I have recently received a complaint from Bangor-area pigeons that I ignore them. Apparently, it’s true. I checked my records, and in the nine years I’ve been writing this column, I’ve never dedicated a column to the underappreciated pigeon.
Can you blame me? Many people regard them as rats with wings. But perhaps they should be admired for their resilience and adaptability. They tolerate humans so well that they are found in all 50 states. They tolerate weather so well that they range from Newfoundland to Argentina. They are certain to be found in any city plaza with statues of generals. In fact, they have colonized every continent on Earth, except Antarctica.
Of course, the pigeons had help. They didn’t find their own way to all corners of the planet. People took them there. Europeans introduced them to the New World in 1606. Carvings in Mesopotamian tombs suggest that they were domesticated over 5,000 years ago. They’ve been living among humans for so long, we don’t even know where they started.
We’re not even exactly sure what to name them. Until this century, the official name was Rock Dove. In 2003, ornithologists in the United States changed the name to Rock Pigeon, belatedly agreeing to a change adopted by the British a decade earlier. But they are often called domesticated pigeons or simply pigeons. Nowadays, the ones we see in town are also called feral pigeons, in order to distinguish them from truly wild populations of their species that exist mainly in western and southern Europe, North Africa and a small slice of southwest Asia. All pigeons in the US are descendants of domesticated birds that returned to the wild.
You can see evidence of historic crossbreeding for yourself. The gray back, bluish head and two black wing bars are typical of the original species. But when you see whitish and brownish birds in the flock, you know that their ancestors had a brush with human-manipulated genetics, likely intended to improve their homing and racing abilities.
Pigeons have a natural homing instinct. It’s so strong, they can find their way back to home base from a thousand miles away, blindfolded. They are guided by the Earth’s magnetic field, perhaps aided by sounds and smells. The angle of the sun and terrestrial landmarks also likely play a role in their navigation.
This innate homing ability probably led to their domestication. Hieroglyphic accounts document their use by Egyptians for communication around 3000 BC. Generals from Genghis Khan to Dwight D. Eisenhower found them useful in military campaigns. They are still used sporadically as message carriers in India and Afghanistan. In the latter instance, they were effective enough that the Taliban banned them.
The shift from valued asset to public nuisance probably has much to do with their bathroom habits. Wild pigeons are cliff nesters, and skyscraper ledges proved to be a good urban substitute. Woe to any passerby on the sidewalks below. Most birds take pains to not poop in their own nests. Pigeons don’t share that sense of cleanliness, and since they reuse the same nest over and over, their nests can get quite nasty. Worse, pigeons can produce six broods per year, as long as there is enough food to go around. Pigeons generate a crop milk to feed their young, so any assortment of seeds, berries, discarded French fries and street garbage will do.
Pigeons don’t mind each other’s company. They congregate wherever there is food and safety. While some folks are entertained by feeding pigeons in a park, homeowners are less fond of pigeons when they pillage a backyard feeder, scattering as much food as they consume.
Given that pigeons are well adapted to living with humans, and that they make a lot of babies, it’s surprising to learn that their numbers have declined in North America by almost half. In many places, cities have actively tried to control populations. In other places, predators are doing the job. Pigeons nest on ledges, both natural and manmade. You know what else nests on ledges? Peregrine falcons, and they think pigeons are tasty. They, too, have moved into cities.
Cooper’s hawks also enjoy a good pigeon meal. These hawks are in the accipiter family – using speed, stealth and agility to hunt other birds. Over the last few decades, they have become increasingly common in Maine cities, especially in winter.
Nonetheless, feral pigeons continue to do well, in no danger of irreversible decline. Perhaps they deserve a little more respect.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.