Rock Pigeon




(This 967th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 5, 2009.)


Few birdwatchers pay any attention to rock pigeons, those downtown birds that come readily, often in groups, to feed at your feet on scraps of discarded – or too often proffered – food. They are especially unattractive to clean-up crews, their messy feces strewn along window ledges and on bridge supports.


There appear to be dozens of different kinds of birds among them, their neutral colors extending from pure white to almost pure black, but those are simply variations on the species' basic plumage: light gray body, darker gray head, breast and tail and two black stripes on each wing.


These feral pigeons are easily distinguished from similar sized birds when in flight. Unlike most other species, they sail with their wings held in a high V.


I will never feel the same about these birds after reading Courtney Humphries' book Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan... and the World (Collins). Now when I see pigeons sailing among city skyscrapers, I will think how they first inhabited rocky cliffs - and still do in a few remote areas. Humphries had to travel all the way to Sardinia in the Mediterranean to find such wild forbearers of our city birds.


Much happened to pigeons over the over 5000 years since they were first domesticated and later escaped to become today's urban squatters.


The earliest records have the Egyptian Pharoah Ramses II sacrificing 57,000 pigeons. Then and later they were captured and kept in dovecotes to serve two purposes: food – squab remains a delicacy today – and fertilizer – their leavings serving farmers before the discovery of tropical guano deposits and the advent of the chemicals we use today.


Then two things changed pigeon history. Pigeon-keepers allowed their birds to feed in farm fields and their depredations turned farmers against them. So rural pigeon keeping largely ended and the birds reverted to the wild where we still see them today around barns. At the same time urban areas began to develop, providing new food sources for these birds already acclimated to humans.


But pigeons were not finished with their association with humans. First, they were raised as show birds, much as dogs are today. They were bred by pigeon fanciers into over 400 varieties with all kinds of strange names. Charles Darwin supported his theory of evolution in the first chapter of On the Origin of Species with examples drawn from this breeding. His own pigeons included fantails, pouters, runts, Jacobins, barbs, dragons, swallows and almond tumblers. Today breeders continue to exhibit their birds at fairs and special pigeon competitions.


Fanciers also trained homing pigeons, birds that would return from hundreds of miles to their home dovecote. Humphries tells the story of Cher Ami, "a British-trained bird that was credited with saving nearly 200 American lives in World War I." Surrounded by enemy troops, the 'Lost Battalion' sent its pigeons for help. All but Cher Ami were shot down. Despite a shrapnel wound, it still carried its message.


Pigeon racing continues today with pigeons trucked off to be released at distant locations carrying sophisticated timing devices that are stopped when the pigeon reenters its nest.


But perhaps the most interesting use of pigeons was by psychologist B. F. Skinner, who trained them to respond to immediate stimuli. Skinner's initial idea was to have pigeons guide World War II missiles. In a kind of preview of modern guidance systems, his pigeons would peck at a target on a television screen to cause the guidance system to maneuver the rocket.


He trained pigeons to do this kind of thing by providing them with immediate rewards (food seeds) for motion improvements that quickly accumulated. Although his proposals during World War II were rejected, this line of experimentation on pigeons and other animals, technically called operant conditioning, contributed to the development of behavioral psychology, which had a profound impact on teaching. Many educators believed that all teaching could be carried out in a series of tiny steps like these. Like so many panaceas, this one was severely limited.


Final note to readers who believe that Columba livia, the species I have been talking about, should be called rock dove, as it was until recently: in 2003 the American Ornithologist's Union renamed it rock pigeon.-- Gerry Rising