There may be no bird that inspires so much disdain as the humble pigeon. They are a nearly ubiquitous presence in cities across the globe and have established populations on all continents but Antarctica. Over the past century, pigeons have become almost synonymous with urban living.
Pigeons are just as loathed as they are common. They are called dirty, spreaders of disease, and often are dubbed “rats with wings.” Despite inspiring this intensity of emotion, pigeons remain poorly understood. Even if they are a common and familiar animal, the history of pigeons may surprise you.
What is a Pigeon?
“Pigeon” is actually a very imprecise way to refer to these birds. The word “pigeon,” like “goose,” is a name that describes an entire range of animals. Pigeons and doves are members of the Columbidae family of birds, a group that includes over 300 species. So while we might call the bird we see on the streets a pigeon, it’s important to remember that there are also wood pigeons, imperial pigeons, laurel pigeons, and a myriad of others that share the name.
Not only is it vague to call our feathered urban neighbors pigeons, it isn’t even technically accurate. The scientific name for these birds is Columba livia. Formally, they are known as rock doves. Doves and pigeons are very similar, though doves usually have bigger tails and smaller bodies. Columba livia better matches the description of a dove than a pigeon, but it seems unlikely that the “pigeon” moniker will go away anytime soon. In this spirit, though it may not be entirely scientific, I will continue to call Columba livia by the term “pigeon” throughout this article.
Though their proper name is important, understanding the origin of pigeons is even more so. Pigeons are not native to the streets of New York City or to North America at all. The native range of Columba livia falls across Northern Africa, Southern Europe, the Middle East, and Western Asia. Wild rock doves live on sea cliffs and mountainsides, high places where they find safety and shelter from predators.
What about everywhere else you see them these days? We brought them there and, unlike rats, they weren’t considered stowaways and pests when they arrived. Before we called pigeons filthy flying vermin, they were something far different for us. They were animals that we bred for food, for communication, and even for beauty. They were our domesticated companions and livestock, and virtually every pigeon not still living on those sea cliffs is the descendant of those birds.
The Domestication of Pigeons
It may be astonishing to us now, but the pigeon was once a vital part of human culture and society. It is unclear when rock doves were domesticated, but they first appear in written history on Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets from over 5,000 years ago. Some estimates put pigeon domestication closer to 10,000 years ago. Given the fragility of bird bones and their poor preservation in the fossil and archeological record, it may be some time before we can narrow down the date any further.
Pigeons were originally farmed as a food source. Chicken and geese were domesticated earlier, but pigeons were the dominant meat bird in the Middle East and Europe for thousands of years. Pigeons made for good eating and the unerring ability of a pigeon to find its way home gave rise to another valuable use: Homing pigeons.
It’s easy to take communication for granted in the days of telephones and the internet, but carrier pigeons were the cutting-edge technology of the past. As early as 3,000 years ago, people were sending messages attached to pigeons. They were sent between cities in ancient Rome to announce winners of the Olympics and the results of chariot race bets. Genghis Khan had a system of pigeon relays that spanned from Asia to Eastern Europe and allowed him to keep in contact with even the far reaches of his empire.
Think pigeon mail is a thing of our distant past? They were still in use as recently as WWII, when the United Kingdom used somewhere in the vicinity of 250,000 homing pigeons to carry messages behind enemy lines and through battle zones. It was only in 1948 that the UK military discontinued their use of the helpful birds.
Beyond food and communication, domesticated pigeons have served several other purposes. Some were bred simply for beauty. There are around 800 breeds of fancy pigeon in the modern day and people have been breeding for pretty pigeons since before 950 BC, when the Greek poet Homer referred to “Messene’s towers for silver doves renowned” in his writings.
Pigeons have also been bred for sport throughout their long history. Pigeon contests have included matches of speed, agility, or acrobatics, and some breeds are known for their ability to perform impressive rolls, twists, and dives.
The Fateful Spread of the Pigeon
As mentioned previously, we brought the pigeon to America. More specifically, colonists in the 1600s did. They were originally imported as barnyard animals and farmed for food. It can be rather difficult to contain a flying animal, and many pigeons meandered away from their keeps and set off on their own in the New World. They thrived in the altered habitats of human towns and cities, and soon established themselves as permanent residents in the local ecosystem, making them one of the earliest invasive species in the Americas.
Though we might call pigeons wild animals, a better way to describe them would be feral. A wild animal is one that evolved naturally. Feral animals are creatures we domesticated, but that have escaped and now live and breed on their own.
Their feral nature is visible in the variety of colors they sport. Wild rock doves are only found in the common gray-black color scheme. Feral pigeons can share the color of their wild ancestors, but they also come in shades of red, brown, or white, with a variety of fascinating patterns as well. The next time that you see a brown or a white pigeon, know that it is only that color because at some point in our history we found white or brown pigeons beautiful.
Feral pigeons are so successful that they have even begun encroaching on wild rock dove populations. Where populations mingle, interbreeding is bound to occur. Wild rock doves have interbred so much with their feral cousin that in time there may be no truly wild rock doves left. In a few hundred years, all we have left of this species may be the descendants of our domesticated farm animals.
A Friendship Diminished
The pigeon was once held in high regard. Because of our close partnership with the species, people were able to learn a lot about the habits and life cycle of the pigeon. They found that pigeons were monogamous and often mated for life. Both parents care for offspring, and though they are peaceful and intelligent, they protect their nest fiercely. These pigeon behaviors are also esteemed human behaviors, and the pigeon was brought into this esteem as well.
Pigeons and doves figure prominently in many religions, like the dove of Noah’s ark. In China, pigeons and doves represent longevity and fidelity. Pigeons used to be valued medicinally as well, and it was believed that their meat could cure diseases like plagues and palsies. Our appreciation of pigeons in the past is a far cry from the loathing they receive today. How did the pigeon fall so far from grace? It’s all a matter of perspective.
Before the pigeon was considered winged vermin, there was another bird that held that dubious title: The house sparrow. The house sparrow is another nonnative bird that has formed invasive populations in North America. They were first introduced in New York City in 1852 to combat the destructive linden moth. The house sparrow would go on to spread throughout the United States.
In the 19th century, the house sparrow was just as hated as pigeons are today. They were called filthy and immoral, and were condemned as immigrants in a time when human immigrants were mistrusted. It was thought that they were causing the decline of native bird species through over-competition. Like the pigeon, they were and still are common features of urban ecosystems.
The early 20th century was a time of great change for the United States. One of these changes was in opinion about the sparrow. They went from hated to tolerated, and eventually attained the fairly indifferent status they enjoy today. However, as opposition to sparrows grew less fierce, the pigeon began to rise as the new so-called “filthy bird.”
An interesting study by Dr. Colin Jerolmack reveals the descent of the pigeon from neutral neighbor to abhorrent pest. He looked through over a hundred years of New York Times articles and analyzed them for pigeon portrayal. In the late 1800s and early 1900s there was very little attention given to pigeons, except a few articles condemning their shooting (including suggestions to take aim at sparrows instead). Negative pigeon press increased from the 1930s – 1940s, but it was in 1963 when pigeons had a publicity turning point. Two deaths were blamed on pigeons spreading disease and suddenly pigeons were seen in a new unsavory light.
The term “rats with wings” is widely attributed to the 1980 film Stardust Memories, but it actually first appeared in print in 1966 in a quote by the New York City Parks Commissioner. However, it wasn’t until the film brought the term into public awareness that “rats with wings” really took off. Now, it can be said that the image of the winged rat truly defines the popular perception of pigeons as flying filthy vermin.
Sadly, much of the pigeon’s bad reputation is based on misconception. In truth, it is exceedingly uncommon that pigeons are harmful to human health. There is a very minor risk of contracting an illness after contact with pigeon droppings, but disease transmission from pigeon droppings is vanishingly rare. There is almost no threat of catching something from pigeon poop unless you have an impaired immune system or come into excessive contact with the droppings (cleaning them off your windowsill doesn’t count as “excessive contact”). Pigeons can catch diseases like West Nile Virus and bird flu but they don’t appear to spread them to other birds, meaning they aren’t dangerous to the health of other birds either.
Overexposure to pigeon droppings or feathers can result in bird fancier’s lung, a form of hypersensitivity that causes inflammation in the lungs, but this is possible with excessive contact to any bird. All in all, pigeons carry no more diseases than other urban birds, and yet we don’t persecute and malign hawks or crows that live next door to us.
Pigeon droppings can disfigure statues and clog air conditioning intakes, but the real problem with pigeons appears to be a symbolic one. Pigeons represent impurity and disorder in urban spaces that we try so hard to regulate and control. Pigeons seemingly scoff at that rigidity, prospering without permission in spaces designed for us.
In many ways, the fate of the rock dove is very sad. We relied on and cherished the domesticated pigeon for thousands of years, and they certainly would not be crowding city streets in the United States if we didn’t bring them there in the first place. We bred pigeons to be comfortable in the company of humans, and now we hate them as they dare to live beside us. Their plight begs the question: What should be done with domesticated animal species that society no longer has use for?
Perhaps, like with the sparrow, one day the tide of opinion will turn and a new bird will become the symbol of society’s ills. The seagulls that gather in garbage dumps and linger in parking lots are often regarded with suspicion. Could they someday be as reviled as the pigeon? Only time will tell.
- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow