.
As mentioned before, pigeons are also known as Rock Doves. They are members of the dove family (Columbidae). Most languages only have one word for pigeons and doves, but English tends to use ‘dove’ for smaller, slimmer species and ‘pigeon’ for the larger ones.
There are 10,000 species of birds, but only pigeons and doves feed their babies ‘milk’, otherwise known as ‘crop milk’. (Flamingos and male Emperor penguins feed their young with a similar, but different substance.) This is a secretion from the lining of the bird’s crop, a pouch in their throat where food is stored prior to digestion; it is regurgitated by parents for a week or two as the babies are weaned onto solid food. The production of crop milk is triggered by prolactin, the same hormone which triggers lactation in mammals.
We have known for centuries about the brilliant navigation abilities of pigeons and their capacity for finding their way home from hundreds of miles away, but even now we aren’t entirely sure how they do it. The leading theories are that they are following the magnetic fields of the earth, using the position of the sun and the sky or listening to infrasound—low frequency audio coming from a number of sources—like the ocean. The cruel ‘sport’ of pigeon racing exploits this ability.