Chase reporter ANTONY CLAY takes a close look at an animal which has successfully conquered our urban places
THERE is a creature which shares our towns and cities with us right across the world.
It walks amongst us as we trek along our pavements to work or the shops, and even shares the buildings we toil in.
You are guaranteed to see it every day – indeed, if you have recently been in an urban area you will probably have passed dozens of them.
You may even have taken the time to throw this animal a few crumbs of comfort – though there are plenty of people who would condemn you for doing so.
What creature am I writing about? It’s the humble pigeon, ofcourse!
Feral pigeons are literally in every town and city across the globe. They find the nesting places they need, the spaces to roost and hide from predators, and plenty of food from the scraps we leave behind us.
They strut cockily around our feet, make a mess of our monuments, nest in the fancy architecture of our buildings.
Flocks of them are famous in London’s Trafalgar Square.
They are probably the most common bird in most towns and cities. They are the bird that many of us see most often.
Pigeons are often, like the ducks on the park pond, most people’s first introduction to birds.
Comedian Woody Allen famously branded feral pigeons as “rats with wings” and that negative branding has stuck with councils eager to keep their buildings clean – but there is far more to the humble pigeon than meets the eye.
Pigeons in urban areas are known as feral pigeons, the word feral suggesting they have gone AWOL. In the past, it would be true to say that domesticated birds did fly the coop but most feral pigeons nowadays live completely wild, perhaps added to by ex-racing birds seeing the attractions of a less sporty life.
Our feral pigeons are originally from a very wild source, namely the rock dove which you can still find on the remotest rocky coastlines around our land.
Rock doves and feral pigeons are the same species – they just have a different attitude to living with people.
People started domesticating pigeons thousands of years ago which brought them into contact with us. We raced them, we ate them, we kept them as pets. But some birds wanted a less subservient role in the relationship and began to establish effectively wild populations amongst our urban buildings which, to them, resemble the rocky terrain inhabited by their ancestors.
Feral pigeons can, and occasionally do, breed throughout the year. Warmer temperatures in cities, fewer predators and lots of edible rubbish deposited by us allow this to happen.
They can find ample sites to nest in old churches, under roofs, on window sills, under bridges, in forgotten buildings left derelict by our ever-restless economic whims.
Apart from a human pest controller hired by the city council, there are few enemies for urban pigeons other than the odd drunken idiot, cars or even cats, but that isn’t to say that they have it all their own way.
Some urban places have seen the development of ecosystems because of the pigeons. Lucky towns and cities places have seen the arrival of peregrine falcons which, like pigeons, see our built-up places as nothing more than a replacement mountain range. They are here for the pigeons which they feed on in the wild.
And hunt down the pigeons they certainly do. If you are lucky, you can catch a life or death chase between a peregrine and a pigeon. I recall witnessing one at the cathedral in Brussels where both birds dodged and dived at fantastic speed, turned amazing angles in flight and seemingly defied gravity. On that occasion the pigeon was lucky to get away.
Feral pigeons will eat pretty much anything. A ditched burger or kebab will be as attractive to them as the wild seeds they find in a park. Being an unfussy eater is a definite boon.
There are very different attitudes towards pigeons. Yes, they can foul buildings and statues and there is a risk of disease from the birds. Numbers of wild animal populations are checked by natural factors like food shortages, weather and predators but there are few limits on our urban pigeons so their populations don’t seem to decrease.
But wouldn’t our towns be much poorer without the cooing pigeons and their sometimes cheeky antics? They will take food from a person and they will amuse with their amorous antics as fruity males chase often distinctly uninterested females.
It is true that there are some mangy specimens around, ofcourse. Who hasn’t seen a one-footed pigeon or one with a mangled foot? I was once rather perturbed to see one with its head twisted the wrong way round in Sheffield.
Some urban pigeons certainly don’t look in the best of health which might be to do with big populations spreading illnesses quickly. In the wild, sick birds wouldn’t be seen ofcourse because they would die and be eaten, but that dynamic is a bit different in a safer town or city.
To my mind, our urban places would be poorer without the feral pigeon. They offer a view into the world of nature beyond out own selfish interests. They offer a bit of variety in an often dull urban place. They are amusing and fascinating.
Watch them for a while and see how they behave with each other. Their lives are driven by social conventions as complicated as our own. And watch the care that parent birds display when they have eggs and young to look after.
Listen to their gentle calls and be inspired by the gleam in their little black eyes.
These birds have concluded that they don’t need to throw their lot in entirely with people. Towns and cities are their world as much as ours, perhaps more so as we generally trundle off to the suburbs at night and leave the towns quiet and empty. The urban centre is truly a feral pigeon’s domain.
So, three cheers for our feral pigeons. True survivors – and here to stay whether we like them or not!
FERAL PIGEON FACTS
- Ancient images of pigeons living amongst people have been found from as far back as 3000BC.
- Many pigeons have been honoured for their war service because they have delivered vital messages which saved lives.
- The word pigeon derives from the Latin pipio which means young bird.
*Young pigeons – or squabs – are fed with a special milk which is regurgitated by parents.
- Elvis Presley and Mike Tyson have kept pigeons.
- Man managed to wipe out an estimated population of three to five billion passenger pigeons in the early 20th Century through over-hunting.
- Young pigeons remain in the nest for up to two months.
- Pigeons are only one of six species of any kind of animal to be able to recognise themselves in a mirror, as well as being able to recognise different letters and people.
- Pigeons have an inbuilt compass to help them navigate, but can also recognise landmarks.
*The fastest ever speed recorded by a flying pigeon was a staggering 92.5mph.
- Pigeons mate for life.
*Pigeons can find their way home from 1,300 miles away.
- The dodo was a kind of pigeon.