The relationship between pigeons and people goes back 5,000 years to Egypt and Mesopotamia. Because they have been with us so long there is no memory of what their native wild range was. Every pigeon in this country is descended from domestic stock brought here by settlers for food 400 years ago.
The official name of the pigeon is Rock Pigeon. Taxonomically there is no difference between a pigeon and a dove. However, there is a colloquial separation in their common names based on size; the larger birds are called pigeons and the smaller birds are called doves.
Although there is no objective dividing line between the two, people tend to separate them in their thoughts and attitudes.
Doves are seen as clean in feather and in heart, gentle, peaceful, calming; and they have pretty blue eyelids. Pigeons are viewed as grimy, poopy, pestilential, and they are utterly common. But the birds we call doves are no cleaner than the ones we call pigeons — even the most urban pigeon is scrupulously well groomed, iridescent, and tidy. Tar on its coralred feet, perhaps, but no dirtier than a country mourning dove.
Darwin's finches have all the fame but he wrote more about pigeons than he did about all the Galapagos Island birds combined.
The entire first chapter of "On the Origin of Species" is devoted to pigeons as are nearly 100 pages of his "Variations of Animals and Plants Under Domesticity." Darwin loved pigeons. His studies of them became a personal obsession. He kept a private dovecote and hobnobbed below his class with the pigeon fanciers of London. For Darwin, pigeons were a perfect domestic analogy for the way natural selection functions in nature.
Most birds in our landscape are perching birds. Pigeons are different.
Pigeons sit on top of something rather than grip a perch. Their feet are fatter and shorter and their toenails are less curved and dull. Watch pigeons land and you will see that one foot touches the ground and stabilizes the bird before the other foot touches down. For individual birds it is always the same foot. As in humans, the right foot is typically dominant. A small proportion of the birds are left-footed — about the same percentage as humans who are left-handed. An even smaller number of birds change feet or land on both feet at the same time.
Pigeons are the only birds that drink by submersing the entire bill into a pond or container of water and sucking water up like a horse. Other birds dip their bills and then tilt their heads up, allowing water to trickle down their throats.
Unlike other baby birds, baby pigeons don't open their beaks wide, gaping for food that adults drop in. For the first two weeks of their lives, baby pigeons get crop milk from their parents — a thick soupy mixture produced in the crops of both male and female pigeons. To drink it, the young squabs stick their heads into the adult's throat and suck the mixture up.
Pigeons are very aggressive when mining communal food sources or competing for mates, sometime attacking one another. Pigeon parental care does not extend long beyond fledging so that immature birds, unused to the pigeon-eat-pigeon way of things, fare worst among foraging flocks. They are the focus of most pigeon-on-pigeon attacks and the most underfed birds in the flock.
Pigeons have a mythical reputation for peace and gentleness but we have made them warriors. They have been used by armies since the 1800s.
During both world wars the U.S. Army Pigeon Service maintained dovecotes for birds that could fly with secret messages. During World War II more than 3,000 soldiers maintained 54,000 pigeons and 90 percent of the messages sent by pigeon were received. The Maidenform Bra Company even designed a pigeon bra — known in the army as a pigeon vest — that would hold pigeons close to a paratrooper's chest as he jumped from a plane.
In 1943, English animal welfare pioneer Maria Dickin created an award for particular valor during wartime service by an animal. It is a bronze circlet stamped with a laurel wreath and bearing the words, "For Gallantry" and "We Also Serve." Sixty-seven medals have been awarded; 35 went to dogs, horses, and one cat. The rest were draped around the feathered necks of pigeons.
Hero pigeons include Winkie, who carried a message from an RAF air crew forced down in the North Sea. The rescued crew later held a dinner and toasted Winkie as the guest of honor. The pigeon Mary of Exeter was awarded the Dickin Medal for five years' service carrying messages across the English Channel, despite being injured three times and having her loft bombed. The American pigeon G. I. Joe received the medal for flying 20 miles in as many minutes to deliver a message that saved over 100 lives. Isn't it ironic that a symbol of peace and gentleness has been so useful in war?
Rome native Stanley Tate sits on the Berry College Board of Visitors. He retired as executive vice president and chief environmental officer of Southwire and now writes a nature column that appears in several Georgia newspapers. Readers may write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.