Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Pigeon Watch

I was talking about pigeons. (Here)

The common pigeon -- the Rock Dove or Rock Pigeon familiar to city dwellers around the world -- is one of those ubiquitous creatures -- like crows -- that we see so often that we almost don't see them at all.  Not as flashy or charismatic as crows, they have been with us for a very long time.  Though most of us don't see them this way, pigeons belong to a select group of animals -- along with dogs, horses and possibly cats -- that have been companions of humans and contributors to our civilization for thousands and thousands of years. 

Ballard (Seattle, WA) June, 2009
Just consider this:  all the Rock Pigeons around the world are the descendants of domesticated birds. We know that, between five and ten thousand years ago, Egyptians were using pigeons to carry messages up and down the Nile. We also know that there were already feral pigeons living in the streets of ancient Rome, pretty much the way they do now. They were introduced into North America probably in the 1600's from Europe, and the Army was still using them to send messages as late as World Wars I and II.   Properly speaking, they are not wild birds; they are feral -- domesticated animals that have returned to the wild.  Sort of.  You don't find many Rock Pigeons out in the forest (where their wild cousins do still live -- in this area, we have Band-Tailed Pigeons and Mourning Doves for instance).  They are urban animals.  Or, if you prefer (I do), civilized.

Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled BirdMany of these stories, and much more, are related in Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's More Revered and Reviled Bird by Andrew D. Blechman.  I first read this book a couple of years ago, and have gone back to it many times to check on certain anecdotes or re-read certain stories.  It is a rich, fascinating popular science book that not only gives us the history of the bird, but also introduces us to the incredible cast of characters and subcultures that have grown up around pigeons in the present day.  From weird pigeon hunts to racers to oddball environmentalists to good old fashioned breeders.  The pigeon has inspired more hate and love than just about any other bird (People as diverse as Charles Darwin, who bred pigeons while developing his theory of natural selection, and Mike Tyson, who has been a lifelong lover of pigeons, raised them as a child, and reputedly had his first fight with an older boy who killed one of his birds.)

TheCornell Lab of Ornithology has a special "Urban Bird Project" and as part of that project they have "Operation Pigeon Watch".  Now, next to watching dogs play, and seagulls fly, and the endlessly inventive antics of crows, there are few things I find more entertaining than pigeons. (Okay, Jennifer Aniston, but that's a whole different topic.)  So when I found out about project Pigeon Watch, I was hooked.  As I've mentioned before, I have a resident pigeon at my house who I call Timmy.  I call him a special needs pigeon because he seems to be a little ... well, handicapped.  But he's a big, beautiful healthy looking pigeon none-the-less.   Lately, Timmy has been showing up with a friend.  I think of "her" as Timmy's girlfriend, but of course I have no idea of either of their genders.  She's smaller than Timmy, with darker colored wings. 

There are something like 28 "morphs" -- or different color patterns -- recognized for the feral Rock Pigeon, but Cornell's Pigeon Watch has narrowed it down to five.  Timmy, for instance, is a "checker" because of the checker like pattern on his wings.  Checker's can vary from light gray with a little black, like Timmy, to much darker patterns.  I believe that Timmy's friend (who is shier and harder to photograph) might also be a checker, but with much darker wing patterns than Timmy's.

Timmy's "parents", West Seattle, summer 2010
One of the goals of the pigeon watch program is to observe mating habits among pigeons and learn which morphs mate with which others (to determine if they show a preference).  I had a chance to observe Timmy's parents, when I first moved here -- the birds I assume were Timmy's parents because they were all sharing a nest -- and I believe I witnessed courting behavior several times.  Pigeons court throughout the year, although (according to Cornell and other sources) they are more likely to mate in late winter or early spring.  Once they mate though, they mate for life.  I don't have the opportunity to observe the rest of the family any more, as they are all gone.  But I will be watching Timmy and his friend whenever I get the chance.

If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.

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