Communing With Pigeons



When I moved to Auckland I rented a room off a guy who had an apartment in a newish high rise. At first it was pretty good way up there on the 12th floor and the first indication that something might be amiss came about the morning I was feeding the pigeons out on the balcony.

Up this point most of my life had been spent in the country surrounded by birds, cats, cows………. you know the usual, and I had always enjoyed feeding treats to whoever was about. Perched up high in this man-made concrete mountain and far away from the familiar I was feeling a bit disconnected and was pleased to discover the pigeons who were only to happy to eat anything I put out for them.

On this morning the guy blundered in after a night out and when he saw what I was doing came straight at me shooing the birds away with all manner of cursing and violent motions. “They are fucking vermin and are nothing more than bloody diseases carriers,” he yelled at me holding nothing back, “and I don’t want you encouraging them and their fucking germs.” “Okay then” I thought to myself opening up my computer to verify that with Google. “Nope” I said to him, “It’s a myth. They are actually pretty clean.” “What the fuck do you know about anything, ” he shot back warming himself up for a day of stomping about and muttering angrily, a fairly standard pattern of behaviour as it turned out.

By the time I left a few weeks later I had figured out he was a psychopath and fortunately for me a pretty stupid one, but he hadn’t stopped me from feeding the pigeons and the few brave sparrows that darted in and out grabbing at bits of food as they could. I realised they were wary of the pigeons and figured that these somewhat comical looking critters might actually have a violent streak about them. Otherwise it great fun, a few scattered crumbs and there they were, a milling mass of disconcerting proportions that never ceased to amaze me.

My next venue was a doss house and one of my neighbours, a man verging on very old, was an avid pigeon feeder. Every morning he would greet the day with a loaf of bread and on first sight of him pigeons would arrive from all corners. I would stand nearby taking it all in, enjoying his commentary on individual birds he recognised by markings, deformities and personality traits. Sadly it all came to an end when an official from the city council hauled him and up and told him to stop encouraging them least he incur a fine. There was some stuff about them being unhygienic and that the feeding was only helping them to breed.

I Googled that last bit remembering some research I had read about a few years earlier that found the best way to stabilise urban bird populations was to feed them. Apparently stressed populations tended to breed while well-feed populations tend toward lounging about in the sun and enjoying the scenery rather popping out offspring. This turned out to be correct and I explained this to the old fellow but he had been put off and stopped what he was doing. It didn’t stop me.

I carry bag of barley with me at all times with something a little smaller like sesame seeds mixed in. These are for the sparrows who find the barley grains just a bit big to handle. Every time I came across a lone pigeons wandering about looking for scraps I toss it a handful of grain knowing a sparrow won’t be far off. I like to think that am making their day a little easier while making mine a little more meaningful.

Most people are indifferent to pigeons. I try to feed them out of the way of the passing crowds but people, owning the world as they do, will blunder on through unnecessarily scattering them in all directions while others will simply go out of their way to kick at them or shoo them off possibly possessed of the same ignorance of my former flatmate. This last bit upsets me greatly and I want to say, “Get off the bloody grass, educate yourself a little, take some care and cultivate some thoughtfulness” but I don’t. I am not sure why.

The negative comment I hear most is: “They have horrible scary beady eyes.” My usual response is to explain that those beady eyes are actually stereoscopic. They can see up, down, front and behind all at the same time (all the better to spot predators with) and in a range of colours that put our own vision to shame. Beady they might be, paltry they are not!

I like the fine, pretty features of the female pigeons and I like the grandiose displays of strutting males on the make. I like the iridescent sheen present in the feathers and am especially interested in those with a missing foot or leg, a reasonably common sight, and wonder how this came to be while admiring the tenacity and adaptability of affected individuals.

For me this urban dwelling bird is a connection to something it is easy to loose sight of in the heart of a big city where life runs at a tempo indifferent to the general rhythms of nature. Pigeons remind me to  cultivate important emotions like consideration and compassion and besides, I enjoy the sheer pleasure of communing just for the sake of it. Unlike people, pigeons make for easy and uncomplicated friendships.



Pigeons are intelligent and are one of only a small number of species to pass the ‘mirror test’ – a test of self-recognition. They can also learn to recognise letters and numbers.

Pigeons also remember human faces. In a Parisian study two researchers offered food to the birds or chased them away, respectively. When this was repeated over several visits, the pigeons began to avoid the chaser while being drawn towards the feeder, even if they were wearing different clothes.

Pigeons are capable of discriminating between nearly identical shades of colour. Humans, for example, have a triple system of colour perception whereas pigeons photo sensors and light filters can differentiate as many as five spectral bands — making the world for them appear to be a virtual kaleidoscope of colours.

Pigeons are renowned for their navigational abilities. They use the sun as a guide and have a ‘magnetic compass’ built into their brains. A study at Oxford University found that they will also use landmarks as signposts and will travel along man-made roads and motorways, even changing direction at junctions.

Pigeons are highly sociable animals.

Pigeons mate for life, and tend to raise two chicks at the same time. Both female and male pigeons share responsibility of caring for and raising young. Both sexes take turn incubating the eggs and both feed the chicks ‘pigeon milk’ – a special secretion from the lining of the crop which both sexes produce.

Pigeons have excellent hearing abilities. They can detect sounds at far lower frequencies than humans can.

Domesticated pigeons, also known as rock doves, were first depicted in pictographic writing on clay tablets in the Mesopotamian period dating well over 5,000 years old. Some scholars even believe that the birds were kept by Neolithic man as far back as 10,000 years ago.

Although pigeon droppings are seen by some as a problem in modern society, a few centuries ago pigeon guano was viewed as the best available fertilliser and armed guards would even stand by dovecotes (pigeon houses) to stop others taking the droppings.

Pigeons can fly at altitudes up to and beyond 6000 feet, and at an average speed of 77.6 mph. The fastest recorded speed is 92.5 mph.

Many birds are known to perform impressive aerial acrobatics in pursuit of prey or to avoid being eaten themselves, but few of those moves are more impressive than pigeons doing backflips. No one knows for certain why some types of pigeons roll backward somersaults in flight, though some suspect that it’s done simply for fun.



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