The Not-So-Humble Pigeon

(This is a recent addition to our Eco-Story Project.  If you want to engage your students’ sense of wonder at the awesomeness of the community of life in which they live then read more about the cross-curricular and cross-grade approach to teaching called Imaginative Ecological Education.  Be sure to download the colouring page at the end!)

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Yeah, you heard me. Pigeons.

Those dusty, poopin’-all-over-stuff menaces, chased around and scuffed at in cities, are far more incredible than we jaded, directionally-challenged humans realize.

Sometimes we see pigeons hobbling around looking half dead already, their feathers sticking out, missing body parts, scrambling amongst people’s feet as they desperately dive for small specks of food. We see them puffing up their chests trying to look impressive to other half-wrecked pigeons. Seriously, who could be impressed by a goofy-eyed, half-dead, poop machine walking around in circles? Beautiful iridescent plumage and alluring coo aside, obviously.

Some people call them “rats with wings”. I don’t. I call them an incredible, noble bird. Amazing! Tenacious, tough, adaptable, and smart. Learn about pigeons and you’ll never look at one the same way again.

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Photo: copyright Darren Naish from “Scientific American”                        A footless pigeon in England


Where did they come from?  And why are they so awesome?

In the wild, the birds we know today as pigeons were sea birds living by cliffs and known as “Rock Doves”. While their domestication (taming) is mentioned in Mesopotamian tablets over 5,000 years old, some researchers believe that they were domesticated 10,000 years ago! We do know for sure that pigeons were the first bird ever to be domesticated. Not chickens, not turkeys. Pigeons.

Their ability to be released in an area they’ve never even seen before and to navigate their way back home is not only incredible but was highly prized in the days before telephones and mail systems. How do you send the results of a battle back to base a couple hundred miles away when your only means of communication is by a rider on a horse? That could take AGES, and who knows if the messenger would even survive.

Famous People Using Famous Pigeons

Genghis Khan knew how to do it. He used pigeons! He knew that you could tie a teeny message onto the leg of a pigeon, release it oh, say, 800 km away, and off it wings to find its way home. Julius Caesar used pigeons, the Egyptians used pigeons, the results of the first ever Olympics were delivered via pigeon, Wall Street investors sent secret messages using pigeons, pigeons delivered messages during the First World War. In fact, a pigeon named Cher Ami (Dear Friend) was actually shot through the breast during the war, but still managed to fly 25 miles in 25 minutes to deliver her message.  The poor thing lost an eye and a leg, and saved 194 American soldiers that day in October 1918. She survived the war despite her injuries thanks to army medics.  She got a wooden leg and a medal called the Croix de Guerre, and when she died in 1919, she was stuffed and put on display in the Smithsonian Institution. Not too bad for a ‘rat with wings’.

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Wartime instructions 

Pigeons Among People

The pigeons seen in cities in North America today are descendants of the pigeons introduced to this particular continent in the 1600’s. Many people used to keep pigeons at their homes in a coop called a ‘dovecote’. Over time many escaped or were released and they became the wild pigeons flying around our cities today.

Most pigeons live in cities due to the proximity to food sources. It’s a tough life for them to be sure. They rely on our scraps and trash for food and are always just a few days away from starvation. They have many predators including cats, Peregrine Falcons, Cooper and Redtail Hawks, rats, raccoons, foxes, and opossums. Up to 35% of pigeons die every year. Many of them while they’re still nestlings. Winters can be hard on nestlings. So it’s a good thing they breed all year, up to 8 times, laying 2 eggs each time.

Pigeon Parenting

Chicks are fed by both adults who both produce something called ‘Pigeon Milk’ which they regurgitate up for their babies. I’d just like to add that pigeons have 37 taste buds compared to our 10,000. And each of my 10,000 taste buds is trying reaaaaaally hard right now to not imagine what regurgitated pigeon milk tastes like. Who knows, maybe it’s fantastic, because within a day and a half of hatching, a chick (also known as a ‘squab’) will have doubled its birth weight.  Astounding! In 14 days the squab has progressed so rapidly that it is already developing flight feathers, and within 28 days of first hatching, a chick will have grown all of its approximately 10,000 feathers (the tail feathers are the last to grow in), and be ready to start exploring the city’s food sources with dad.

Pigeons are smart. They can recognize people, and can differentiate between people who have been mean to them and those who have offered them food. They can be taught to recognize letters from the alphabet. They see things at a different speed than us. If we were to watch the world from a pigeon’s perspective, it would be like watching everything in slow motion. It’s why we think the car speeding toward the pigeon on the road is going to crush it, while the pigeon moves away seemingly unfazed at the last second. The car, for the pigeon is moving at a much slower rate than we see it. It helps too, that the pigeon has an ability to ‘clap’ its wings, giving it a lot of extra power to thrust backward or forward as it takes off. You may have heard that sound before. If not, listen for it the next time you see a group of pigeons take flight.

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photocredit: “Pigeonwriter” 

Pigeons Breaking Records & Simply Being Awesome

The fastest recorded speed for a pigeon is 149 km/h and they can flap their wings up to 10 times per second, which is handy when you’re trying to out wing a Peregrine Falcon who has you on its menu. Pigeons have also been seen playing dead and going into ‘free fall’ out of the sky when being pursued by a predator. Trained Messenger Pigeons can easily travel 1000 km, flying 500-700 km per day, and their homing skills are legendary. Scientists are constantly studying these birds. They have yet to figure out HOW exactly pigeons can find their way home. There are a number of theories out there to try and explain this particular skill. First off, they have great eyesight. They can see about 42 km away, and because of where their eyes are placed on their heads, they can see not just forward and to the side, but almost behind them! So they have a huge range of vision and studies have shown that pigeons actually use roadways as a map to help guide them as they fly along! Sort of like knowing you have to turn left at the Roller Derby Pizza Taco Aquatic Centre on your drive home. It’s a visual cue. They can also use the earth’s own magnetic fields to help orient themselves, the same way migratory birds do in the spring and autumn. Smell is another way scientists think pigeons can navigate. When the pigeons start to come in range of their homes, things start to smell familiar. More recently, a theory has been proposed that pigeons can hear things in lower range from from us which allows them to build a picture of their terrain in their brains. All of this builds an amazing bird with an incredible homing ability. There are stories in the pigeon racing world where a bird has been sold to someone on another continent, but the bird flies all the way back home leaving the new owner birdless! That’s outstanding, especially considering many humans (myself included) who have almost no sense of direction at all. Open my cage two neighbourhoods over from my home and I’d wander around slowly starving to death for a week!

I could write a lot more on these splendid, regal birds, but I need to start drawing them instead, so I’ll leave you with some interesting tidbits to think about.

-Pigeons and doves are very similar and in the same family. What we call pigeons tend to be larger, while people call the smaller versions doves.

-Pigeon racing is big business! “Bolt”, the most expensive racing pigeon, was sold in 2013 for 310,000 Euros (approx. $419,800 US/514,000 CAD).

-While pigeon poop is a mess yes, and highly corrosive to buildings, during the 16th-18th centuries, it was highly prized as a fertilizer. In the 16th century, something called saltpeter (potassium nitrate) was extracted from pigeon droppings and used in the manufacturing of… wait for it… this is going to blow your mind… gun powder! Weird but true!

-There are “Pigeon Fancier” clubs all over the world. They breed all kinds of ‘fancy pigeons’ for different attributes including really long legs or necks, fanned tails, different shaped beaks, feathery feet, size, and colour. They have names like the Saxon Fairy Swallow,  the Budapest Pigeon, and the German Beauty Homer.

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Pigeon Hall Of Fame

This is Cher Ami.
Cher_ami_trizek #imaginED                                                                                      (Photo credit- “triznak”)

And this is Bolt.

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Pigeon Colouring Page

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Useful Resources

Here is a fantastic video to learn more about pigeons called “The Secret Life of Pigeons” by The Nature of Things on the CBC. It’s what inspired me to do this piece, I had no idea pigeons were so awesome!

Here’s a list of famous pigeons from World War I, Cher Ami wasn’t the only amazing pigeon in that war. Please note that the site lists her as a male, as it was only discovered after her death that she was in fact, a hen. Many military references still refer to her as a male.

More on pigeons navigating with sound from National Geographic.

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2 thoughts on “The Not-So-Humble Pigeon

  1. Wow, I had no idea pigeons were capable of so much, and were such an integral part of communication systems of civilizations past!
    The link for the CBC video is broken – here is one that works:

    Thanks for this inspiring take on an often overlooked bird. Pigeons everywhere thank you, I’m sure!

    1. Hi Jen,
      Thank you so much for your comment and providing a new link for the CBC video! I have updated the link in the blog post, so it should take you directly to the CBC website to view the video.

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