Pigeons are stunning creatures.
Trust me. I also once thought pigeons were vermin: dirty, stupid rats with wings. No longer.
The turning point for me came at Everest Base Camp. I had schlepped there from Lhasa, Tibet: three days of off-road driving at increasing altitudes. When I arrived at the (bottom of the) top of the world, there they were. How could my city-slicker birds also survive in the Himalayan heights?
The more I looked into pigeons, the more incredible these birds became. Pigeons are a type of dove whose native home is a rocky cliff, which is why they feel so comfortable in Manhattan window sills.
They are by some accounts the smartest bird in the world, able to recognize themselves in the mirror and even recognize letters.
They are homing birds, instinctively able to return home from anywhere — and at up to 100 miles per hour for many hours on end. There’s a culture of racing these birds by putting them into an enclosed van, and releasing them hundreds of miles from their homes. Scientists suspect magnetic elements in their nose and their exceptional eye sight lets them find their way home, even over oceans. Their eye sight works better when their eyes are stationary which is why they try to hold their heads in the same place when they walk.
This homing ability earned them war medals. During World War I, there were thousands of pigeon handlers, who managed communications with the front lines by tying messages to pigeons’ feet and letting them fly home. Some pigeons heroically flew through mortar fire to get the message home and safe their human comrades.
This homing ability is probably why we see pigeons everywhere; mankind’s armies have been using pigeons as carrier birds for thousands of years, and so they have become as domesticated as dogs, horses and cats. They’ve adapted to eat our food, ignore our crowds and cars, and find homes in our buildings (and on our statutes).
And they even resemble us socially. Like humans, they tend to mate for life. That pigeon couple you pass on your way to Starbucks has likely been together for years, having made a home in a window near you.
Watch the younger ones in a park while listening to club music on your headsets, and you’ll see more social similarities: the males puff up and dance in circles while the lady in question will look demur and continue to peck at the ground. If a person throws out a handful of pizza crusts nearby, the guy will interrupt his wooing to get some grub. (Typical.)
Pigeons even kiss. The first time I saw it happen was, ironically, on the death wall of the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona. They smooched for a minute, he popped up on the back of her to do his thing, then jumped off just as fast, fluffed his feathers, and flew off.
And of course, pigeons also poo on things. So, the last few decades, we’ve come to think of them as stupid.
But watch them more closely, and admire them: their intimate human-like relationships, their intimate relations with humans, their incredible adaptability, and their strength, endurance, intelligence, and skill. Perhaps you’ll come to see, as I did in the thin air of Everest, how beautiful ordinary life becomes when you find pigeons beautiful.
If you want more pigeon info check out http://www.deterapigeon.com/21-amazing-facts-about-pigeons.htm and Pigeons, by Andrew D. Blechman.
Yes, there’s a book about pigeons. And yes, it’s good. And, yes, of course I read it.