Stuart Bullen: Pigeons are remarkable birds

Stuart Bullen
Stuart Bullen
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A couple of weeks ago, the famous Smithsonian Institute in the USA opened a special centenary exhibition.

This was not, as you might expect, a commemoration of the start of the First World War. No this was the anniversary of the death of the last surviving passenger pigeon called Martha.

Once, these pigeons were the most abundant bird to be found in North America and probably the world. People used to be astounded, and probably intimated, by the sheer numbers in their flocks. Reports of flocks of hundreds of millions of passenger pigeons several miles long and wide flying over the cities of America were not uncommon. In 1886 one flock was 300 miles long flying over Ontario. They were so abundant that their meat sold for only a few cents. Yet, quite literally, within a lifetime these birds went extinct as overhunting and their habitats removed to make way for a new industrialised USA. The last one, named Martha, died on September 1, 1914, at a zoo in Cincinnati. She was stuffed and presented to the Smithsonian.

Now American scientists are trying to bring this species back from the dead. Using DNA from stuffed passenger pigeons and eggs in museums around the world crossed with genetic material from another pigeon, the band tail pigeon, passenger pigeons could be bought back in a few decades time. This reintroduction will, though, cost several million dollars at least, making Martha’s future descendents very expensive pigeons.

We have a real love hate relationship with pigeons. To some they are feathered friends to others feathered rats. But when you start to look at pigeons in an unbiased way, you soon realise that they are one of the most adaptable, resilient and remarkable species on earth. Could, for instance, that the pigeon in Bourne memorial park that is always on the scrounge for bread, actually be an art connoisseur? Well, Scientists at Keio University in Tokyo, Japan trained pigeons to tell the difference between Picasso and Monet paintings. All very clever you might think, but surely any animal could be trained to tell the difference if it was rewarded. Yes that’s true but what the scientists didn’t expect was that these pigeons, unprompted, could differentiate not only between unseen Cubist and Impressionist styles from other paintings, but could identify individual artists.

Pigeons can identify 100 images and then recall those two years later. They can identify people from photos, even when the people are dressed in different clothes. They can even recognise themselves in mirrors, making them one of the few animal species that have been found to have that ability. Scientists even think they can understand a basic form of counting!

Pigeons have a remarkable skill of forward planning and learning. One of the reasons why cities and towns seem to be besieged with feral pigeons (and also certain seagulls) is because our municipal buildings, blocks of flats etc, resemble the cliff habitats that rock pigeons, from which most of the town pigeons are descended from, nest. To a pigeon it’s a home from home. Our environment also provides lots of feeding opportunities not found in their normal habitat. A pigeon needs only 30grams of food a day, which it devours quickly – some would say greedily - with a pecking speed of 145 times a minute. With our throwaway society and our increased bird feeding, pigeons have been found to plan their day around feeding opportunities that come along. This could help explain why they are good breeders. Most animals spend most of their time foraging for food. Yet a pigeon can learn there is, for example, someone in the park that arrives around 1pm to eat their lunch who will feed leftovers to them. This will give the rest of the day to do other things such as rearing chicks which in turn increase population rates.

But for all their cleverness and intelligence it’s our relationship with them that moulds our view of them. Pigeon fanciers – even that term sounds bizarre to most people – are drawn from all strata of society. The Queen keeps a racing pigeon loft at Sandringham, as did her father and grandfather. There is a Royal Pigeon Racing Association. Pigeon racing is big money; one bird sold for nearly $132,500 and was bought by a British firm for “stud” purposes. In the USA recently, there was an investigation into the black market gambling going on – said to be worth £15 million. A pigeon fanciers show in Blackpool - where else could it be held- recently was reckoned to bring in £10 million to the local economy.

On the other side annually $1.1 billion worth of damage is done in the USA alone by pigeons, with a further $6.7 billion spent on pigeon control, ranging from electrocution, poisoning through to pigeon contraceptives. We get annoyed when they climb on to our birdfeeders in the garden, but make exception for “white” pigeons because they are “doves”. Our relationship with them will always be complicated, after all our habits and way of life has led to their adaption and perceived intrusion into our world. We’ve eaten them and venerated them (in India they still do). Pigeon muck has been a fertiliser to grow our food; our ancestors died in wars that have been fought with gunpowder made from it. Pigeons played a part in Britain’s financial heritage by carrying information to stockbrokers, giving London banks an advantage on the stock markets of Europe.

Our history wouldn’t have been the same without them.

Yet pigeons could be the future if science brings back the passenger pigeon. If biologists can accomplish this, then other extinct animals such as the dodo could be brought back to life.

Then who knows in a few decades we could be feeding pterodactyls – a species of flying dinosaur – instead of ducks in the park.

Of course it will be all the pigeons’ fault...