Light Elements:Pigeons on Parade

Breeders have created head ruffs, chest frills,and fantails for the lowly, abused bird.

By Mark Wheeler|Sunday, March 01, 1998
This is a story about pigeons. Strange pigeons. Peculiar pigeons. Oddball, atypical pigeons; pigeons that look like chickens; pigeons that resemble little peacocks. First, though, it’s a story about one particularly plucky pigeon (try saying that three times fast), a true story that will, perhaps, establish the plight of pigeons. It takes place in my southern California suburban neighborhood. One day, as I was working feverishly in my home office, my intense concentration was penetrated by the persistent and raucous cawing of one of the neighborhood crows, and the equally raucous cry of a local mockingbird. Reluctantly, I tore myself away from my work, uncrossing my legs and putting down my frosted glass, and stepped outside to see what was what.

Perched on the very top of my neighbor’s tall pine tree was a large red-tailed hawk. It sat, stoic and dignified, disdaining to even flinch as an equally large crow dive-bombed it at great speed, over and over. Each time, the crow would close to within a foot before veering away, only to slam on the brakes by turning its wings vertically, then whirling and dive-bombing again. And each time, a mockingbird followed the crow, annoying it like a buzzing mosquito around one’s head, or an independent investigator around a president.

Enter our hero. A pigeon, possibly cracking under the stress of the racket going on over its head, burst out of another tree below the pine, apparently intent on making a break for a little peace and quiet.

Now, regardless of what you think of pigeons—and we’ll get to that in a moment—when it comes to in-flight speed, pigeons can boogie. Your basic street pigeon (this one) averages 40 to 50 miles per hour; racing pigeons, bred and trained by humans for speed and endurance, routinely clock speeds of 90 mph and more. That’s faster than my Toyota, but statistics apparently didn’t faze the hawk, who, unimpressed, self-employed, and totally focused, exploded off the pine and in a graceful swoop grabbed the pigeon midair in its talons before disappearing over my roof.

Mouth agape over this perfect example of Tennyson’s Nature, red in tooth and claw, I raced around to the front of the house, as fast as my bedroom slippers could take me, where the drama continued to unfold. There sat the hawk, in my neighbor’s driveway, the unmoving body (early rigor mortis?) of the pigeon still clasped in its talons. The crow continued to dive-bomb the hawk; ditto the mockingbird, who continued to harass the crow. Finally the hawk had enough. As it relaunched itself into the air, though, it must have become momentarily distracted; the pigeon, which I had assumed was a goner, broke free, flying swiftly into the dense cover of a nearby tree. The hawk started to pursue but then lazily flew away, all the while pursued by cawing crow and screeching mockingbird.

I tell you this story because it nicely describes the pigeon’s place in the pecking order. Raptor? Fearless, unfazed hunter. Crow? Brave defender of territory. Mockingbird? Feisty, if cranky.

Pigeon? Brunch.

Pigeons are the Rodney Dangerfields of birds, says Anne Ellis. Like him, they get no respect. To which all New Yorkers would respond, This is a problem? (Hey, it’s no accident that the flying target used in trapshooting is called a clay pigeon; I’ll leave it to your imagination to guess what they used before clay.)

Ellis, a pigeon aficionado, raises the birds in a loft in the backyard of her Illinois home. Though not a scientist by training, she has spent years studying the genetics of pigeon breeding. She is even credited with developing a new breed of pigeon, which is possibly easier to manage than developing a new breed of moose.

More than this, though, Ellis has taken it upon herself to defend these sullied birds, whose every evocation implies negativity—a dupe is a pigeon, a squealer is a stool pigeon, an easy mark is a pigeon. Even Pepe Le Pew abuses the word (Come to me, my leetle pigeon. . . .). Enough already, says Ellis. She’s tired of the cheap shots, the bile and venom heaped on the poor pigeon by a multitude of people who are simply uninformed, who tend to glom mindlessly onto a stereotype until force-fed facts.

That would be people like me. So I accepted Ellis’s gracious invitation to attend the National Pigeon Association’s Grand National Pigeon Show and Convention in San Bernardino, California, last January. As she put it, I think it is time Americans learn that we, the Pigeon Fanciers of the World, exist.

Right on. First though, in deference to full disclosure, I admit I’ve never hated pigeons. They just don’t make much of a blip on my personal radar screen. The ones in my neighborhood—when they aren’t beating it for their lives, that is—basically dare to be dull, hanging around, pecking. Ironically, one reason pigeons may be so reviled by so many might have to do with their popularity. After all, pigeons and humans have a long, intertwined past. Columba livia, a member of the family Columbidae, which comprises pigeons and doves, is the common street pigeon most familiar to us. The majority are blue gray in color, with maybe a little greenish iridescence on the chest, along with a white rump and two black bars on each wing, a pattern pigeon fanciers call blue bar. Columba was probably the first bird domesticated by humans; there are figurines and coins depicting the domestic pigeon dating back to 4500 b.c. in Mesopotamia. People have had a long fascination with homing and racing pigeons; many shekels have passed back and forth through betting. And of course, pigeons are considered a food source; lots of people eat pigeons, even Anne Ellis. Well, once, she sheepishly admitted.

The main reason people hate the poor pigeon, though, probably has to do with its ubiquitousness. Pigeons live everywhere, except the Arctic, and they live in flocks. Because pigeons are fruitful and multiply (hens lay two eggs at a time and can do so as often as four or five times a year), that can mean big flocks. Big, hungry flocks that surround park benches and sidewalk tables and demand sustenance. Big flocks also mean, notes Charles Walcott, who studies the navigational abilities of pigeons at Cornell, big guano, and people have been bred to think feces are bad. Or at least ugly to look at when dropped on sidewalk tables, dappled at the base of streetlamps, and festooned down the walls of buildings.

Pigeons aren’t picky about what they eat either (seeds, fruit, french fries). With just 37 taste buds (humans have 9,000), they probably take a Why not? attitude toward tasting (and later redepositing) just about anything we quiche eaters may drop on the street. All of which is why most city dwellers appreciate Woody Allen’s comment that pigeons are rats with wings.

Ellis’s frustration about people’s attitudes toward pigeons stems from the fact that pigeons have some very nice character traits. After she and I rendezvous in Los Angeles, we head for San Bernardino, about an hour’s drive east. On the way, Ellis shares with me some of the more noble deeds of pigeons.

Pigeons share parenting chores, with the male sitting on the eggs during the day so the female can go off and feed. It’s a very liberated relationship, notes Ellis. And feral pigeons usually mate—once—for life. So liberated are they, says Ellis, that males and females produce milk. Both the male and the female have a hormone called prolactin, the same hormone that stimulates milk in women. Unique to pigeons and doves, both sexes produce a form of milk similar to mammalian milk by sloughing off the lining of their crop, or chest (yummy). For the first week of their lives, the babies, or nestlings, get the milk by poking their beaks up into Mama’s and Papa’s throats. After that, it’s on to seeds and potato chips.

More pigeon factoids: Like rats, they are a common and valuable lab animal used by researchers. Carrier pigeons have long been used to send messages back and forth over great distances, using the pigeons’ unique homing ability to find their way. More than 54,000 homing pigeons were drafted into service in World War II. During World War I a pigeon named Cher Ami, despite having a leg blown off and catching a bullet, saved a trapped U.S. battalion that was being hit by friendly fire. Despite its wounds, the bird made it back to the attacking forces, saving the day. It lived on and can be found to this day, stuffed, in the Smithsonian Institution.

Walcott says pigeons employ several different navigational cues to find their way from hither to yon, depending on environmental conditions like weather or topography. It’s not that much different from people, he says. City people will use streets or buildings as landmarks. Country folks may use a mountain or tree. All carrier pigeons use the sun as a navigational instrument to orient themselves but, notes Walcott, that only tells them where north and south are, not which direction home is. Walcott confirmed that pigeons also have the ability to read Earth’s magnetic field forces. Certain cells in a pigeon’s eye, says Walcott, may somehow acknowledge differences in the angles of magnetic fields; magnetized crystals connected to cells in the bird’s head may note field strength. Walcott has studied navigational cues with birds in Ithaca, New York, where Cornell is located, using a site called Jersey Hill that thoroughly confuses Ithaca birds (for reasons we don’t understand). The joke among Cornell ornithologists is that Jersey Hill is the Ithaca pigeons’ Bermuda Triangle.

Research conducted in Italy further suggests that pigeons can somehow construct a kind of olfactory map to find their way home, perhaps if they are brought up as babies in a place that offers useful olfactory cues. Interestingly, when Walcott swapped a few Ithaca birds with the Italians, the Cornell birds developed their own olfactory maps. It could be that pigeons supplant one ability with another kind of cue, Walcott says. Maybe the birds preferred the smell of linguine and clam sauce to that of cheese fries.

Finally, the finches of the Galápagos Islands have become famous for their contribution to the development of Charles Darwin’s thinking on evolution, but it was the common pigeon that played an earlier, key role. Darwin was a breeder of pigeons, and several pages of his Origin of Species are devoted to their history.

Ellis and I arrive at the convention center, a large and surprisingly seedy complex of several buildings surrounded by a tall chain-link fence, reminding me not of a convention center but a surplus military base. The convention of pigeons is taking place in two warehouse-size buildings standing opposite each other.

The halls themselves are huge, each as wide as a football field but not as long. Stretching from left to right across the floors are rows and rows of two-foot-square cages, stacked two high, with one bird in each. My first thought is, who takes care of all the guano? (Members of the local fanciers’ club, it turns out. These are pigeon fanciers, indeed.) My second thought is, where is everybody? While there was a knot of guys standing just outside the hall when we arrived, inside there are only a few. Instead there are birds. Lots and lots of birds.

We begin our tour by viewing several rows’ worth of a plump, medium-size pigeon known as a Modena. It’s a very curvy little critter that reminds me of a small fryer, though cuter.

There’s a trend going on now to try to make Modenas bigger, says Ellis, as we stand in front of a fairly large bird. The Modena, she nods at the cage, is a round, burly, macho kind of bird. There’s also a bird with a similar shape, called a king. Well, they say American men like bigger chests, she laughs, so they crossed the two to make the Modenas bigger.

Next up is the frillback, a silly-looking pigeon whose wing and back feathers are tightly curled. Think of a woman who’s just had a perm. A couple of aisles later, we view a group of breeds called pouters. Their air-inflated crop, or chest, swells up when they’re excited (just like Arnold’s and Dolly’s), to the degree that it rises higher than the pigeon’s head, which the bird thrusts back. They also carry a group of feathers splayed out on their feet, so they look as though they’re marching when they walk.

I realized I hadn’t yet asked Ellis how one tells a so-called fancy pigeon from a wild pigeon.

Anything that doesn’t look like a wild pigeon is a mutation, says Ellis, as she points to a cock and a hen who are making goo-goo eyes at each other between the wired walls of their cages. So all the breeds you’re seeing were made by people. In early pigeon history, breeding was done unscientifically. Some guy has pigeons, says Ellis, you have pigeons, and—Look, see the male bowing? That’s called display, she says, interrupting herself—you walk into his loft and see a bird with this awesome color and say, ‘Wow, I’d like to have that.’ And maybe he’s nice and gives you a couple of fledglings. Then you move away—Look, she’s lying down; she’s interested—or maybe you start breeding and selling them, and the next thing you know there’s a new breed running around.

Or someone may have a bird that stands funny, or has a peak on top of its head, so all the other breeders want it because no one else has it. Then this fierce competition will begin to take place to make that unusual trait the most unusual of all—Okay, now they’re going to kiss. (Actually it’s called billing: the female places her beak inside the male’s. In a wireless world, it’s the last bit of foreplay before the actual mating.) So they breed it to make more birds just by using their instincts.

In other words, for thousands of years, pigeon fanciers have built various breeds, selecting and mating them for speed, vivid color, or macho shape, as each breeder’s creative impulses took flight.

So breeding pigeons, says Ellis, is an opportunity to play God and create new forms of life—Did you see him kick his wing feather? That’s a display. The result of all this playing at Let’s make a new bird over the millennia has resulted in more than 400 currently existing breeds of pigeons.

Of course, the idea behind true natural selection is that over great periods of time, some genetic mutation will appear by chance. Most mutations are bad, but every now and then a mutation may give an animal a slight selective advantage. The problem with the induced mutation of breeding, though, is that some folks simply have no taste, as I soon find out.

We come upon Ellis’s own breed, at which point I am spared what would have been a very awkward admission (No, really, I like feathers growing out of eyeballs). Her birds are a small, attractive, pure white breed she’s named seraphim. It started out as a project to develop an all-red bird, but after Ellis mated a blue old-fashioned oriental frill—named for a high tuft of feathers that rises from the bird’s chest—with a brown one, she got fledglings that routinely started out red, then molted to a pure white.

The sheer number and variety of birds on display is overwhelming. We move on, the various breeds beginning to blur. We see the jacobins—long legs and a ruffle of feathers so thick up top it’s hard to see their heads. We look at the fantails, named for the large fan of feathers that sprouts up from their rears like a peacock’s. Birds called helmets look as if they’re wearing a skullcap of white on the top of their heads. There were birds with long, skinny necks and long beaks, mid-size necks and medium-size beaks, and, grossly, ones with no beaks whatsoever.

Worst of all was the breed of birds known as barbs. They were grotesque looking, with almost no beak at all and what’s called a wattle around both eyes and what little beak they do have. A wattle is hard to describe—a sort of rough growth of skin that looks like a scab. In some of the older birds, the wattle around their eyes was so thick I doubted they could even see.

In the second hall we looked at a number of other birds, including the large kings and some unimpressive brown birds—unimpressive, that is, until you see them fly. Rollers are the pigeon equivalents of stunt fliers; these top guns fly in a circle hundreds of feet high in the air, then plunge, turning somersaults as they drop.

Of course, man had to try to one-up nature. Thus the existence of the bizarre parlor roller, who doesn’t fly at all. Here’s what it does do, though—if you gently nudge it on a lawn, it scrunches up into a croquet-size ball and does successive somersaults for a hundred feet and more. Parlor rollers are the bowling balls of the bird world.

At the end of a very long day I tried to sort out what I had learned. One thing I learned is that researchers still don’t know much about the common street pigeon. Why? Don’t know—although Andre Dhondt, a director of Project PigeonWatch, a research effort run by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, has written: Surprisingly, scientists have not really studied urban pigeons; maybe they think pigeons are not real birds. For example, if you look closely, the average, seemingly blue-gray pigeon flock that looks uniform to me actually comprises birds of different colors. Sometimes the colors are subtle; sometimes they’re distinct. No one really knows why.

It doesn’t make sense, says Margaret Barker, who is the education coordinator of Project PigeonWatch. Pigeons stay in flocks for protection, she notes; some even suggest that a hawk won’t attack a tightly bunched flock, in fear of getting smacked by their powerful wings. But a white bird in a gray flock, for example, would stand out like a sore thumb, says Barker, and be the target of first choice for the hawk.

So Project PigeonWatch invites school-age children to do field research for the lab by counting the birds in pigeon flocks in their own neighborhoods and noting their colors. Eventually, the lab hopes to get enough data to suggest coloring trends. One hypothesis is that living in cities, where pigeons are relatively safe from starvation and predators (if you ignore cursing pedestrians), has allowed the oddball colored birds to survive. (This may change, though, as the reintroduced peregrine falcon becomes increasingly established in cities.)

So in the future I will try to be more aware of my local pigeons. I’ll look at their coloration, maybe watch them peck. What I’d really like, though, is to go bowl a roller.
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