What’s so awesome about pigeons?
What makes our city pigeons really cool is that they are feral domesticated animals. They’re basically like a stray cat or like a feral dog: mutts mixed from a whole bunch of different, really amazing breeds. To understand where they came from, you have to understand purebred pigeons.
Pigeons were domesticated over 5,000 years ago. We have some rough information, but it’s really hard to untangle that early stuff because we’re bumping up against the dawn of recorded writing. We know it happened in the Fertile Crescent, and that it coincided with people farming grain—because if there’s one thing that pigeons adore, it’s grain.
Domestication is a complicated process. It probably didn’t happen in one place or at one time—it probably happened a few different times. People started farming, the pigeons started to hang around the people, and people realized these pigeons could be useful. They built structures that encouraged the pigeons to nest, threw down some grain, and then it slowly took off from there.
Where’s the best place to camp out and see pigeons?
They just love anywhere urban. Anywhere there are people in large numbers and the food that people consume, they will be there. They’ll also be in agricultural areas or little towns, but you’ll definitely see most of them in the city, because you’ll see the most people and the most people dropping food. They’re really just all over the place, and they’re there all year round, so you don’t have to travel to go see them.
The only place that is really not great for pigeon-watching is anywhere that’s really, really wooded. They really don’t do well when they’re far away from people now because we’ve molded them for so many years. This is what they’re suited for. You won’t see them in a redwood tree.
Pigeons often forage near trash cans. What are they looking for?
They’re not super discerning, but they have their preferences; they won’t just eat whatever is in the trash. They really prefer legumes—lentils, peas, that kind of stuff. A lot of the food that people trash is bits of bread or crackers. That’s what they like. The other day I walked past a flock of pigeons and someone had dropped a bunch of lentils. And I was like, “Wow, someone really knows their pigeon ecology.”
How has pigeon-watching affected the way you experience the rest of the world, whether natural landscapes or the built environment?
Because pigeons are so prominent in the city, if you watch them, you will tap into so much more that’s happening in the urban bird world. In my area, they’re the main prey of birds like the peregrine falcon, and red-tailed hawks and Cooper’s hawks also eat them. Noticing them helps you tap into the whole world of urban bird-watching.
Also, it is really interesting to look at the city and realize how similar it is to a stony cliff–like environment. People often ask, “Where are the baby pigeons? How come you never see baby pigeons?” It’s true you rarely see baby pigeons, or by the time you do, they’re grown-up enough that they look pretty similar to adults. One of the reasons is that pigeons don’t build nests in trees; they nest in crevices and cliffs. In the city, they nest in little, hidden pockets. There was a deli that I used to stop by on the way home, and sometimes I would hear the baby pigeons calling from behind the sign because there was a flat, warm area back there. It’s neat to realize that there are all these hidden pockets in our architecture that are acting as these nests. Without the ability to listen for the baby pigeons, you might not realize how many little cracks there are in all of our little facades.
Pigeons are often called “rats with wings” by people who presumably aren’t big fans of either rats or pigeons. What do you think it would take for them to get a PR makeover?
There’s some encouraging news, which is that it didn’t take that long for pigeons to fall from grace in our eyes—only a few decades, maybe. Reversing it is totally possible. This hatred is not a deep-set, long-held belief. I think that a lot of it has to do with us understanding landscapes not as permanent, but as things that have changed over time. Once we realize where pigeons fit into that, we are a little more flexible. Their capacity for carrying disease, while not zero, is also way less than we think. I grew up with people saying, “Don’t go up to those pigeons, they’re going to make you sick.”
What I would say for pigeon PR is, look at their long, long, long relationship with us, look at all of the famous people who kept pigeons or loved pigeons or had pigeons influence their work. Look at the war hero pigeons of World War I and World War II. There’s such deep history there. Another thing that always helps is telling people that pigeons are huge romantics and they generally mate for life. That blows people’s minds, because we love romantic stories.