Let’s face it. Pigeons get a bum rap. Although they’re noisy, poop where they please, and are some of the most invasive birds on the planet, much of our contempt for pigeons has more to do with how we perceive them than what they really are.
In this edition of Animal Facts, we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty to dispel the rumors and tell the truth about the world’s most despised wingman—the pigeon.
They’re quite clean
People and pigeons have coexisted for millennia, but they never seemed to ruffle anyone’s feathers until the early-twentieth century when their numbers began to surge. Not only were they nesting anywhere they pleased, but they were also pooping anywhere they pleased—from our park benches to our treasured landmarks, to our heads. Then in the 1950s, whatever love remained for the bird was lost when scientists discovered that pigeons carry disease. When two New Yorkers died from pigeon-borne illnesses, public scorn for them intensified, even though no deaths nor illnesses had been linked to casual encounters with the birds.
In the 1960s, pigeons were perpetually linked to uncleanliness and disease when New York City Parks Commissioner, Thomas Hoving, coined the term that has stuck with them to this day—“rats with wings.” The reference went mainstream in the ‘80s when Woody Allen used it in his film, “Stardust Memories,” thus sealing the fate of the beleaguered bird.
Well, the carefully orchestrated smear campaign begun in the ‘60s wasn’t based on CDC research which found that humans and pigeons seldom intermingle in ways that would cause illness. Truth is, pigeons are no more infectious than other animals that make their homes in close proximity to us. The problem is that they cross the invisible boundaries we’ve created in our heads.
Fun Fact-Pigeons produce about 25 pounds of poop per year.
Pigeons are related to the Dodo
Enough talk about “doo doo.” Let’s move on to the Dodo and how pigeons are related to the long-extinct bird.
Like the Dodo, all living species of pigeons and doves belong to an order of birds called Columbiformes. The flightless birds were endemic to Mauritius, an island off the coast of Africa near Madagascar, where they had no natural predators. The Dodo thrived for hundreds of years until the mid to late 17th century, when Dutch sailors arrived and began to hunt them. Since they were large, awkward, flightless birds with no fear of humans, the sailors found them to be easy pickings. Eventually, over-hunting and the introduction of cats, rats, dogs, and pigs to the ecosystem led to the Dodo’s extinction.
Perhaps the saddest thing about the demise of Dodo, is the long-held belief that they were brainless fowl that sealed their own fates by being “sitting ducks” for the sailors.
But now we know that they were intelligent animals that didn’t fear humans because they’d never encountered them.
Fun Fact-The colorfully feathered Nicobar Pigeon is the Dodo’s closest living relative.
Pigeons are very intelligent
To say that pigeons are smart only scratches the surface of what they’re capable of doing. Researchers have found that they understand space and time, are great at multitasking, can count as well as primates, recognize words, and group things according to texture, color, and overall appearance. All of these abilities are impressive on their own, but their combination enhances the pigeon’s most incredible ability—their navigational skill.
Although they’re rarely used today, Pigeons— rock and homing in particular—have been used as messengers since ancient times. As a matter of fact, homing pigeons were routinely dispatched to deliver urgent messages during both World Wars, and several were awarded medals for their service.
No one completely understands the pigeon’s GPS system. Some researchers believe they use the position of the Sun to figure out the direction in which they should travel. Others think they can detect Earth’s magnetic fields due to iron particles in their beaks, and that they rely on those fields for guidance. But recent research indicates that pigeons may use ultra-low frequency sound to get to their destinations. However they do it, they do it well—and at an average speed of 50 mph (with bursts of up to 90 mph) they do it efficiently.
Fun Fact- Pigeons can recognize themselves in the mirror.
Pigeons are monogamous
Over the years, pigeons have been called dumb, dirty, and invasive but there’s one thing they can never be called—unfaithful. Once a male and female mate, they stay paired up until death. Occasionally, they will separate if one of them relocates or is charmed by unmated birds looking to “seal the deal.”
Pigeons take courtship very seriously. First, a cock will select a hen, then walk around her, strutting his stuff to prove he’s a suitable mate. If she finds him attractive, they will use their bills to plant gentle “kisses” on each other. Next, they’ll choose a nesting spot and start building a nest. After it’s finished, the hen will either immediately start laying eggs, or the anxious dad-to-be will prompt her by striking her with his wings.
After the eggs are laid, the lovebirds take turns sitting on them. Sharing the incubation duties allows both mom and pop time to eat and rest while ensuring that their squabs will hatch in a timely fashion. It also allows dad to make up for his boorish behavior.
Fun Fact: Pigeons build two nests at a time because they typically raise two broods of squabs in quick succession.
Pigeons are considered sacred by many religions
Pigeons have long been associated with filth, disease, and disorder, so it seems ironic that many religious groups consider them to be symbols of spirituality.
They’ve gone through a bit of gentrification in the Christian religion—which only refers to them as doves— and in which pigeons represent peace and holiness. In India, members of religious groups feed pigeons to respect and care for their ancestors, believing that after a person dies, they are reincarnated as birds. Some followers of the Sikh religion feed pigeons in honor of the warrior and high priest Guru Gobind Singh who was a known devotee of the avians, while younger Sikhs feed them because they believe that when they are reincarnated, they will never go hungry if they’ve cared for pigeons in their former life.
Fun Fact-Thousands of pigeons are fed each day at Hindu temples across India.
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