Pigeons. They’re everywhere. You probably see them every day. Many people dislike pigeons. They are often referred to as “rats with wings” and are considered little better than vermin. However, humans and pigeons have had a very long and very complex relationship that may just help you appreciate these birds just a little more.
Pigeon domestication stretches back thousands of years. Ancient writings from Mesopotamia and Egypt discuss pigeons. As with most animals, pigeons were initially domesticated as a food animal. A pigeon chick grows to adult size in about a month and since adults can produce eggs at any time of the year, they made for a readily available source of meat, which is known as squab. Birds raised for meat are called utility pigeons and they tend to be larger, mature more rapidly, and produce more young than their wild counterparts.
Homing and War Pigeons
Pigeons are well-known for their astounding ability to return to their nest after flying long distances. They are able to use a sense called magnetoreception that allows them to detect the planet’s magnetic fields to help them navigate. This homing ability has long been exploited by humans. For centuries, pigeons were used to carry messages in what was known as “pigeon post.” This would become invaluable during both of the World Wars. Pigeons were often used to send important messages to officers over hostile enemy territory and a number of birds even were awarded medals for their military service. Perhaps the most famous war pigeon is Cher Ami, who saved the Lost Battalion of the 77th Division during the Battle of the Argonne in 1918. As the troops were being hit by friendly fire, Cher Ami was sent off with a note calling for it to stop. She was shot by German soldiers, losing an eye and a leg in the process, but still managed to deliver the message 25 miles in 25 minutes and is responsible for saving the lives of 194 men.
The homing ability of pigeons has been used for more than just delivering messages. Starting in 1907, pigeons were used in the development of aerial photography. A German named Julius Neubronner was the first to develop a special lightweight harness that could be fitted on a bird and hold a small camera. While initially developed for its military applications, these days it is used to aide in the filming of natural history documentaries. The same techniques used to develop a camera-carrying harness for pigeons have been used to design harnesses for other bird species to capture aerial shots.
Just as pigeons rank among the oldest of domesticated animals, pigeon racing is one of the oldest animal-related sports with origins dating into antiquity. With their ability to locate their way home from even unfamiliar terrain, pigeon races are often over long distances. Some races can cover over 600 miles! The birds have rubber rings placed around their feet that serve as both identification and as a way to keep time, as they feature a built-in clock. Races can be challenging for the birds, as they have to avoid hazards such as birds of prey and colliding with manmade structures. The winner of the face is not the bird who arrives first, but the bird whose band is taken off and recorded first.
The terms “pigeon” and “dove” are often used synonymously and there is no physical different between a dove and a pigeon. Doves have great symbolic meaning in many cultures, often as an omen of peace. This religious connection is what lead the the creation of release doves. These birds are regular homing pigeons, often white in color, that are released as a sign of hope or spiritual release at the end of certain ceremonies such as weddings or funerals.
These days, not everyone who raises pigeons is keeping them for their homing ability or to put food on the table. Some people simply enjoy them. As with many other species, this has lead to the creation of so-called “fancy pigeons.” These are pigeons that have been selectively bred for certain features, such as more elaborate/colorful plumage, the development of wattles, flying ability, or even the ability to inflate their crops a certain way. There are somewhere between 800 and 1100 different breeds of fancy pigeon. One of the earliest breeders of fancy pigeons was Charles Darwin, who studied the variation caused by crossbreeding in his work that would later become On the Origin of Species.
The term “bird-brain” is considered an insult, but pigeons have been vital in our understanding of animal intelligence and cognition. Pigeons are capable of limited multitasking, can be taught two tasks in specific and varied sequences, learn from directly watching the behavior of other pigeons, and discriminate between different individuals (both pigeons and humans). They can even differentiate between cubist and impressionist art and to tell photos featuring humans apart from photos that do not!
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For info on other domesticated birds, check out our Living With Wildlife Center!
For info on pigeon natural history, check our our Bird Center!