Written by Kathleen Cahill

Walking to my job in downtown San Jose, I smile as I cross the supermarket’s parking lot. I carefully wade my way through an ocean of grey. Iridescent greens and pinks, caught by the morning light, twinkle at me. A soft cooing sound fills the air. A car or a pedestrian less captivated than myself inevitably plunges through the water, scattering it. Suddenly a wave crests up, and with a flutter of wings, the ocean flies away. All that is left is a dull stretch of pavement and a few liberated feathers.

I proudly admit that I love pigeons. A lot. I realize many don’t share my enthusiasm. I’ve heard it all. Pigeons are just rats with wings. Pigeons are dirty and harbor disease. And my favorite: I like birds, but I don’t like pigeons. How did it come to this?

Pigeons, also called rock doves, have shared a long and oftentimes mutually beneficial history with humans. Seven thousand years ago, pigeons were a symbol of fertility in Greece. In Egypt, they were used in religious ceremonies as gifts to the gods. Ancient Babylonian texts on bird-watching mention pigeons. In the early Olympic games, pigeons carried messages to announce the winners. Until the telephone and telegraph were invented, they were the fastest way to send messages. Many people owe their lives to pigeons. The United States Army used them as messengers during both World Wars and the Korean War. They have delivered medications to people living in remote locations. They are used in search-and-rescue. They can recognize color and when they spot the orange life jackets of people lost at sea, they activate a light that sends messages to rescue helicopters.

The natural distribution of the rock dove is unknown as they were domesticated so long ago. They are probably native to a wide area of land: the northernmost parts of the British Isles, southern Europe, across the Black Sea towards Turkey and south towards North Africa. They were domesticated, taken out of their range, and today are found almost everywhere there is a large human population. The range and success of pigeon populations is due to human interest in them. People keep pigeons for racing, homing, and showing. Feral pigeons are the descendants of pigeons that were once housed in coops. They consume many tons of food waste that is left in the streets, and they are no more likely to cause disease than any other wild bird or mammal.

Pigeons are an urban dweller’s slice of nature. People living in large cities do not encounter much wildlife. Coyotes, deer and hawks may be regarded as creatures from another planet. But there are always pigeons. They are fascinating to watch. They are highly social birds, and flocks can number in the hundreds.

But if you learn to recognize individual pigeons, you find that they also form smaller subgroups that forage together. Although flocks of pigeons may seem a uniform mass of grey, you can see tucked here and there a stark white, a coal black or a soft warm brown bird mottled with cream on the wing tips.

In fact, their wide variety of colors has attracted the attention of ornithologists at Cornell University, who are enlisting “citizen scientists” to observe pigeons and send in data on color distribution and mate selection within flocks. They are interested in why, unlike other feral animals, they do not revert away from the fancy colors bred in during domestication and towards the original colors seen in true wild pigeons. This project is quite extensive, with both adults and children from ten countries collecting data.

The pigeons have become ambassadors for all animal life. Teachers have found that when engaging urban schoolchildren in watching the birds and collecting data, the children feel a sense of pride about the birds, and develop a higher regard for all animal species.

The next time you see a pigeon, instead of brushing it off as an uninteresting non-native bird, slow down and take a look at it. You may fall in love.

Participate in Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Project Pigeon Watch”

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