“Absence makes the heart grow fonder” is a cliché which basically means, ‘that which is common we take for granted’. Think about all the beautiful things in nature that we look at everyday but don’t really SEE or appreciate: sunrises, sunsets, a starry sky. And what about the birds: robins, crows, Canada geese, starlings and probably most unappreciated of all – pigeons, scientifically known at Rock Doves. Imagine if blue jays were suddenly reduced to just a small population. We would all gasp at those startling cobalt colored feathers. Visitors from other countries regularly express amazement when they see them at our bird feeders. But I am as guilty as everyone else when it comes to pigeons.
I was reminded of this last week when I was with my grandsons and we were walking down a city street. Suddenly
Aren stopped and said, “Grandma, look.” He pointed to a bird with silvery gray feathers and an iridescent neck that was just a couple feet away, casually pecking in the grass. I had to catch myself from saying, “Oh it’s just a pigeon” because to this little boy it was a revelation that he could stand so close to a bird and it would not fly away.
Here was a bird, a winged creature that upon closer observation did have pretty qualities. Yes, it’s true they are an invasive species, but now that they’ve lived on this continent for nearly 400 years, having been introduced by Europeans in the early 1600’s, they’re at least naturalized birds. We can’t know for sure why the first European settlers brought domesticated pigeons with them – it could have been for food or communications or it could have been to remind them of home, but once here the pigeons found a bounteous new country with cooperative humans.
Wild Rock Doves normally live and nest near rocky cliffs. Lacking these they find human habitations to be suitable alternatives. Cities really attract these birds because of all the skyscrapers with conveniently spaced windows and ledges. People also are careless about where they leave or deposit food and pigeons have been quick to pick up (literally) on that.
It is believed that rock doves are the first birds domesticated by humans, sometime around 4500 B.C. Along the way, people discovered that these birds could be trained to travel from one location to another and back again, thus creating the ‘homing’ pigeon, a bird used in the centuries before telegraph, telephone, and internet. Rock Doves have been clocked up to speeds of 82 mph, thus making them more efficient at delivering messages then men on horseback. Today, people still raise pigeons as a hobby and send them on missions of less critical importance, but it is well to remember that these humble birds served us when we needed them most.
Because of their long domestication they are tolerant around humans, even learning to take handouts of different kinds of bird seed. This familiarity means they take up residence, often in large numbers, since they are flocking
birds. A flock of pigeons can create a lot of waste and we are left with the problem of cleaning up after them. This is probably the number one complaint about the birds.
I was a child of the city and without any training I was bird watching in my daily activities. My first close encounter was with pigeons that a friend’s brother raised. He would climb on the supports beneath bridges, take chicks from the nest and then raise them by hand. I was entranced by the various colorations and patterns of each bird. Not surprisingly each was given a name. I think that Ricky was intending to train these birds to be homing pigeons, though I can’t remember now if he succeeded. But one thing he did do was introduce me to the beauty of birds and possibly set me on a path that led to my career and my great joy of watching and sharing what I see and know with you.
By Kate Crowley