Any creature, on a small enough scale, is cute. I know this because I have a baby pigeon in my hand.
The tiny bird’s appeal defies all reasonable expectation. Born the day before yesterday, it’s a little bigger than a pingpong ball and sparsely covered with coarse, yellowy hairs. Its eyes aren’t open yet, and they show through, black and round underneath translucent lids. Its beak is long and knobby—at this stage it doesn’t look like a pigeon at all, more like an embryonic duck. It’s soft and warm, and doesn’t protest when I plop it back in place beside its still-shelled nestmate.
At this stage, pigeon young still have what an authoritative volume called Raising Small Meat Animals calls, in an uncharacteristically whimsical turn of phrase, “nude wiggly bodies.”
Full-grown pigeons are another story.
Bird watchers proudly point out that one-quarter of all North American bird species can be found inside the Beltway. In terms of visibility, though, there’s really only one: the pigeon. The grossly successful, unabashedly opportunistic, and indecently fecund species lacks the romance of endangered ones—or even slightly less ubiquitous ones. Even the Audubon Society curtly denies having a pigeon expert on staff. No matter; pigeons apparently thrive on loathing.
In the public imagination—and in fact—pigeons are associated with the less picturesque aspects of urban life. The city’s marginalized birds keep company with its marginalized people. It’s a pigeon-feeding truism that people who have the least give pigeons the most: Pigeons are the dogs of the homeless. But it’s not just muttering, heavily bundled orniphiles who surrender to the fundamentally biophilic urge to feed birds. Many others do it furtively, leaving offerings in the night to escape the public censure that accompanies their vice. In Basel, Switzerland, the public can only interact with the birds in designated “man-pigeon encounter areas.”
In D.C., you can enter a man-pigeon encounter area simply by leaving the house.
When you go looking for pigeons, you find other things as well. And they’re seldom particularly pleasant. The pigeon enthusiast is more likely than other bird-watchers to find himself kneeling among bottle caps and cigarette butts as he conducts his observations. I say this because I went looking for pigeons.
They come to Dupont Circle for the all-you-can-eat buffet. Someone has left a huge quantity of ground corn on the south side of the park; across the way, there’s a small hill of discarded sandwich rolls. When they spot food, the pigeons brake in midair like cartoon characters, switch from horizontal to vertical mode, and descend on the edibles from above. More than 70 pigeons gather quickly into a large feeding group; most are standard-issue pigeons, but a few are pale brown and others speckled black-and-white like avian Dalmatians. The flock stays head-downward, eating without pause, finally dispersing when a fire engine passes, siren blaring. They rise in a body, clenching their red toes like small fists as they alight.
THE WORD PIGEON COMES FROM
THE LATIN PIPIRE, TO CHIRP.
All situations involving pigeons come with the same aural backdrop: the hushed percolation of the pigeon’s coo. (Hereafter, please supply your own burbling.)
Pigeons are the least unique creatures imaginable: The herbivorous birds can be found everywhere but Antarctica, the Arctic, and a few remote islands. The pigeons that crowd city streets, however, are not indigenous to North America. The drably familiar pigeon is the feral descendant of domesticated rock doves brought to Virginia and Massachusetts in the early 1600s by Europeans who had long raised them for food. Native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa, the average pigeon has a stout body, a short neck and small head, long, pointed wings, a square or rounded tail, and a soft, weak bill with a fleshy cere at its base. The classic rock dove has slate-blue plumage, a white rump, two black bars on its wings, a black band on its tail, and a shiny, green-and-purple gloss on its neck.
A certain semantic confusion surrounds the pigeon. The term “pigeon” refers to any bird of the family Columbidae, a group that includes both pigeons and doves. Pigeon, then, is a general term that can be applied to any of the almost 300 species belonging to the pigeon and dove families. Though the words may be used interchangeably, doves evoke one set of images, pigeons another. Consider, for example, “stool pigeon” and “lovey-dovey.” Disturbingly, pigeon is also slang for “a girl or young woman” as in The Five Keys’ “My Pigeon’s Gone”—presumably not an ornithologist’s lament.
People have been sharing their lives with pigeons for most of recorded history—generally with a bit more enthusiasm than they do today. For so reviled a creature, the pigeon has an impressive historical résumé. They were the first domesticated bird, an honor they presumably owe to the culinary desirability of squabs. Naturalist and author John C. McLoughlin calls dovecotes, man-made pigeon houses dating back to antiquity, “one of the niftiest automatic meat-producing machines known to humanity.” The birds appear on Mesopotamian menus dating from 4500 B.C. (One archaeologist to another: “Hey, look, menus!”)
The birds, who mate for life, have long been associated with love and romance. Their courtship dance inspired the expression “billing and cooing.” (In fact, though, a courting male typically regurgitates food into the mouth of its mate. So is the way of love and romance.) The birds are distinguished by what one book politely terms an “almost continual reproductive readiness.” A pair of pigeons may have six or seven broods a year. The female lays eggs one week after mating; incubation, a task undertaken by both parents, lasts 14 to 19 days. Both parents also feed the sightless, featherless squabs “pigeon milk,” a regurgitated secretion with the consistency of cottage cheese. Baby pigeons grow faster than any other birds, doubling their weight within 48 hours of hatching. The young pigeons leave the nest at 5 weeks old, and are ready to have their own squabs a week later.
Compare this to the reproductively backward California condor, which lays only one egg every second year. And looks ridiculous perched on a statue.
THE PIGEON’S HEART RATE IS
SO HIGH THAT IT CAN DIE AS A
RESULT OF BEING STARTLED.
Pigeons on the Mall are harder to startle than pigeons anywhere else in the city. The birds approach pedestrians to see if they have any food—almost certainly in violation of D.C.’s aggressive-panhandling laws. They lurk among the benches in front of the Museum of Natural History, where a tourist excitedly tells his family, “They got both—Hard Rock and Planet Hollywood!”
There are pigeon displays outside and inside the museum. On the Mall, someone is passing out free sample-size boxes of Trix—the little red cartons are everywhere, empty, half-empty, toppling out of overfilled trash cans. The inedibly bright pink, yellow, and green cereal is strewn up and down the sidewalk like psychedelic hail.
The advertisers had it all wrong, though. Trix are for pigeons.
And if the latest reports on pigeon intelligence can be trusted, the birds may be at the museum to see the art. Last year, Shigeru Watanabe, a researcher at Keio University in Tokyo, taught pigeons to distinguish between Monet and Picasso. In London, pigeons reportedly use the tube for transportation; commuters have seen purposeful birds flying into the cars at one stop and out at another. This may be an urban myth—if they’re really that smart, they’d just hail a cab—but pigeons evidently do have a capacity for abstract reasoning. Laboratory pigeons, for instance, can learn to recognize the letters of the alphabet, initially even making the same mistakes as schoolchildren, such as mistaking “C” and “G” and “W” and “V.”
All of which presumably explains the large grouping of pigeons that surrounded the Dove Bar concession at 12th and Constitution on a recent afternoon.
Inside the museum, pigeons are harder to find. And, ironically—perhaps wishfully—there are none in the “Birds and Man” display. They do, however, make a big showing in the “History and Legend” section, where it is speculated that Noah’s olive branch–bearing dove was a pigeon, and in the “Flight” section, where we learn that the homing pigeon can fly 92 mph, compared with the sparrow’s pokey 17. Also on display is the pigeon’s most interesting relative, the wholly improbable Dodo, a “pigeonlike” animal whose primary characteristics, being “heavy and flightless,” seem—and, indeed, were—a remarkably unfortunate combination in a bird.
PIGEONS NEVER NEST IN TREES.
It’s impossible to feed pigeons in Cleveland Park without some yuppie giving you a withering look. For reasons known only to the birds, the corner of Ordway Street and Connecticut Avenue NW is a pigeon mecca. People are messy eaters and, here at least, they tend to feed the pigeons whether they mean to or not. The cracks in the wooden picnic table at the corner are filled with food, like teeth after a big meal. The table displays a common urban combination—a sort of cause-and-effect decoupage of pigeon splatter and crumbs.
The pigeons perch in Hitchcockian fashion on the stoplight at the northeast corner of the intersection. The birds have won the light—the treacherous crust underneath it causes pedestrians to give it a wide berth. It’s a perch, plain and simple, its human function now secondary. Five plastic owls sit on the roof of the Park & Shop; and more often than not the pigeons sit on them. Across the street, a lone plastic owl mounts a gloriously ineffective offensive against the birds who inhabit the three-story brick building that spans one end of the block. (But, as one pest-control expert noted wistfully, “20th-generation city pigeons don’t have a clue as to what a great horned owl is.”) They stand on the shingles of its slanted roof like mountain goats. The building has a decorative ledge near the top that the flock obviously calls home; at twilight the line of gray lumps looks like another architectural flourish. Down the block, a lone bird sits lazily on the “P” in the Uptown Theater sign and scratches.
Such human structures mock the natural structures from which the cliff-dwelling pigeons hail, giving them purchase in urban areas. Pigeons are anomalies among wild things, animals that actually benefit from sharing the man-made environment. Technically, along with rats, mice, house sparrows, and the like, pigeons are inquilines, “animals that live on the coat, nest, burrow, etc. of another animal.” In The Animals Among Us, McLoughlin calls the rock dove the inquiline “most intensely altered by its long proximity with us.” The birds benefit from the reduced predation and increased food availability in cities, but they’ve migrated along with humans and are now a fixture in habitats far from their native lands.
Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds’ Nests is graced by color photographs of an amazing array of nests. Its descriptions are so luxuriant they sound like outtakes from the Garnet Hill catalog. There’s the American goldfinch’s “durable cup of fine vegetable fibers woven and lined with thistle and cattail down”; the Northern oriole’s “deep pouch of plant fibers, yarn, string, grapevine bark, Spanish moss in the South, lined with wool, cottony materials”; and the Cerulean warbler’s “daintily,” “compactly built,” and “neatly interwoven” nest, which is “bound on the outside with spider silk, mosses, lichens, bark strips.”
The pigeon’s nest? “A shallow, flimsy platform of carelessly arranged grasses, straw, debris.” The cliff-dwellers just want something sufficient to keep their round eggs from rolling off the flat surface where they are laid.
PIGEONS HAVE AN EXTRA PAIR
OF TRANSPARENT EYELIDS THAT ACT AS GOGGLES WHEN THEY FLY.
They arrive at the Hamilton Homer Club carrying elongated boxes with briefcase handles. Boxes full of pigeons.
The Club races 24 weekends a year. Before each race, the owners tote their birds to an assembly point where elastic bands bearing serial numbers are put on the pigeons’ legs by a race administrator. (Though it may be hard to believe, cheating is problem enough to warrant elaborate precautions.) The birds are loaded into stacked cages that are, in turn, loaded into a specially designed truck. The pigeons are driven to a distant takeoff point, where a starter records the time of release. When a bird gets back home, the owner removes the band, puts it into a small, metal capsule, and inserts the capsule into a locked time recorder. Because everyone’s loft is a different distance from the race’s starting point, the winner is the bird with the highest average speed rather than the first to return.
The effete term “pigeon fanciers” could hardly be less suitable to the men in the room. This is not—not—an effete group. “I’ll be sober tomorrow, but you’ll still be ugly,” reads one guy’s cap. The average age of the Club’s members is 63; many begin to file out early in the evening because they can’t drive after dark.
Nobody knows how the homing pigeon’s navigational instinct works. Some scientists think the birds navigate by responding to changes in atmospheric pressure, others that they use the position of the sun as a compass, yet others that they are ultrasensitive to the Earth’s magnetic fields. The birds have small quantities of magnetite—the ingredient in early compasses—in their heads, but so do people and monarch butterflies, for all the good it does us or them. Thanks to a series of absurd-sounding experiments, researchers know that the birds are able to navigate even when they’re wearing opaque contact lenses, but will get lost if magnets are affixed to their wings.
Homing pigeons are like boomerangs, the problem being that they must constantly be transported away from home so they can return to it. They’re strictly one-way birds. Atlanta, where the Hamilton pigeons are headed by truck, is 712 miles away by road, 574 miles by air. In keeping with the inapropos wordage of pigeon racing, the truck’s driver is called “the liberator” and the spot at which the pigeons are released “the liberation point.” Pigeon fanciers from all over the U.S. habitually mail their birds to far away races; there’s even a specially designed Express Mail box for the purpose. Several stand empty in the club’s front hall.
THE AVERAGE NEW YORKER
INHALES THREE MICROGRAMS
OF PIGEON GUANO A DAY.
At the corner of P and 22nd Streets NW, there’s a statue of Taras Shevchenko, 1814-1861, “Bard of Ukraine.” There’s also an overwhelming stench of urine. The Bard is poised in an odd attitude, left shoulder thrust back, right arm bent, and fingers tensed as if he were cursing the insignificance of his artistic legacy…or tossing bread crumbs into the triangular park at his feet.
The statue has a weird collection of refuse scattered around it; a Lipton tea bag, malt liquor containers, a Bic lighter, a ketchup packet. It’s impossible not to try to imagine a scenario in which all these items take a simultaneous part. (Much like the compulsion one feels, when buying an incongruous assortment of items at the grocery store, to point out that they are not all intended for the same meal.) Pigeons seem the inevitable garnish to such small scenes of urban squalor. An orange traffic cone juts out of a break in the concrete; there’s a once-charming fountain whose ledge is encrusted with pigeon droppings. Seated gingerly thereon, I count 42 pigeons in the park’s small grassy median.
The flock rises as a child heads toward it, settling again when the youngster is reined in by a parent’s cry.
It is a common legacy of childhood to envision pigeons surrounded by a nimbus of germs—sort of like Pigpen from “Peanuts.” Though estimates of the exact number vary, pigeons can transmit an array of diseases to humans, most through the microscopic organisms in their feces and the ectoparasites in their feathers. Which probably explains why there are more references to pigeons in the Yellow Pages under “Pest Control” than there are in the card catalog at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library. Pigeons have a prominent place among advertisers who will gladly rid homes of owls, bats, raccoons, and a host of other wild interlopers. One even touts “snake removal” services, which has the unlikely effect of casting pigeons in a rather forgiving light.
HOMING PIGEONS HAVE
BEEN KNOWN TO RETURN TO
THEIR HOME ROOSTS AFTER
ABSENCES OF AS LONG
AS A YEAR.
Tommy Erskine lives in a row house in a quiet residential neighborhood outside Baltimore. The house is decorated in an animal theme. Live animal. Large bird cages flank the television set in the living room. One houses a parakeet and the other a masked lovebird. In the dining room, there is a Gloucester green canary. Two dogs have the run of the house. And in the back yard, there’s a loft that houses 102 pigeons.
Erskine was changing the oil in his truck one afternoon when he saw a bunch of teenagers playing football with a live pigeon. He rescued the bird, pushed her eye back in with his finger, brought her home, and nursed her around the clock for two weeks. Penelope, who can’t fly, now occupies a box of honor on the floor of the loft. And she has repaid Erskine’s kindness manyfold; the convalescent pigeon turned out to have an irrepressible maternal instinct, and often acts as a surrogate mother to squabs whose birth parents have lost interest in caring for them.
The backyard loft is a long, narrow enclosure with four compartments separated by sliding partitions. And since these are homing pigeons, each compartment is fitted with a row of pigeon-size doors through which the birds come and go. (Coming and going has its dangers: Erskine, who once saw a red-tailed hawk on his deck looking over the lunch menu, has lost as many as five birds in one week.) Its walls are sectioned into square perching areas and, at one end, a complex of nesting boxes. The pigeons lay their eggs in large, plastic dog dishes. Erskine leaves the radio on all the time; the birds, he says, find music soothing. At the moment, they’re being soothed by Bob Seger.
Homers, Erskine observes, are “truly a man-made species.” His racing pigeons start training when they are eight or nine months old. They begin with short trips. (Erskine likens young birds to a car without an odometer: They can’t tell how far they’ve gone, and it takes experience not to give up.) Homers can fly 150 miles in less than three hours, and are especially reliable on trips of 150 miles or less. Erskine’s loft is registered with the Army and, in the event of a war, his birds could be called upon like a feathered National Guard.
Erskine’s pigeon-related activities are multifarious. In addition to raising racing birds, he’s the features editor for The Racing Pigeon Digest—“The Thinking Person’s Journal of Racing Homers”—a Lake Charles, La.–based publication that he says has cornered 50 percent of the pigeon-magazine market. “We’re taking pigeon journalism to a new dimension,” he says proudly. The magazine’s advertisers include the National Pigeon Association, from whom “I Love My Pigeon” T-shirts are available for purchase. I consider buying one to aggrieve the neighbors. (One little-known casualty of February’s train collision in Silver Spring was the loft of MARC engineer Rick Orr. One of Erskine’s closest friends, Orr was a pigeon fancier who owned 600 homers. Orr’s obituary in the Greater Baltimore Area Pigeon Fanciers Newsletter ends with the pledge that he will “forever carry the key to the Big Loft.”)
The pigeons are wary but not unduly agitated when we enter the loft. Most of his birds share the coloring of feral pigeons, but others are a light caramel color, some are white, and still others have the elaborate feathering and coloring of the fancy breeds. Penelope isn’t the only invalid in the loft. Guinness, a pigeon born without wings (“He has a genetic defect”), is covered instead with winglike stalks and looks a lot like a bird-shaped porcupine. He can’t fly or keep himself warm, so Erskine keeps him indoors in a box during cold weather. Then there’s “Old King” who, at close to 18, is feeling his years: He can now only fertilize one egg at a time.
There are plenty of young birds on hand, looking adorably incongruous in their respective dog dishes. Despite the implied symbolism, it’s apparently true that dogs come to resemble their owners: Brittany, Erskine’s Golden Retriever–Husky mix, is as gentle as he is. The dog ritualistically “kisses” each new baby pigeon, covering the wobbly squabs with happy slobber.
A SINGLE PIGEON CAN
PRODUCE MORE THAN FIVE
POUNDS OF FECES A YEAR.
The pigeon looks awfully small atop the bed of linguini. So small that eating it seems slightly farcical, like eating a gerbil; it’s only good for about six mouthfuls. This is not an entree for the hungry. It tastes musky and heavy, more like beef liver than poultry. And at this upscale French restaurant in Georgetown it costs a whopping $19.95. Because squab tends to be a loss leader these days, few local restaurants still serve it.
It is a brutally revealing fact that Wendell Levi, oft-cited pigeon authority and author of the encyclopedic The Pigeon, was the head of the Palmetto Pigeon Plant in Sumter, S.C. It is, after all, their edibleness that got pigeons where they are today. Section 3 of Raising Small Meat Animals, “Raising Delectable Squabs,” sings the virtues of the birds’ livery meat. “Squab,” it enthuses, “ranks along with filet mignon, lobster, or suckling kid.” The young bird is eaten when it is 25 to 30 days old and has achieved a “maximum degree of plumpness and delicateness.”
Unfortunately, this is just about the time it outgrows the unlovable “squab” moniker and becomes the much cuter-sounding “squeaker.”
Dan Kemp, a local gourmand who raised pigeons for food during a lengthy sojourn on the Greek island of Paros, is unsentimental about the birds’ culinary properties. “The truly gruesome part is that the ones you eat are the young ones,” he says. “You can still eat the older ones but you have to boil them for days.” Nonetheless, Kemp feels that the birds’ benefits were more than just gustatorial. “It’s nice having animals around…even if you are gonna eat ’em,” he says.
The Joy of Cooking is unusually close-mouthed on the subject, though its “About Small Game Birds” section does contain mentions of birds I didn’t even know were real birds, like coots and snipe. (It also dispenses the improbable advice, “Blackbirds and crows, if eaten as a matter of necessity, must be parblanched 10 to 15 minutes first.” It’s hard to imagine such a necessity, except in the aftermath of a mountaineering disaster. Lucky is the stranded adventurer who has a 300-page cookbook on hand.)
It is Supercook’s Poultry and Game Cookbook that finally reveals the truth about pigeon pie, the dish that makes such frequent appearances in English literature. It’s a sort of vegetarian’s nightmare that includes not only eight pigeon breasts, but ham and pork sausage and, in one variation, rump steak. A color photograph of a steaming pastry shell is captioned “This imposing pigeon pie tastes as good as it looks.”
Of which I have no doubt.
PIGEON YOUNG CAN INCREASE IN SIZE TENFOLD WITHIN A WEEK.
The second pigeon I pick up is a little larger. At 23 days old, it’s big enough to cock its knobby head and regard visitors with a wary eye. It’s also big enough to be an entree. And of course, to provoke the human urge to feed it.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Michelle Gienow.