It is easy to overlook a pigeon. For some people, they are a common and unwanted sight, crowding streets, public squares and parks, and roosting on rooftops. Their ability to thrive in urban environments has earned them “pest status.” Interestingly, this ability to adapt and thrive in a variety of situations is also the very quality that has led pigeons to play an important role in many cultures throughout history.
Although it is difficult to determine exactly when pigeons were domesticated, they are first mentioned in Mesopotamian tablets which date back over 5,000 years. Some believe it is likely they were domesticated long before then.
For most of remembered history, pigeons have been used as messengers, kept as pets, and eaten for food. They have also been revered and worshiped by many religious orders. In fact, the pigeon is actually the famed biblical bird of love and peace that came to Noah bearing an olive branch and bringing hope. Over time, a linguistic distinction emerged and the commonly seen birds became known as “Rock Pigeons.” The word pigeon, however, is actually just a translation of the French word “dove.”
Pigeons possess a unique set of skills that has made them ideal allies. Chief among them is their ability to find their way ‘home,’ even when released hundreds of miles away in distant locations they have never seen. It is this quality, along with their keen eyesight, impressive navigation skills, speed, endurance, and docile nature that has made them ideal messengers.
The earliest reference to using pigeons to carry messengers dates back to 2500 B.C. This traditional use continued until recent times, with nearly every major superpower utilizing the unique skills of pigeons both in everyday governance and during times of war. A pigeon delivered the results of the first Olympics in 776 B.C and, over two thousand and fifty years later, another pigeon delivered the news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Pigeons have served in every major war, including World War I and World War II where they are credited with saving thousands of soldiers’ lives.
Throughout history, pigeons have also been an important food source and form of entertainment. Pigeons (also called squab when referred to culinarily) have been consumed in many civilizations, as both a delicacy and a staple. These days, squab is a high priced item in upscale restaurants.
Although the demand for highly trained messenger birds has declined, pigeons are still bred, raised, and trained for sport. All around the world they compete in elaborate long distance races sponsored and monitored by dedicated pigeon enthusiasts. However, for most pigeons, the reception is not so friendly.
Urban pigeons have the same skill set and attributes as the pigeons that earned acclaim in ancient times. The only difference is that urban pigeons are feral. They have not been raised and trained by humans. Their current presence in urban environments is, in some ways, similar to the presence of feral dogs and cats. After thousands of years of domestication, their lives are tied to ours. Even if we are no longer feeding and caring for them directly, they are not likely to stray too far from human civilization.
Unlike feral dogs and cats, feral pigeon are not terribly fearful of humans. They are generally very docile, sweet, and social creatures. Grouping together in large flocks, pigeons go about their lives, eating all the seed, fruit, and discarded food they can find. They are monogamous, mate for life, and are extremely good parents.
Today, most pigeons are “wild” and are met with skepticism. It is worth remembering their rich history and contributions and to treat and control them humanely. The most effective way to control the pigeon population in your area is to stop feeding them and to reduce food waste.
If you are interested in learning more about the history of pigeons, be sure to check out this book: Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s most Revered and Reviled Bird by Andrew Blechman.