The Rock Pigeon  (Columba livia)Submitted photo

Pigeons, the world’s oldest domesticated birds, have been associated with humans as food, religious fertility symbols, hobby racing, and messengers for 5,000-10,000 years, possibly ever since people became domesticated themselves and started raising grain. Their flight is extremely agile and beautiful, especially as flocks of pigeons glide synchronously and gracefully against the background of
a blue sky.

All Rock Pigeons, which is the common name for our pigeons, are probably native to North Africa, Europe and Asia.  Pigeons were introduced to North America in 1606 by the French in Port Royal Nova Scotia, most likely for food. Additional introductions soon spread pigeons throughout the “New World.”

Pigeons exhibit many of the qualities revered by people: they mate for life; there is equality between the sexes – both male and female take care of the children from incubation to fledging. They are faithful to home, even finding it from 1,000-plus miles away.  They are gentle and have individual personalities.  The question is how they went from revered to reviled.

One answer is that there are simply too many of them in the wrong places. They love associating with humans. Flocks often associate with people on the fringes of society who feed them in places such as parks and squares, spaces where humans expect to be free from nuisance non-human animals. Pigeons eat grains, berries, occasional insects, and the leftovers from picnickers in the park.

Another reason is that where there are pigeons, there are pigeon droppings, or guano. Each pigeon can produce 2,500 pounds of guano per year and they release this slippery acidic content on statues, park benches, walkways, cars, bridges, even people. Estimates range as high as $1 billion to $2 billion a year worldwide in damage done by pigeon guano to buildings, roofs, bridges, wherever pigeons nest or roost. In the 16th through the 18th centuries in Europe, when the aristocracy kept pigeons, their guano was considered so valuable for fertilizer that dovecotes, also called pigeon lofts, where the guano collected, were protected by armed guards.  Pigeon guano was also one of the few sources of saltpeter in Europe, a component of gunpowder.   

Thomas P. F. Hoving, Parks Commissioner in New York in 1966, called pigeons “rats with wings.” He was annoyed, but misguided. Unlike pigeons, rats bite and carry disease. Pigeons are gentle and recognize those who feed them. They even recognize their own reflection in mirrors.

In the extensive pigeon academic literature, one message is consistent: pigeons do not spread disease to humans. There is no more potential of catching disease from ordinary contact with pigeons in the park than from the family cat.  Yet, in 2011, a 23-year-old woman in Nova Scotia was blinded by cryptococcal meningitis (CM), carried in dried pigeon guano, or droppings. There is no explanation as to how this single individual came in contact with this dust, as there are no reports of other people affected in that instance. Authorities state that is it a one in a million possibility of contracting this disease.  Nevertheless, Nova Scotia took the case seriously and posted restrictions against feeding pigeons and waterfowl.

Pigeons are prolific breeders. This is undoubtedly why for centuries cultures and religions celebrated them as symbols of fertility. They can breed at the age of 6 months and depending upon the climate, may breed five or six times a year, not simply during specific seasons (again, resembling humans.) Because pigeons originally nested on natural cliff edges by the sea or within caves, they look for nesting opportunities resembling their original habitat: covered flat surfaces on buildings and even bridges, where human design has provided plenty of appropriate platforms. Males provide nesting materials of twigs and grasses and females weave them into scanty nests that are reused and refurbished annually. Both males and females incubate two white eggs for an average of 18 days, with the males taking the day shift. Both male and female take turns feeding the nestlings “pigeon milk,” a fatty, protein-rich liquid produced in the crop of the adults. The young fledge after about 48 days. Being in the nest for a longer time than the typical smaller bird protects young from predators for longer and provides a higher likelihood of survival. Pigeons in the wild live about 3 to 5 years.

Pigeon fanciers have used artificial selection to enhance pigeons’ speed, homing memory, tameness, reproductive vigor, speed, color, size, and beauty. In Victorian England, “fancy” pigeons were treasured across class lines and all pigeon breeds created worldwide are descended from the original Rock Pigeon.  Pigeons were then something of a craze in Victorian England, and Darwin fell under their spell. Stephen J. Bodio, writing for the Cornell Lab or Ornithology in ‘All About Birds,” points out that it was the Pigeon, not the Finch, that first captured Darwin’s imagination about natural and artificial selection.  Quoting Bodio, “Darwin wanted all of his friends to be as delighted with his pigeons as he was. He wrote Lyell [British geologist and friend], ‘I hope Lady Lyell & yourself will remember whenever you want a little rest & have time how very glad we should be to see you here. I will show you my pigeons. Which is the greatest treat, in my opinion, which can be offered to human beings.”

The exploits of domesticated pigeons in peace and war are legion. They carried messages across Alexander the Great’s vast empire and messages for Olympic athletes. News about Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo made it to London by carrier pigeon before messages sent by ship or horse. A ten-year long postal service between the New Zealand mainland and its Great Barrier Island was created in 1897; the sender purchased a still-prized stamp before the pigeon was released.

World War I’s most famous pigeon, trained by British pigeon “fanciers,” was “Cher Amie.” Used by the U.S. Army Signal Corp in France, she was the third pigeon released (the first two were shot down by the Germans) in 1918, and carried a desperate message for help from a squadron of American soldiers trapped in the Argonne. She made the 25 miles in 25 minutes carrying the message for rescue. You can see her today, stuffed, in the Smithsonian.

In a fascinating 2013 book, “The Global Pigeon,” New York University Sociologist Colin Jerolmack describes how pigeon fanciers form social networks of depth and meaning based on cooperation and competition. Breeding and feeding pigeons create interactions among strangers in parks and even overcome racial barriers. One example: Some Turkish immigrants to Berlin created pigeon coops along the old Berlin Wall, where their imported “tumbler” pigeons compete. They are tossed up in the air and somersault backwards several times before reaching the ground. Prof. Jerolmack also details the many (mostly unsuccessful) attempts to get people to stop feeding pigeons in places like San Marcos Square in Venice and Trafalgar Square in London.

Many years ago, Evanston’s Raymond Park used to be called Pigeon Park. Pigeons are a favorite food of the Peregrine falcon, which nests on the Library, promising highly absorbing aerial shows in Evanston.

Libby Hill

Libby Hill is the author of "The Chicago River: a Natural and Unnatural History. She has been writing about birds and trees and Evanston's natural history for the Roundtable since 2004.