Wild Neighbors: Appreciating the City Pigeon

By Joe Eaton
Wednesday November 25, 2009 - 09:07:00 AM

When I worked in San Francisco, I could see the walls of three neighboring highrises and a narrow slice of sky from my cubicle. There were few signs of life: a hummingbird checking out the flowers on a 10th-floor balcony, a passing gull, once every few months a window washer. Mostly there were pigeons. Singles and pairs stopped by to preen, court or just hang out. I came to appreciate them as a connection, however tenuous, to the natural world. 

And I started paying attention to them as part of the street scene. Apart from the spectacle of synchronized flying, there was always some small drama going on. Courting males, their neck feathers puffed out, pursuing females; fighting pigeons pushing, shoving, and whapping each other with their wings. What would pigeons fight about, anyway? Food, which can include anything from the corner of an office worker’s sandwich to KFC leftovers; maybe real estate. 

Once while waiting for a light to change near Market Street, I saw a pigeon fly into the housing for the red light with a twig in its beak. A second pigeon was hunkered down on top of the light in a loose bed of plant material. When you think about it, a traffic light is not the worst possible nest site, especially if you insist on breeding in December. It’s sheltered from the weather, safe from predators, and presumably warm, although I would imagine the flashing off and on would get to you. 

But then, who knows what would get to a pigeon? Although they’ve been popular lab subjects since the heyday of B. F. Skinner, their mental processes remain mysterious and they are still capable of surprises. Psychologist John Pearce found that pigeons could discriminate between pictures of trees and pictures of non-trees, and you can see the adaptive value of birds being able to recognize trees. But then he went on to establish that his subjects could tell Picassos from Monets. Clearly these birds are capable of pattern recognition on a pretty sophisticated level. 

Then there’s the homing business. Tiny nodules of magnetite in their brains help them orient by the earth’s magnetic field. In the 1970s Cornell ornithologist Charles Walcott equipped pigeons with portable Helmholtz coils which reversed the field’s polarity and consequently screwed up the birds’ navigation. There’s speculation that electromagnetic pulses from explosions on the sun may also disorient pigeons, and may account for the disappearance of about a thousand racing birds in Pennsylvania in 1998, although some blame cell phone traffic. Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling says this would be “a rare and choice example of one medium directly killing another.”  

Pigeons have been used as messengers since at least the time of the pharaohs. Roman magistrates took pigeons along to the theater in case they were delayed and had to send word home. Pigeons carried the results of the ancient Olympics, relayed Genghis Khan’s battle orders, linked besieged Paris with the outside world in the Franco-Prussian War. As late as World War I the British Air Force employed 20,000 homing pigeons. Even today a Police Pigeon Service is used in the Indian state of Orissa. 

The human–pigeon relationship is an ancient one. Wild pigeons, also known as rock pigeons, nested on coastal cliffs and in mountainous parts of Eurasia. They found human structures an acceptable substitute for natural cliffs, with handy food sources as a bonus. When the first towns rose in the Middle East, the pigeons moved in. Domestication followed, first for culinary use. 

By the 19th century, pigeon breeders had tweaked the wild stock into a dizzying variety of plumages, shapes, and behaviors: aerobatic tumblers, bizarrely feathered Jacobins, pouters, shakers. Charles Darwin used pigeon breeding as a model for the shaping force of natural selection. With typical Darwinian thoroughness, he joined two London pigeon clubs and tried his hand at breeding. You could argue that pigeons had more to do with the origin of The Origin of Species than Darwin’s famous finches. 

Domestic pigeons crossed the Atlantic with European immigrants and found a new home in the cities of North America. And it was in the cities that pigeons reentered the natural food chain. Peregrine falcons, originally cliff nesters like the wild rock dove, will also use buildings and bridges, and urban peregrines rely on pigeons as a prey base. Thanks in part to pigeons, peregrines are back from the brink of extinction and established as breeders in San Francisco, Oakland and elsewhere.  

Herb Caen may have disparaged them as feathered rats, but I have to admit a grudging respect for the city pigeon. They’re not just peregrine chow; they’re resilient creatures, with abilities we’re only beginning to understand. I can almost forgive the Venetian pigeon that guano-bombed me in the Piazza de San Marco years ago.