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In Praise of the City Pigeon

In cities across the world, pigeons have been getting bad press, accused of being “rats with wings,” pests whose droppings soil public monuments, sidewalks, and buildings.

Pigeon-haters resent having to share public parks and walkways with these allegedly dirty creatures. In the interest of fairness, however, let’s consider the pigeon from a loftier, more benevolent perspective.

The anti-pigeon crowd has hogged the limelight long enough. It’s time to speak up for the lowly pigeon.

City pigeons (Latin name Columba livia) are the direct descendants of “rock doves” which populated the wild cliffs and rocky ledges of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Humans discovered that these birds had remarkable flying and homing abilities and could be bred for various color combinations.

Some of these captive rock doves escaped, forming flocks of feral pigeons which eventually populated the cities of the world.

Pigeons build their nests on the ledges of buildings and bridges because these spaces closely resemble the rock cliffs that their ancestors populated over a million years ago.

Pigeons don’t hop like other birds; they walk, bobbing their heads with their iridescent necks. They have excellent eyesight and, unlike humans, can also see ultraviolet light.

Pigeons can hear lower levels of the sound spectrum, far beyond the capacity of the human ear.

They can find their way home even from far-off distances with their magnetic sensitivity and ability to determine direction from the sun.

Pigeons can fly fast, up to forty, even fifty miles per hour (when they must). Some pigeons have been able to fly as far as 600 miles in one day.

Pigeons have had a long history of helping humans, especially in search and rescue teams.  One pigeon, “Cher Ami,” saved a battalion of French soldiers during World War I. This hero pigeon kept flying with its written lifesaving message to American headquarters, even though one of its legs had been shot off and it had a bullet in its breast. Today, you can see its preserved body in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Like humans, pigeons have elaborate courting ceremonies, with the male making a fool of himself as he tries to impress the female. Once they mate, the female constructs the nest while the male brings her building materials-single twigs, one at a time.  They take turns guarding the nest before and after the young are born.

Both the male and female produce “pigeon milk,” a protein rich substance that they feed to their hungry hatchlings.  As with humans, when pigeon offspring are ready to leave the nest for good, they sometimes weigh more than the parents.

But the reason many of us like pigeons has nothing to do with their extraordinary powers.

Pigeons, as with most of us, must go about their daily grind-pecking and scratching for a living, minding their own business, ignored by the passing parade of self-important personages.

Pigeons are fun to watch and bring enjoyment to both adults and children alike.  They appreciate human generosity.

We, in turn, appreciate their stoic nature and humble beauty. Along with us, they are survivors in the mad scramble of city life.

Ken West is the author of the new book, Capitalism WIIFM.

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