The Ones We Left Behind: Urban Pigeons Deserve Better

Few animals in urban settings garner less sympathy than the pigeon. Christened “rats with wings” by their detractors and dismissed as ambulatory pollution by most city-dwellers, they do not bring the sparkle of joy that cardinals provide or even the nonchalant charm of equally European-derived house sparrows. Much ink is spilled and homeowner frustration vented on the subject of how to get them to stay away from a place or outright stop existing. Our cities are littered with plastic spikes to deter their passage and false nesting sites set up for easy egg-culling. The appearance of peregrine falcons in urban environments is celebrated not only because these birds are magnificent in their own right, but because they prey on pigeons. Those who would defend these creatures receive accusations of naïveté, as though no one who actually interacted with pigeons could find them anything less than offensive.

Watching them live, one has trouble understanding this antipathy. Pigeons’ coloration is striking, with most feral individuals having a band of purple iridescence around their necks that catches the sun. Pigeons retain more of their domestic color variation than most feral animals, making their flocks a riot of diversity. Their calls range from soothing coos to purr-like rumbles, and their mating displays are charmingly gawky. They are unusual among birds in how easily they can drink, directly sucking from water sources rather than filling their bills and pouring it down their throats like most birds. They can use sight, smell, and the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate home from thousands of kilometers away. They are devoted parents, with father and mother alike caring for their young until they are fully fledged and even producing “crop milk” in their digestive tracts to feed their squabs. This ability allows pigeons to breed throughout the year, another superpower they have over other birds. Their bodies are loveably rotund, their behavior surprisingly affectionate. Pigeons are, if anything, most of the things we like about cats, only far more sociable. So why the hate?

It is because they outlived their purpose, no more, no less.

Two pigeons, one i the common gray color with an iridescent purple neck, the other with white splotches on its head, back, and underside.
Too pure for one world, too soiled for another.

Pigeons entered human cultivation before any other birds, more than 6000 years ago. Shelters called dovecotes encouraged wild pigeons to nest where humans could harvest their eggs, young, and the occasional adult, setting up a slow march toward domestication. In the following centuries, they became standard livestock and their various talents were discovered and put to use. They were selectively bred for beauty, for nutrition, for speed, and for long-distance flight. Different varieties were used as racers, as poultry, and as “homing pigeons” to deliver messages back to their homes from far away. Cities large and small had thriving populations actively cared for by humans to keep these functions working. The white morph of the pigeon, often called the “dove,” became a symbol of peace and purity, to the point that it became part of the hawk/dove idiomatic duality for warlike versus diplomatic character; it remains so loved that many people do not even realize it is the same species as the reviled city pigeon.

But time was not kind to their usefulness.

Chickens proved easier to raise in huge numbers in confined settings than pigeons and so replaced pigeons as the standard poultry around the world. Artificial fertilizers reduced the demand for natural ones in developed countries. Modern telecommunications equipment progressively made homing pigeons more and more obsolete. Breeding ornamental and racing pigeons persisted but became a higher-class affectation, and the lower-class stock slowly shifted from poultry to the birds later substituted with “clay pigeons” at shooting galleries. The rest were simply…abandoned.

Our cities are full of pigeons because we, as a society, ran out of uses for them. We turned them from domestic to feral with a thousand little rejections. When they kept on living anyway, we called them pests.

Dozens of generations later, their descendants eke out a livelihood on our refuse and whatever we throw at them. They nest on whatever surfaces remind them of the seaside cliffs their wild ancestors frequented, whenever they are not chased away, poisoned, or shot. The excrement that was once celebrated as a perfect fertilizer became the bane of urban environments, staining concrete and damaging statuary, with few realizing that its unwholesome runniness is a symptom of the birds’ enforced dietary poverty. They are held up as examples of urban disease carriers, despite the rarity of their transmitting anything to humans.

City dwellers declared them “flying rats,” but “flying dandelions” might be more accurate. Dandelions, too, were cultivated for food and encouraged to spread until they weren’t.

I can’t be angry at pigeons. They are not mosquitoes, bedbugs, or fleas that directly harm people, nor are they urban rodents and roaches that sneak into homes to steal food and defecate in cupboards. They just figured out how to survive after the people who were taking care of them started hating them instead, and it is hard not to empathize with that. We would all do well to appreciate what the humble pigeon has achieved, surviving long after humans decided it wasn’t worth anything anymore in places inhospitable to so many other birds, looking like a fluffy, purring friend the whole time.

You are welcome near me on all my outdoor excursions, Columba livia domestica. You’ve earned it.

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The Ones We Left Behind: Urban Pigeons Deserve Better
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