You May Not Have Noticed, but Pigeons are Masterpieces of Nature

The following excerpt is from The New York Pigeon: Behind the Feathers, by Andrew Garn (Powerhouse Books, 2018). Reprinted with permission.


It might be surprising that a plump multi-hued bird that wanders our sidewalks, perches on our buildings and flutters all about, could have the bloodlines of a dinosaur, be a gourmet food, used in religious sacrifices, a war hero and the focus of Charles Darwin’s experiments on natural selection.

Pigeons didn’t just drop out of the sky and onto our streets; the pigeon might be considered the first domesticated bird. In current day Israel, archeologists have discovered skeletal pigeon remains near human settlements 300,000 years old and underground coops for 120,000 birds. There is probably no bird with a more significant historical narrative.

The ancient Egyptians were one of the first to realize the potential of pigeons. They built multi-storied pigeon houses, providing a secure shelter to ensure that the flocks returned home each night after a day of scavenging in the fields. The pigeon houses (dovecotes) became primitive fertilizer factories; supplying droppings rich in nutrients that were in turn used throughout the Nile River valley to nourish crops.

Additionally, young birds (squabs) provided delectable meat, ready to eat within 28 days of hatching. Over time pigeons were bred to produce offspring throughout the year; each couple could have 6-9 clutches per year, whereas most other species of birds produce only one set of chicks a year. This explains why you can see male pigeons performing a feather puffing, spinning mating rituals on a bitterly cold January days.

Because of their keen intelligence, loyalty and excellent homing abilities (employing a combination of visual and magnetic cues), pigeons were recruited as messengers early on. In 2,500 BC, Sumerian (current day Iraq) rulers used pigeons to carry news, Genghis Khan and his sons established a pigeon post covering almost one sixth of the world. In 44 BC, Brutus used pigeons to deliver secret messengers to his allies during battle. In the 20th century, almost one million pigeons served in the great world wars, saving the lives of thousands of soldiers.

Returning from his voyage on the Beagle, Darwin began to study pigeons, soon discovered that they were the ideal subject to illustrate that species are mutable. Pigeons could change and adapt to their environment from one generation to another. His observations challenged creationism, and would ultimately become source material for one of the most important books in the history of science.

The first readers to critique Origin of the Species suggested that it should focus solely on his pigeon observations. Darwin’s close friend and prominent geologist Charles Lyall stated, “everyone is interested in pigeons—this would be viewed in every journal in the kingdom and seen on every table…”

The same pigeons in our neighborhood parks have a long and noble history and unrivaled intellectual capabilities. BF Skinner (1904-90), the Harvard psychologist and behaviorist and his researchers studied pigeons’ learning abilities and taught them to track colors, play games and even guide missiles, their only reward being tiny pellets of food.

Pigeon racing is still enjoyed today, from the rooftops of Bushwick to the castle of the Queen of England. In China, a coop of racing pigeons can be worth over one million dollars, with a single bird recently selling for $330,000.

Since man started to house pigeons for various functions, these domesticated birds have mixed with ferals and created a complex family tree. Because of this added stratum of diversity, (as well as observing pigeons on his window ledge) Richard Johnston, the ornithologist at the University of Kansas observed in his landmark 1995 study “Feral Pigeons,” characterized these wild pigeons as “superdoves” and “masterpieces of nature."

Scroll down to see photographs from The New York Pigeon: Behind the Feathers (all photos © Andrew Garn):

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Pigeon kiss.

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Two hour-old siblings huddle in the nest.

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Nic. A probable racing or homing pigeon, Nic was found standing on a street corner, lost and disoriented. He was brought to the Wild Bird Fund in a closed box, and given a check up and clean bill of health. He was soon adopted by a Brooklyn coop owner. The next morning, he was found standing on the sidewalk in front of the Wild Bird Fund, somehow knowing to return, even though he never saw the exterior. Apparently this was his recognition of the fine, spa-like treatment he had received.

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Joel. Found with missing primary and retrice feathers on his wings, Joel was released once his feathers grew back.

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Pudding. Frozen in mid-air, looking directly at the camera, during a downstroke of his wings.

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Gansevoort. Found covered in dirt at a construction site on Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District, he was cleaned and given indoor flight time before being released.

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Orphaned juvenile. At this ungainly life stage, permanent feathers have pierced the skin, sprouting on the wings, back, and neck.—meanwhile the head retains its downy baby feathers. Within weeks the feathers unfurled, and he blossomed into the familiar, glorious, full-grown pigeon we all know.

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Apres bath, A red bar pigeon shakes off excess water after enjoying a sprinkler on a 100-degree summer day.

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