A Journey Through Fair Skies… A Different Perspective on Pigeons

Flying

I’m an odd individual, that’s for sure. And I am not afraid to admit it, either. I’d say that my single best quality stems from my peculiarity, in that I tend to care for things most other people would not give a second thought about. In fact, this quality of mine has been deeply rooted into my soul from an early age, including everything from the under stuffed, squished, pathetic-looking Snuggle Bear toy plush, to the parakeet with an obviously injured wing in the pet store display. Both are real examples, and yes, both came home with me to stay. As it turns out, that “defective” parakeet was the most delightfully entertaining budgie I had encountered in a long time, and that Snuggle Bear became my best childhood companion for many years thereafter despite its aberrant appearance. I now realize those were just a few attributes that would have been missed if only I had judged them superficially.

Helmet Pigeon
Helmet Pigeon

I suppose that is what eventually led me to pigeons. Yes, pigeons. Those “rats with wings” and “disease bags” that are so hated by today’s society. I also suppose it was this hatred by our society that made me wonder why. All I ever saw was a pudgy gray bird bee-bopping along to an invisible set of headphones; not quite the disgusting creature I had once been led to believe. Throughout the course of my life, I have seen injured pigeons thrown out into dumpsters, while others were poisoned and shot at. Regarded as a nuisance and invasive species, feral pigeons are not liked very much today. They are messy, no doubt about it, as are a lot of birds, especially when they congregate due to their gregarious nature. But as the ordinary city dwellers they may be, it turns out that these pests have diverged from the common rock dove (Columba livia) into hundreds of different breeds and varieties to match. In fact, extreme diversity in the pigeon is what prompted Charles Darwin to use them in his research. Furthermore, they have been associated in the past with love and fertility goddesses, depicted as religious symbols, and were even recruited during both World Wars to carry and deliver crucial and life-saving messages. Interestingly, pigeons have also been used as laboratory animals, serving an important role in medical science and research history.

One of the first pigeons I rescued and cared for, Flightless.
One of the first pigeons I rescued and cared for, Flightless.

During World War II, introduction of military veterinary medicine for the Army Pigeon Service developed as a way to contribute to the success of signal pigeon deployment.1 Healthy pigeons were relied upon for communication; therefore, pigeon health became a priority to the Army. In fact, the Army Veterinary Service’s signal pigeon objectives were: “The protection of pigeon health, the preservation of their physical efficiency, and the safeguard against introducing or disseminating pigeon-borne diseases affecting other animals and the human being.”1 Through the development of this program, professional services and supervisory assistance were provided for the health and care of the pigeons, including preventative health care, diagnostic disease testing, monitoring, and treatments.1 Implementing a health care program for Army pigeons was an integral innovation to ensuring healthy, fit, and properly cared for members of the Army Pigeon Service.

Pigeons have also been used to study human medicine, particularly as models of aging in biomedical research, in comparative psychology, and in understanding neuroanatomy and neuroendocrinology.2 A unique physiological feature of some pigeon breeds, especially the White Carneau, is their ability to develop atherosclerotic lesions that are quite similar to atherosclerosis found in humans. This finding is important in human cardiovascular disease research as the study pigeons provide an understanding of dietary factors leading to atherosclerosis, and have provided valuable information about early metabolic changes in lesion development.3 Additionally, pigeons have been useful in malaria research, contributing to the discovery of how malaria was transmitted by studies conducted by Sir Ronald Ross in 1898.4 Although pigeons seem to be ordinary birds to many people, a quick look into their past reveals a rich and diverse history involving important discoveries and scientific advances helping both human and animal health, well-being, and care. As fate would have it, I, too, have been exposed to their amazing world; one that would have been surely overlooked if I had not rescued my first pigeon.

Good day to take a bath! Note the various sizes of pigeons; the two larger pigeons are King pigeons and the smaller ones are Helmets.
Good day to take a bath! Note the various sizes of pigeons; the two larger pigeons are King pigeons and the smaller ones are Helmets.

Nothing can get more boring than working at your neighbor’s yard sale as an 11-year-old. Nevertheless, over my anguish and daydreaming, I heard someone mention that an injured pigeon was nearby. Without notification, I promptly abandoned that yard sale to track, catch, and eagerly bring home the flightless, slate-gray, feisty-little-devilish bird. Since I knew nothing about pigeons, he readily gobbled down handfuls of dog kibble and lived in a pet carrier. I was only supposed to keep him until his wing healed; ten years later, he could be found out in my loft along with a plethora of other pigeons. I was a 4-H member and soon added pigeons to my group of show animals. It was here, through the National Pigeon Association, I became familiar with the many uses of pigeons, including fancy, sport, and utility, as well as a variety of breeds and colors; everything from the tiny, 4-ounce Valencian Figurita to the 3-pound Giant Runt! Other pigeons, such as the Parlor Roller, perform summersaults on the ground, while tumblers display stunts in the air. And then there are down-right goofy looking ones including the Maltese and Brunner Pouter. As for me, I am content observing and watching my own crew of homers, kings, and helmets. Some are fiercely defensive of their territories and mates, wing-slapping and biting me as ferociously as toothless piranhas, all the while strutting around as though they pay the rent, and leaving me with pitifully bruised arms. Most prefer clean bath water over clean drinking water, and were once frightened of my purple, pretzel-patterned pajama bottoms. Family safety and protection is a high priority on their list, although one of my Show King pairs routinely assaulted and shoved one another off the nest for rights to sit on their newly hatched squab. I’ve even had a single male take over the nest of one of my other pairs to raise that baby just as if it was his own.

One of my own baby pigeons from years ago.
One of my own baby pigeons from years ago.

However ubiquitous adult feral pigeons seem, baby pigeons, or squabs, are usually hidden away until they are ready to fledge at about a month old. They are altricial when hatched at 18 days of incubation, meaning they are blind, covered in downy fuzz, and are completely dependent upon parental care. Some breeds of pigeons, such as the African Owl, need foster parents to raise their young as they have been bred to possess tiny, almost nonexistent beaks. This makes it practically impossible for them to feed their own babies. Pigeon pairs are typically monogamous and hens lay a clutch size of 2 eggs. Nests are poorly constructed and consist of twigs, feathers, and other materials such as dried grasses and hay, which they proudly and excitedly parade around with in their beaks after finding before handing it off to their mates. Both parents take turns sitting on the nest, caring for and feeding the squabs right up until they are ready to fledge. Even then, the fledglings chase their parents around begging for food, sometimes pleading to complete strangers!

Pigeon close-up!
Pigeon close-up!

Pigeons are classified as granivores, in which the bulk of their diet consists of various seeds and grains. But this doesn’t stop them from scarfing down discarded French fries in a McDonald’s parking lot or from inhaling a dozen glazed donuts spilled in front of a grocery shopping center. Pigeons and doves are one of the few birds that are able to drink by suction, while most other birds, such as songbirds, tilt their heads back to allow gravity to assist. Just like humans, some pigeons can be prone to atherosclerosis, so diet certainly impacts the health and longevity of these guys, which can be 20-30 years with great care. Along with deer, horses, and rats, pigeons naturally do not have a gallbladder to store bile. They also have an incredible navigation system still not fully understood by scientists, and can find their way home from hundreds of miles away within just a few short days while reaching speeds of up to 60 mph when racing! It’s no wonder they chose to live among us- we provide them with adequate nesting sites and an endless food supply- stale hamburger buns and all!

Some of my pigeon art.
Some of my pigeon art.

I’ve got to say that pigeons have brought me much humor, joy, and fascination for the past decade and more. I have been there through new arrivals, injuries, and losses. As safe and secure as they are in their loft, they have been harassed and tormented by different birds of prey, snakes, cats, fire ants, and by me. But through it all, I’ve realized that their odd personalities and antics reflect a few of my own; who would have known that an everyday ordinary bird could possess such extraordinary history and character?

King pigeons constructing a nest.
King pigeons constructing a nest.

To learn more about pigeons, visit the National Pigeon Association at www.npausa.com!

Sources

  1. “CHAPTER XVIII Army Signal Pigeons.” U.S. Army Medical Department Office of Medical History. Web. 23 June 2015. <http://history.amedd.army.mil/booksdocs/wwii/vetservicewwii/ chapter18.htm>.
  2. Austad, S. N. “Birds as Models of Aging in Biomedical Research.” ILAR Journal 38.3 (1997): 137- 40. Web.
  3. “Animal Models of Atherosclerosis.” Animal Models for Biomedical Research III. N.p.: National Academy of Sciences, 1970. 36-38. Print.
  4. “Ronald Ross.” Malaria Site. Web. 23 June 2015. <http://www.malariasite.com/ronaldross/&gt;.
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