What’s your hot pigeon take? Love ‘em? Hate ‘em? Wanna kick them out of the way? Toss them bread crumbs? Flying rats or friendly neighbors?
Everyone’s got an opinion about pigeons, but what do you actually know about them? Let me give you some background.
The pigeon, aka the Rock Dove, aka the Rock Pigeon, aka Columba livia, is not, as you may have known already, native to Maine. Nor the U.S. for that matter, or even this hemisphere. It’s native over a wide but spotty swath of Europe, North Africa, India, and mountainous Asia. But, honestly, scientists have a hard time telling exactly where pigeons are native to because they’ve been living with humans for so long.
But they’re kind of badasses in their native, wild wild habitat. Instead of farting around in the park dodging pedestrians, they nest on sheer rock cliffs, sticking their nests on skinny ledges to keep the eggs away from hungry mammals. They eat almost anything but prefer vegetable matter — particularly fruit and grains. So, they’d hang out on cliffs until it was time to fly down to some field to eat, then return.
Then humans came along and changed everything for pigeons. Specifically, we planted a lot of things they like to eat (grain fields) and made a bunch of things that look like cliffs (houses and big buildings). It was a match made in heaven. Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphics suggest that Rock Pigeons were domesticated at least 5,000 years ago, and today the species is found everywhere that humans are, outside of Antarctica. They were believed to have first made it to North America aboard a French ship landing at Port Royal, Nova Scotia, in 1606, and haven’t looked back.
For as overlooked or reviled as they may be, Rock Pigeons have helped us out quite a bit. They have an incredible ability to find their way home, even if brought to a new location and released with a blindfold on. They’re believed to rely on magnetic fields, the sun, and maybe smell and sound. Humans have used their homing ability to send avian air mail, including not just old-timey sexts (probably) but also important codes during World War I and II. They also make great pets (as Mike Tyson will tell you) and there are pigeon-racing leagues around the country that breed especially good homing pigeons, release them far away and see who gets home the fastest.
They don’t always cooperate: a couple years ago I spotted an all white pigeon on the Cumberland waterfront that had a bright red band on its leg. I managed to read the number on the band and somehow was able to figure out that it belonged to a pigeon racer in Readfield, who told me he had lost the bird three months earlier in Auburn. He was happy that it was doing well, and hoped that the white bird would mate with some gray locals and make nice-looking offspring.
Anyway, the pigeons in Portland aren’t wild, in that they are accustomed to living alongside humans and eating whatever we toss or drop. But they are wild animals. They’re out there living their own lives and fighting their own battles. Sometimes that means avoiding predators, especially the powerful Cooper’s Hawks that stalk them from across the rooftops. Trust me, if you ever see a flock of pigeons take off frantically into the air: look for the hawk chasing them. If you’re lucky you may be able to spot a chase as dramatic as anything out of a David Attenborough nature documentary, with the hawk cruising low and fast and hoping to strike at the pigeons before it’s seen. With enough patience, you can watch hunts like this every day in Portland, and pretty much anywhere else pigeons are. Which is everywhere.
Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.