“Pigeons are among the most maligned urban wildlife despite the fact that human beings brought them to our shores and turned them loose in our cities – not something that they chose” – Ingrid Newkirk
Pigeons; dare I say that no other bird inspires such blatant contempt among Britain’s human populace. Farmers, city goers, council workers, gardeners and cleaners, many hold the pigeon in appallingly low regard. Others, like me, adore Pigeons though I fear I stand amid a ebbing minority in this regard. Whatever your stance it is hard to deny that the story of the humble pigeon is a fascinating one. More than any other bird it seems, the history of the Feral Pigeon (Columba livia domestica) is intricately intertwined with that of our own, often in intriguing fashion. Throughout the centuries the pigeon has adorned our tables, delivered our messages, acted as a religious symbol and developed into a beloved pet. Only to be cast down in a hail of air rifle pellets. How is it that this resilient and undeniably successful bird has gained the demeaning title of ‘flying rat’? How is it that this once revered comrade now stands as public enemy number one? Pigeons have truly gone from riches rags though I for one am saddened by this exponential fall from grace.
The Feral Pigeon can trace its ancestry back to the Rock Dove (Columba livia), a species of pigeon native to the coastal cliffs of Southern Europe, North Africa and South Asia. Long ago, these birds coexisted alongside humans and soon learnt that humans offered a reliable source of nutrients in the form of seed and grain. Unlucky for the Pigeons we too shared the sentiment. Soon enough the people of Mesopotamia and Sumer provided the wild doves with safe places to roost and created nest houses amid towns and farms and thus the long process of domestication begun. Whereas Red Jungle Fowl (the relative of today’s chickens) provided a sustainable source of protein in much of Asia, pigeons fed the growing populations of Europe and the Middle East though it did not take long for humans to realise that there was more to Pigeons than a tasty morsel..
Years after their domestication for culinary purposes pigeons rose from a mere ingredient to a celebrated religious icon. This ascent to the heavens came about upon the realisation that pigeons display many behaviours that we humans hold in high esteem. Pigeons are monogamous, meaning that they are faithful to only one partner during the breeding season. Whilst breeding, both male and female pigeons evenly distribute the parental duties and both display a fierce protection instinct at the nest. Couple this with the famed homing instinct and it is little wonder that people began to revere the pigeon for living what for all intents and purposes seemed like an idyllic and above all else, pure existence. Following this, Pigeons became exalted in many cultures and faiths. Noah famously released a Dove (white pigeon) from his Ark whereas elsewhere the ancient goddesses Aphrodite and Venus were represented by doves and in China the pigeon was later revered as a symbol of fidelity and longevity.
The famed homing instinct of the pigeon, immortalised in the Holy Bible, allowed the Pigeon to ascend to even greater heights. Now the pigeon took on a whole new use, its ingrained instinct to return home making it the ideal candidate to carry human messages. Exploited for this purpose as early as Greek and Roman times the role of the Pigeon throughout history cannot be overstated. Writing in the 14th century, Sir John Manderville records their use throughout the Middle East, an account that wonderfully explains the usefulness of Pigeons in times of human warfare and strife. He writes:
“The people of these countries have a strange custom in times of war and siege; when they dare not send out messengers with letters to ask for help, they write their letters and tie them to the neck of a colver (pigeon) and let the colver fly away. They immediately seek the place where they have been brought up and nourished and are at once relieved of their messages by their owners and desired aid is sent to the besieged.
The use of Pigeons in times of war continued for hundreds of years, throughout both World Wars. The British Intelligence Service even used Pigeons to deliver messages to resistance movements and sympathisers operating in enemy territory throughout France and Germany. Indeed by the 20th Century the status of the Pigeon had reached a new high, commended and praised the Pigeon stood supreme as one of our most useful animal allies. A fact made clear by the famed case of Cher Ami, a carrier pigeon responsible for saving the lives of 200 servicemen during World War 1. Translating to “Dear Friend” in French, Cher Ami was only Pigeon, or indeed to the best of my knowledge animal, to ever be awarded with a medal for gallantry. Cher Ami received the French Croix de Guerre and now stands triumphant in the Smithsonian Institute where his story has been immortalised for all to read. The harrowing story of Cher Ami can be found here, completed with a poem written in his honour by Harry Wed Farrington. Baring all this in mind, how is it then that the pigeon has fallen so spectacularly from grace? Made redundant by technological advances the story of the Pigeon in the 21st Century is a much grimmer affair..
In the present day our opinions on Pigeons have shifted massively. Where once we favoured them, worshiped them even, we now persecute them relentlessly. Many see the Pigeon as a menace, plundering crops, befouling our cities and looking ungainly in bus stations the world over. Pigeons are shot, poisoned and trapped with immunity throughout the UK and further afield, whilst buildings are adorned with spikes and nets, pigeon proofed to deter the winged ones from invading our homes and residences. Though I admit that in the right circumstances an excess of Pigeons can become a problem I cannot help but admire the grit and determination of the Feral Pigeon. Indeed, no other species with the exception of man has colonised the world with such vigour. Pigeons are now found on every continent with the exception of Antarctica and have taken readily to our towns and cities, habitats that pose problems for the vast majority of species. To me, the global domination of the Pigeon is something to be celebrated, not scoffed at. I for one make a habit of feeding Pigeons whenever I venture into the city. To me their cooing and rather comical courtship displays are all part of life in an urban setting. To me, the Feral Pigeon is beautiful, their iridescent colouration and charming behaviours overlooked simply due to abundance. Perhaps before judging these resourceful birds we should take a step back and assess just what this iconic symbol of human/wildlife cooperation has done for us. It is after all rather ironic that we bare such prejudice against the city pigeon following cooperative triumphs in the past; under no circumstances should our past debt to this charismatic bird be forgotten.
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James is a nature writer, conservationist, blogger and birder; holding an MSc in Wildlife Management and working previously in the fields of ecology and practical conservation. He maintains a popular natural history blog at commonbynature.co.uk, writes regularly for Northumberland Wildlife Trust and, as its managing director, runs New Nature - the youth nature magazine.