Bird of the Week: Rock Dove

Species: Rock Dove (aka Rock Pigeon or Common Pigeon or Feral Pigeon), or Columba livia

Family: Columbidae (Pigeons and Doves)

Star sign: Virgo

Rating: 11/10

Ideal Date: Watching Nikola Tesla shoot lightning through a giant metal coil in a very romantic way

Photo Courtesy of EBird

Rock Doves — more commonly known as Pigeons — are a ubiquitous presence in cities all across the globe. It’s almost certain that you’ve seen one of these small, round, and gray fellows shuffling down the sidewalk, cooing, shitting, and sometimes riding the subway when they’re too lazy to fly. To the modern city goer, these fluffy friends may seem like nothing more than pests, but don’t underestimate them: they have a rich history as companions to humans which stretches back to the very beginning of history itself! 

The Domestic Pigeon descends from the wild Rock Dove, and evidence suggests that this cooing companion has been domesticated for at least 10,000 years. The earliest written records of domestic pigeons are found in 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphics. These friends are found all across ancient art, writing, and myth. They can be found in Pompeii mosaics, and are featured as characters in many of Aesop’s fables and, naturally, in Aristophanes’ The Birds. In Plato’s Theaetetus, Socrates uses pigeons as a metaphor to explain the difference between possessing and accessing knowledge; he compares placing a pigeon in an aviary to acquiring knowledge and physically retrieving that same pigeon from the aviary to accessing the knowledge. Two great ancient Sanskrit epic poems, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, contain a short tale about a pigeon: a fowler captures the pigeon’s wife, but since the fowler is hungry and a guest to the pigeon’s home, the pigeon offers up his own flesh to the fowler as food in an act of hospitality and Dharma. 

The Sumerian goddess of love and war, Innana, later known to the Babylonians and Assyrians as Ishtar, was often depicted holding a pigeon or in the form of one. Pigeons were also associated with other goddesses of love such as the Phoenician Astarte, the Greek Aphrodite, and the Roman Venus. According to Oneirocritica, a Greek dream interpretation guide, “Ring doves and pigeons signify women— ring-doves women who are total whores, but pigeons sometimes signify mistresses of families and women who are orderly … And pigeons also signify taking pleasure in one’s activities due to their being sacred to Aphrodite and, with respect to friendships and partnerships and all interactions, they are good due to their gregariousness.” 

Beyond antiquity, pigeons are the divine messengers of the Shinto deity Hachiman, who is associated with war. And in Islam, when the prophet Muhammad had to hide from his enemies in a cave with Abu Bakr, he was protected by two pigeons who built a nest at the mouth of the cave and laid eggs; because the eggs were undisturbed when his enemies came upon the cave, they surmised that Muhammad could not have been in the cave or else he would have broken the eggs upon entering, and did not discover him. 

But why do people keep pigeons? These friends serve a variety of purposes to the people who love them. They’re hunted, eaten as food, and historically were used in medicine. In the past they were also used as animal sacrifices; Ancient Egypt, for instance, would sacrifice tens of thousands of pigeons at a time in religious rituals. 

But perhaps their most specialized skill is their ability to deliver messages; this is where their powers are truly vast. But what makes pigeons such effective messengers? They are uniquely skilled at homing and can find their way back to their homes even if released from a distant location and blindfolded. They navigate by the position of the sun and stars, by sound and infrasound, by smell, and even by the magnetic field of the earth; and once they know an area, they can recognize landmarks and navigate by their positions. 

In Egypt, pigeons announced changes in Nile flood levels and new pharaohs, and In 2000 BCE they carried messages to warring groups in Mesopotamia. It is thought that Cyrus the Great established the first Pigeon messenger network in Assyria and Persia circa 5th century BCE, and around that time they also began to be used by Chinese emperors. And as early as 776 BCE, the Greeks sent Pigeons to spread the results of the Olympics. Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Ghenghis Khan, King Solomon, and Mughal emperor Akbar The Great all delivered important military messages by way of the humble pigeon. Pigeons served the role of messenger even until recent times, notably during the World Wars. In World War I, as many as 100,000 carrier pigeons carried millions of messages through dangerous conditions with an estimated 95% success rate, and twenty thousand lost their lives in the line of duty.  Particularly heroic pigeons have received military honors such as the Croix de Guerre and the Dickin Medal. 

Pigeons, given their close relationship with people, are some of the most closely studied of all birds. According to Cornell’s Birds of the World, research of these cooing creatures has provided scientists with “Knowledge of avian flight mechanics, thermoregulation, water metabolism, endocrinology … sensory perception, orientation and navigation, learning … genetics of color, pattern, behavior and other characteristics.” Charles Darwin closely studied domestic pigeons while formulating his theory of evolution. Nikola Tesla famously fell in love with a pigeon, claiming, “I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me.”

Here in the United States, Pigeons are an invasive species. Every single American Pigeon is descended from Domestic Pigeons that were brought over by European colonists in the early 17th century and quickly escaped captivity, becoming just as common an urban sight here as they are in Eurasia. For what it’s worth, America is far from the first place to face a Pigeon invasion; pigeons have been domesticated for so long that telling what their original range was is virtually impossible. Feral Pigeons and Wild Pigeons have interbred for thousands of years, to the extent that it is unlikely that “true” wild pigeons exist any longer. 

You already know what a Pigeon looks like, so I won’t waste too much time describing them. They’re rotund, Robin-sized birds with blue-gray bodies, black wing bars, and subtle, iridescent green breasts. They like to hang out in urban settings and are particularly fond of the roofs of the Grove dorms. Next time you see one of these cool cooing companions, remember their long storied history, and be sure to pay your respects to one of man’s best friends.

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jim jenner
jim jenner
1 year ago

This is a wonderfully researched short background on pigeons. Well done!

Jim Jenner

1 year ago

I find their cooing to be soporific, when not too loud. Apparently others do as well.


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