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July - August 2007 Issue

Pigeons 

Imagine you’ve been dropped off in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in the middle of the night.  You’re desperate to return to your beloved home and family 400 miles away in Michigan.  How long would it take you to get there?  If you hopped on I-65 to Indianapolis and then I-69 to Lansing, you might make it in 6 hours.  Under your own steam, however, it might take you…oh…twenty days.

A one-pound pigeon, however, can make it in about 10 hours.  And that’s without maps, GPS, food, water or rest stops.  So let’s have a little respect for the domesticated pigeon and its feral cousins in your local park!

Feral pigeons, formally called rock doves or rock pigeons (Colomba livia), were first brought to North America by French settlers in the early 17th century, according to several sources.  Those dwelling among us today may be a mixture of many subspecies from around the world, plus many strains bred by people.  Pigeons have adapted well, being found everywhere on the continent south of the Canadian taiga.  In fact, they have become established on all continents except Antarctica.

Rock doves are native to the Near East, where they nest in cliff crevices and on rock ledges.  As far back as ancient Egypt, people built dovecotes to attract pigeons for exactly the reason many urban dwellers today hate them: pigeon poop.  It makes great fertilizer or a mess on your awnings, depending upon your perspective.  At some point, people recognized that besides being an asset to agriculture, pigeons gave people the best of hunting and animal husbandry.  If humans built the dovecotes, the birds would come, they would go out everyday and feed themselves.  That’s like hunting without having to find the game, or farming without having to feed the animals!

The human penchant for improving upon nature manifested itself in controlled selection and breeding of pigeons for food, show or homing instincts.  Just as people have taken wolves and bred them into everything from Newfoundlands to hairless Chihuahuas, people have controlled the breeding of rock doves to enhance a variety of their natural characteristics.  Breeding for the table, speed, or reliability of homing instinct are obvious goals, but people have also bred pigeons for unusual appearance or flight characteristics.  There are now pigeons with “collars” of ruffled feathers around their necks and pigeons with “tail-feathers” on their feet.  There are pigeons with huge chests and skinny legs.  Pigeons with almost no beak, short legs, huge eyes.  There are pigeons called rollers who don’t fly, but rather do back flip after back flip when placed on the ground.  There are pigeons called tumblers that do loops in the air.  There are pigeons called tipplers that fly up—for as long as 22 hours—by not away.

Perhaps the most fascinating trait of the rock dove is the homing instinct.  It’s also the characteristic that has made this bird one of the most useful to humans.  It’s hard to say which species needed the other the most, though.  Pigeons’ only defense against predators is flight, so dwelling near humans gave the birds protection.  Their instinct to return to their nest every night made this relationship possible.  It also made the bird useful for communication.  News of Greek Olympics as early as the 8th century B.C. was transmitted by homing pigeon.  Reuters New Service got its start in 1850 when its founder, Israel Beer Josaphat realized he could bridge a gap in telegraph communications between Belgium and Germany with pigeons.

Rock doves have been used as messengers in warfare since the beginning of recorded history, according to Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga Of The World’s Most Revered And Reviled Bird by Andres D. Blechman.  He cites many examples of how doves saved lives in both world wars.  For example, in WWI, the U.S. Army’s 77th Division was trapped behind German lines.  Unfortunately, they were being shelled by other U.S. troops who didn’t know they were there.  Two of the last three pigeons the GIs had were sent up with messages, but shot down by the Germans.  Blechman continues: “A third message was written:” ‘Our artillery is dropping a barrage on us.  For heaven’s sake, stop it!  A soldier attached it to the third and final pigeon, a little bird by the name of Cher Ami.”

Cher Ami was hit by several bullets, but twenty minutes later, landed at headquarters.  “A silver canister containing the Lost Battalion’s desperate plea dangled from a few tendons—all that remained of the bird’s severed leg,” Blechman explains.  The Americans were saved and Cher Ami was awarded the French Croix de Guerre.  General Pershing shipped Cher Ami back to the U.S., where he died less than a year later from his wounds.  His stuffed remains are on display at the Smithsonian.

Even today, local military forces in Iraq are reported to be using pigeons for communicating.  It may be easier to intercept an email or satellite phone call than a pigeon or several pigeons carrying the same message.

The plain cousin of these fancy pigeons—the one living in your local park or barn—uses the same technique to find its way home.  Only, no one is exactly sure how they do it.

Charlie Wolcott is a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University.  He’s spent decades studying pigeon navigation, including following them in light aircraft.  Even he doesn’t have a complete explanation of how a pigeon can be transported in a closed basket for hundreds of miles to a place it has never been before and still find its way back home.  Some things are known.  Pigeons can use the position of the sun to orient themselves.  They have small amounts of magnetite (iron ore) in their heads that serve as an internal compass.  They can perceive extremely low wave sound which researchers speculate allows them to hear wind blowing across the Rocky Mountains from 2,000 miles away.  They are sensitive to smell as well.  One thing is known: even with opaque contact lenses inserted, they can find their way very close to their coop.

Rock doves don’t migrate in Michigan.  Unlike their racing cousins, they don’t roam too far from home.  They may breed year-round in southern Michigan, but activity peaks between March and September.

Pigeons are an exotic species, but there’s no evidence that they have displaced any other species probably due to their fondness for already disturbed (i.e., urban) environments.  And there are many native predators that help control pigeon populations.  Peregrine falcons that are returning to some cities like Lansing and Detroit enjoy a rock dove meal (and pigeon racers hope they take only the ones without bands).

So, the next time you see a pigeon in the park, take some time to marvel at its athleticism, its military service, its usefulness to humans throughout time as a source of food and fertilizer.  They’re not native to the U.S., but then, most of us aren’t either.

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