Monday, August 31, 2009

RESPECTING HOMING PIGEONS published this great piece on 08.30.09

The rock pigeon: a case of human ambivalence

Even without a field guide, everyone can identify the rock pigeon (Columba livia), the ubiquitous urban bird also known as the common pigeon.

Like house sparrows, pigeons are well-adapted to living around people. By nature, they are cliff dwellers, so in towns and cities they build their nests on the ledges of buildings and under bridges (this makes Pittsburgh a desirable pigeon home). Ground feeders and fond of human diets, they gladly peck at everything edible (and sometimes inedible) we throw on the ground. Not shy or skittish, they have high tolerance for human habits and thrive wherever we thrive. Watch them bob their heads as they walk around the city and you might conclude they are nodding assent to the world we have created for them.

Their tolerance for us is not always reciprocated. Every so often, a city government decides pigeons are vermin and drives them out of habitats where they long prospered. A few years ago the mayor of London declared war on the pigeons of Trafalgar Square and the birds, once favorites of tourists and locals alike, are now gone. Recently, Venice outlawed the feeding of pigeons in Piazza San Marco, although there, too, the birds were traditionally considered an essential part of the square's ambience.

There is an element of ingratitude and historical amnesia in these actions. During both World Wars, pigeons, famous for their homing instincts, were used for surveillance and reconnaissance and at least one pigeon was decorated with military honors.

Scientific opinion does not agree with London and Venice's contempt of Columba livia. Ornithologists are intrigued by the pigeons' intelligence, strong navigational abilities, and variety of colors and patterns in their markings (28 color types have been found). For those who are interested in pigeons and would like to learn how scientific research is done, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has set up Project Pigeon Watch, which invites people all over the world to study the color morphs of their local pigeon population. Perhaps Columba livia should become the symbol of the global village?