Years ago, when I worked as a reporter in Baltimore, I could gaze out my corner office window at the upper floors of an empty, condemned building that city officials—in keeping with the usual leisurely Baltimorean approach to doing things– had never quite gotten around to actually tearing down. The ruined structure had become a sort of Trump Tower for a sizeable population of feral rock pigeons. Gaining entrance through various broken windows, flocks of the scavenging birds roosted inside what might have once been the secretarial pool for some long-ago failed company. There, they steadily amassed their characteristic mounds of excrement, feathers and unhatched eggs—rock pigeons reuse their nests, and unlike other species, don’t clean up after their nestlings, which is one of the many reasons who Columba livia are loathed as a pestilence—“rats with wings–by many. I had no such ill-feelings toward my feathered neighbors. The pulsating coo-cuk-cuk-cuk-cooo sound of their seemingly continuous collective cooing provided a oddly comforting soundtrack to my work days, and when writing about bankers and politicians grew too stultifying, the birds’ antics provided a pleasant distraction.
That might have been the start of my fascination with the rock pigeon, which is living proof that sometimes the most humble and even unloved of creatures can be full of surprising secrets. Considering how ubiquitous rock pigeons are in our cities, it was a bit of a shock to learn that they are a non-native invasive species, imported by early French colonists as a meat animal, and then unleashed as a sort of avian kudzu. Their hardiness and adaptability enabled them to survive and flourish, largely upon our detritus, and to resist periodic attempts by public health officials concerned about their disease-spreading potential and civic improvement groups to get rid of them. (In Venice, for example, officials have banned the feeding of pigeons in St. Mark’s Square, out of fear that pigeon droppings are damaging the historic architecture.)
But even those who consider pigeons a nuisance must acknowledge their amazing anatomical attributes. As Andrew D. Blechman details in his book “Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird,”
While it may look awkward strutting around on a sidewalk looking for stray crumbs, once airborne a rock pigeon becomes a iridescent-colored, miniature equivalent of an Olympic sprinter—that is, if human athletes were capable of maintaining top speed over marathon distances. According to Blechman, one rock pigeon was clocked at 110 miles per hour, a pace that it maintained for several hours straight. It’s no wonder that domesticated rock pigeons have long been prized as racing birds. (Baltimore, for example, is home to several pigeon racing clubs.
Domesticated rock pigeons—also known as homing pigeons–are famed for their sense of direction, and ability to return home, even when released hundreds of miles away. Precisely how they manage to do this remains a bit of a mystery. Research indicates that they use the position of the sun and the earth’s magnetic field as a compass, combined with sight and smell, to plot their route. According to this 2009 New York Times article, Alexei L. Vyssotski of the University of Zurich and colleagues have implanted tiny probes in pigeons to study their brains in flight. They’ve discovered when the birds pass over visual landmarks, they show an increase in high and mid-range frequency brain waves, which suggests that they have the ability to process what they see from above and retrieve that information later. They also apparently can recall the locations of colonies of wild pigeons along the way.
For even more facts about the rock pigeon and the hundreds of other equally fascinating pigeon species, tune in to Pigeon Genius, which airs May 5 at 10 p.m. et/pt.