Common pigeon comes from noble ancestors

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11763122544655.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘A pigeon feeds on bird seed dislodged from a backyard feeder.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11763123153751.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘A noted British authority of the flight speed of birds once measured the speed of several homers at 90 mph for a distance of 80 miles.‘);

The pigeon is a common sight along Rockford’s riverfront because of abandoned buildings and other structures that serve as ideal roosting areas. Many think of these birds in a negative way, but in reality they are the descendents of a long and sometimes noble legacy.

Domestic pigeons were mentioned by writers more than 3,000 years ago, and Pliny the Elder relates that the Romans were ardent pigeon fanciers at the beginning of the Christian era. Over the centuries, more than 200 varieties of domestic pigeons have been created by selective breeding of a stock that stems originally from the rock pigeon, a wild species common in Europe and Asia.

The carrier or homing variety was probably the first to be specially developed because of its usefulness. Pigeons are monogamous and deeply devoted to their mates and young. Its homesickness, when separated from them, is exploited by man for his benefit. When a knight of old would start off on a crusade or other adventure, he usually took along several pigeons from the home cote. Periodically, he would write a letter and affix it to the neck or under a wing of one of his birds and then set it free to fly home. Unfortunately, this means of communication worked only in one direction.

Carrier pigeons were used extensively during the Civil War, World War I and World War II. Those who have seen the epic WWII movie The Longest Day will recall the use of homing pigeons by correspondents on Omaha Beach when the army refused them the use of Signal Corps radios to transmit their dispatches. Modern communication devices have now retired the homing pigeon from military service

Nevertheless, their homing instinct and stamina are amazing. They have been known to return home from a distance of 2,600 miles at speeds up to 90 miles per hour. Colonel R. Meinertzhagen, a noted British authority of the flight speed of birds, once measured the speed of several homers at 90 mph for a distance of 80 miles. In another instance, the good colonel clocked a bird that covered a distance of 182 miles at the rate of 72 mph.

The White King variety of domestic pigeon was developed about 1891 in the United States as a meat producer. It is still raised in limited numbers for the few gourmands who insist on dining on them. The White King has more meat on its bones and a larger breast than other varieties.

Few sportsmen in this country actively hunt pigeons, but in Europe pigeon hunting is a popular sport aimed at putting meat on the table. When I lived in France, I participated in several pigeon hunts arranged by friends. The usual procedure was for the hunters to conceal themselves in a hedgerow bordering a recently-harvested grain field and wait for a wandering flock of pigeons to appear. The pigeon was, in fact, in the rural LaRochelle area on the western coast where I lived, preferred by the locals over the Hungarian partridge or pheasant. It was considered the premier upland game bird.

A mother pigeon usually lays only two eggs per sitting, but a pair may raise seven to 10 broods per year. The young, called squabs, are fed in a peculiar manner. The crops of both parents produce a rich, white, cheesy substance called pigeon milk, which is fed to the very young. As the squabs get older, they are fed partially-digested grain regurgitated from their parents’ stomachs.

Because of their great adaptability and reproductive potential, pigeons may become so numerous that they become undesirable pests in urban areas. Their droppings contain caustic uric acid which may damage the paint on cars. The last time I was in New York City, I noticed the famous bronze statues of George M. Cohan and Father Francis Duffy in Times Square had been damaged by the droppings of the hordes of pigeons that frequent the area. Control measures, some of which are inhumane, should be undertaken when this occurs. A commercial repellent applied by a certified pest control operator is the best way to break up a roost.

In recent years, it has been discovered that pigeons may serve as a source of the dangerous viral infection known as psittacosis or parrot fever. Pigeon fanciers can take consolation, however, in the fact that the death rate in humans from psittacosis of pigeon origin is considerably lower than the parrot-transmitted variety.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

from the April 11-17, 2007, issue

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