SEATTLE – Here’s a pigeon theory: Beneath all that cooing and head-bobbing and snack-hoovering lie piles of seething rage.
Those of you who fail to spend much time in deep pigeon thought – and this is basically everybody – sit down here on the park bench, and consider: If the ubiquitous birds often defamed as the “flapping rats of the skies” were able to speak – and perhaps appear at a large-scale, communal pigeon event, such as an avian political convention – the acceptance speech would be fairly predictable.
“Each and every one of us,” the demagogic pigeon would intone, furrowing its feathery brow and waving a single wing awash with peanut-butter smears, Slurpee stains and popcorn husks in a sweeping motion at the brood amassed beneath a bridge or roofline, “has been treated terribly unfairly!”
“And we’re not going to take it anymore.”
A mass airing of pigeon grievances surely would commence, followed by calls for vengeful actions against mankind, including, but not limited to, strategic bombing runs at local weddings, picnics and newly established, pandemic-era outdoor dining areas.
The cooing would be cacophonous and clattering, and the uncontrollable herky-jerky bobbing of heads would make goose-stepping look quaint.
As frightening as all that might be – and, let’s face it, there are a lot of these things out there, and they do know where you live – an honest person would say it’s tough to quibble with the pigeon’s point.
Among the masses of fauna, the pigeon occupies a rung on the human scale of fuzzy affection somewhere between a common garden slug and the lesser polliwog.
Not only are pigeons rarely respected, but they’re also often considered – like talk-radio hosts, bedbugs and congressional lobbyists – loathsome pests.
If you doubt this, go ahead and Google “pigeon expert,” and note the percentage of listings on the first couple of pages linking to services that will get rid of the birds.
This is something you’re just not going to see for, say, cockatiels, Labrador retriever puppies, baby giraffes or even a tufted titmouse.
Be honest: The most common reaction to the “pigeon sound” feature on bird websites is a fervent plea to JUST MAKE IT STOP!
You will never see a chief of state appear at a podium bearing the great seal of a rock pigeon clutching a scroll of universal truths in its right foot, and a Hostess Ho Ho wrapper in the other.
Likewise, good luck booking an exclusive two-week safari to drink up the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing the majestic rock pigeon, Columba livia (the real name for the common “street pigeon”), in its native habitat. (The fact that said habitat is often the cracked-vinyl awning of an out-of-biz bowling alley in Spokane might have something to do with this, but the bird itself is simply not a big draw.)
We could go on. Unlike the eagle (see: John Denver and others) or even the relatively lowly gull (if you’re up to it, see: Neil Diamond), people don’t generally write songs about pigeons.
(Possibly jarring personal note: I say “generally,” because one recent day, humming along to a catchy early Elton John/Bernie Taupin tune, the author’s wife stopped what she was doing, looked at him and said: “You know that song’s about a pigeon, right?” Deep contempt. And to this day, “Skyline Pigeon” has never been quite as enjoyable, sad to say.)
None of which is to say they should be outlawed or, like the pit bull, even highly frowned upon in tonier jurisdictions. Especially when they are appreciated for their unique traits – and a particular genius at adapting by learning to live with, and off of, humans.
• • •
So let us dust off a few actual pigeon facts.
The “chunky,” usually gray rock pigeon has pointed wings, a black bill with white base, red eyes and eye rings, and feet the color of a well-roasted slab of sockeye.
They are extremely fast flyers – the source of their one bit of fame, performing as racing or homing pigeons, discussed below – and, being community-minded, they like to hang in flocks.
Not helping their image – or their comparison to rats – is the plucky pigeon’s procreation propensity: In a reusable nest built with supplies from the male and design/assembly by the female, a pigeon couple can produce a half-dozen broods per year.
Eggs, laid by the two, are incubated for 16 to 19 days and fed by “pigeon milk,” a protein-rich fluid produced in both parents’ crops – which we imagine has something of an Orville Redenbacher’s aftertaste. Youngsters fledge at about four weeks and go off in search of their own adventures, or just discarded hot dog buns.
Numbers being key to survival, eggs for the next brood often are laid while the current one is still occupying the children’s table in the pidgy kitchen.
The birds, which are true locals in the sense they don’t migrate, came here from Europe (thanks, Pilgrims!) in the 17th century and spread like … well, pigeons, across the continent.
While its urban presence is often seen as annoying, the pigeon is not an invasive species in the sense that it’s bogarting valued real estate or food sources prized by other bird species: Its home turf, in natural cliff bands and human-built roof eaves, bridges and other structures, is fairly low-rent.
And, in a macabre twist, the pigeon actually has been beneficial to other birds such as raptors, sadly serving as a food source for hunters such as the Peregrine falcon, whose comeback has been credited partially to the successful spread of urban pigeons.
They live well around lots of people because, like us, they appreciate a handout: The urban or “common” rock pigeon has grown dependent on humans for food. The pigeon is known for its cast-iron stomach, to some degree – its food choices are eclectic. In the wild, the birds eat more seeds and grain than Cheez-Its and popcorn.
Yes, we said “wild”: These birds are not all just bebopping around Pioneer Square in that classic buddy-can-ya-spare-a-touch-of-that-baguette swagger the pigeon has become known for.
Like they used to, pigeons still thrive in the unpeopled fringes of the Northwest. Bands of what urban-dwelling cousins might consider prepper pigeons live, breed and fly among rock cliffs in places such as the Channeled Scablands of Central Washington. (Good places to look include all the basalt cliffs on the dry side of the state, especially conservation areas such as the beautiful Columbia National Wildlife Refuge between Othello and Moses Lake.)
Whether city or country birds, pigeons live as long as 15 years if well-housed and fed – which most of them aren’t, leading to a more realistic lifespan of a few years in the “wild,” says Dennis Paulson, a bird expert at the University of Puget Sound’s Slater Museum of Natural History.
Their success is not secret: Unlike the vast majority of other bird species, they have learned to not only coexist with, but also thrive among, the planet’s primary invasive animal species, the ubiquitous human being, Paulson notes.
Adaptability is a key driver in evolution, and here, the lowly pigeon excels.—
Within the pigeon family are several well-known – and less-dissed – “cousins,” of a sort, the most popular of which have become distinctive purely through selective breeding. Among these is the “homing” or “racing” pigeon, bred to emphasize the bird’s remarkable skills as swift-flying, uncanny long-distance navigators.
Racing pigeons, souped-up with special feed and training, are driven to a location 60 to 600 miles away from their home region and released, with flights back to their home roost recorded via timers and bands (old-school, using a specialized mechanical pigeon racing clock), or more modern radio-frequency ID devices and GPS tags.
The sport of pigeon racing, known for a single start gate and 1,000 finish lines, grew from the use of pigeons as message carriers during World War II. (The British trained them to deliver paper messages in leg tubes; the Nazis, of course, trained falcons to take them down.) Because you asked: Yes, of course; performance-enhancing drugs have been documented in racing pigeons, and winners in major competitions are now dope-tested. (It is unknown whether any have been found with gigantic bobbing heads, such as Barry Bonds.)
Since the mid-1800s, pigeon racing has been, and remains, huge in Belgium, but has swept the globe and is particularly popular in China, where a racing pigeon with divine bloodlines sold at auction last year for nearly $2 million.
But the United States and the Puget Sound area are in the game, as well. The earliest bird racers reportedly were immigrants who settled in the Beacon Hill area.
Matt Tinder, an acclaimed pastry chef with a shop in Bremerton, is a newbie member of a racing club in Burien. A self-described busybody, Tinder picked up pigeon ranching a couple of years ago.
“I’m the type of person who has to be doing something to relax,” says Tinder, proprietor of Bremerton’s Saboteur Bakery.
Some people walk their dogs and groom their cat; Tinder feeds and trains selectively bred pigeons in the birds’ backyard “loft,” although he doesn’t breed them himself.
Pigeon care includes twice-daily feedings/check-ins and, for racing birds, training. In a nutshell, this means taking them from the loft and releasing them at increasingly farther distances from home, then watching for their return.
Races for his club are computerized – the birds are tracked by GPS. Fastest time from release point to home, adjusted for mileage, is the winner.
“The idea is, they’re like any other athlete,” Tinder says. Diet and training are key. Although they’re the same species, putting a street pigeon into a pigeon race would demonstrate the vast difference in physiology attained by centuries of breeding. It would be like putting most of us on a soccer pitch for a Sounders game, Tinder says.
“We’d last, like, five minutes,” he says, highly optimistically.
Tinder’s pigeon brood is up to a couple of dozen. Yes; sometimes they go out to train, or race, and don’t return, although that’s fairly rare.
“They’re quite the meal, I guess. The best food in the sky for a falcon or hawk.”
On occasion, regular park pigeons will follow his racing birds home. When they get there, they seem confused, and eventually fly off, back to their old stomping grounds.
Like any sport or hobby enthusiast, pigeon racers enjoy socializing, swapping care tips and doing something unusual that holds their interest.
For Tinder, feeding pigeons is an interesting action-reaction activity not unlike dealing with active yeast.
“It’s very similar to what I do for a living,” he says. “It’s like, I do these things with these ingredients, and then it does THAT?”
Pigeons, trained or couch-dwellers, do have their own personalities, which owners notice over time. Owning them and caring for them daily has given him a new appreciation for wild things – and the environment we share with them.
“I notice the sky more than I ever did before,” he says. “You just all the sudden start looking up all the time.”
• • •
That common respect, bird experts such as Paulson note, is as good a reason as any to honor the street pigeon, looking past its low-rent image.
Most disdain for the birds is due to their tendency to mass-assemble; stubbornly overcoming obstacles to nesting in places people don’t want them; and, of course, marking that territory with what can seem prodigious piles of poop.
Contrary to popular perception, the pigeon is not an unduly prolific defecator – certainly not on the order of, say, a pellet-dispensing marvel such as the Canada goose. Pigeons’ output – often loathed just for its general nastiness and also for spreading some funky fungi – is their worst enemy when it comes to human interaction.
The best way to avoid problems with this is to block their entrance to nesting areas where the inevitable pile is likely to be problematic.
The bird actually is a fascinating, quirky, long-term neighbor to humans that can and should be appreciated, if one gets past the mass-flocking complications, Paulson says. (Often, this assembly problem is our own fault; aside from parks and public squares, pigeons congregate in places such as feed yards or railroad depots, where grains or garbage are routinely spilled, opening the doors to a pigeon buffet.)
“Some people really love them,” Paulson says, particularly elderly people who religiously feed them in parks and open areas.
Seattle, like most large cities in temperate zones, has a good share of pigeons and their close relations, doves.
One of the pigeon’s most distinct characteristics – the constant head-bob while walking – isn’t the product of some evolutionary accident, he says: It’s actually an effective defense mechanism. The head-bob, slowed down, demonstrates a pigeon’s adjustment between its field of vision and its stride, making the head “catch up” to a moving body to keep a steady gaze while the body moves over obstacles.
It looks goofy but allows the largely ground-dwelling pigeon to scan for sky-bound predators more effectively, Paulson says.
“It’s a way of reorienting.”
Like many, he appreciates the birds most for their adaptability. When he lectures about birds, Paulson often starts with the grim reality of the ongoing collision between humans and wild animals.
It’s a simple line graph: Human numbers going up in one direction, bird numbers down in another. Most local bird species are on the decline, including the vast majority of the Northwest’s iconic seabirds. There are a couple of exceptions.
“Gulls are doing fine,” Paulson says. “Guess why? They’ve learned to hang out with people, or at least be comfortable around people. You’re not going to get a puffin landing on your picnic table and eating French fries.”
Precise pigeon numbers aren’t really known, but appear stable.
“I have lived here 52 years now, and there’s no evidence in my head that they’ve gone up or down,” Paulson says. Unquestionably, that’s a result of the pigeon’s d’etente with mankind.
“Ivory-billed woodpeckers and passenger pigeons couldn’t do that,” he notes.
Score one for the lowly pigeon, which serves another important, oft-overlooked role: For some of us, it’s really the sole remaining connection to the world of wild creatures.
Bottom line: We’re here together for the long haul, people and pigeons. Curse them, or embrace the coo and learn to appreciate what they give us, Paulson suggests.
Pigeon appreciation is in the eye of the beholder, but a clear-eyed view might reveal something most of us look past on a daily basis, he thinks. “They’re beautiful birds.”