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Learn to love the pigeon! Surprising facts about the most unfairly hated bird

by Laura
Origins, facts, how a pigeon saved 200 men in World War One, and why are so many pigeons missing feet?!

Hi there! Thanks for dropping by and spending some of your precious time with me. This is going to be a long post, so grab a beverage of your choice and buckle up.

But first… some art. This is an artist’s blog after all. 🙂

Cher Ami
© Laura Loveday, 2020
graphite, watercolour, ink, digital

Now, I know what you’re thinking. ‘A post about pigeons? No thank you! Bye!’ Well, if you stick around, prepare yourself for some interesting facts about pigeons which you need to know. Really. You even might even learn to love the pigeon, if you don’t already! Because…

Pigeons are flippin’ amazing!

But not many people think so. :'(

Pigeons are an all too common sight in towns and cities everywhere, and they’re hated by practically everyone and everything. Saying that they’re a ‘common sight’ is playing it down a bit, because there are an estimated 400 million of these guys worldwide. In London it’s like this:

Actually, pigeons are one of the most commonly feared birds for those with ornithophobia, or the fear of birds, which makes the above gif even more appropriate. I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.

They are so numerous, and unfortunately are the bearers of some nasty diseases (via their poop) which can affect humans, which explains why they’re seen as flying vermin by many and literally called ‘skyrats.’ It’s safe to say that they have more haters than fans. Dog chase them, cats try to kill them, seagulls eat them whole (when really you’d think they might be bros because they’re equally hated, but seagulls have a lot of psychological issues and anger management problems). Children try to kick them and even some adults do the same. As my dad says: people are the lowest form of animal life. My dad is a cheery chappy.

Photo by Zac Ong on Unsplash

So despised is the humble pigeon, they have a plethora of creative but often offensive nicknames, the most repeatable being: ‘flying bowel movements’, ‘ledge peckers’, and (who could forget? Lord knows I’ve tried) ‘bum chickens’ *wha?!* If you find your car has been spattered by thousands of birds seemingly suffering from a particularly brutal case of diarrhoea, it’s blamed on someone ‘squeezing pigeons.’

The word ‘pigeon’ is even used to bring the universal disdain for them full circle, being used as an offensive term used to demean a range of subjects, from someone who’s a bit of a gullible plank, to parts of someone’s anatomy. Even being ‘pigeon brained’ is an insult, because pigeons have teeny tiny brains, right? Right??? I’m glad you asked, because…

Pigeons are extremely intelligent

Well, they do have brain about the size of your fingertip, but size doesn’t matter – it’s what they do with it that counts, and that might not be the first time you’ll hear or say that. They can learn all 26 letters of the alphabet, and can learn to spell with 70% accuracy. I swear I’m not making this up.

If the word is spelled correctly, the pigeon should tap it. If it’s spelled incorrectly, they should tap the star.
If they’re correct, they get a treat.

A study from the University of Iowa also found that pigeons have a cognitive ability similar to humans and can learn over 120 words and the relevant objects, as well as correctly categorise them into groups! Read the full study info here, because pigeons are officially more intelligent than the urbandictionary top result and whoever thought that pigeons might not have brains at all. Meh:

Pigeons have other super powers to add further proof to my TED talk on why you should learn to love the pigeon if you don’t already:

  • They can fly 600-700 miles a day at a speed of up to nearly 100mph
  • It’s still a mystery how they have the ability to find their way to a specific place. There are theories about them navigating by the sun, magnetic fields of the earth, and seismic waves. The truth is, they’re wizards.
  • They’re able to not only see in colour like humans, but are able to see UV light and are often used in search and rescue missions at sea.
  • They basically have perfect vision, which, combined with their brainpower which we’ve already discussed, also means that they can recognise themselves in a mirror and identify people’s faces even from photographs.
  • You don’t want to upset them. They literally never forget a face, probably hold grudges, and no one will ever will find a body.
  • This might not be a superpower as such, but it’s damn nice and they don’t get the cred for it like swans do. They’re monogamous and both the pappa and mamma share the work in looking after their kiddos, which are called ‘squabs’, by the way.
  • Pigeons are of the family Columbidae, along with the now extinct Passenger Pigeon and Dodo!

So, you might have guessed that you won’t see any of any hate here. I initially just wanted to know why so many pigeons have a missing foot. That ended up in me learning a lot and gaining so much respect for them that I drew a picture and this woman became my soul sister.

bird lady, home alone 2

But first, an extremely abridged history of the pigeon, without whose familiar coo-ing, our cities and towns would seem eerie and a little soulless.

The Pigeons you see everywhere are descended from enslaved pigeons that escaped

I’m not even exaggerating. What every English-speaking person knows as a pigeon is Columba livia domestica, because practically everything sounds better in Latin. Domestica, because they were birds which became domesticated millennia ago. Caught and bred for a purpose, to serve a function, at the whims of their owners.

They’re also called city doves if people like them, but if people are ambivalent towards pigeons and just want to be edgy, they might call them city pigeons or street pigeons. Really, pigeons are descended from Rock Doves, which are apparently slightly more respectable because they’re ‘doves’ and there aren’t as many of them.

Rock Doves, being Columba livia, are essentially the same as the much maligned pigeons we see everywhere today, and you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two. All the different colours and markings are a result of the unnatural selection of Rock Doves by human breeders over the centuries. Through the human interference, they were defined as being domesticated, but because some got away and multiplied, they’re called feral. Good on them.

On the Origin of a Species and Artificial Selection

Evolving pigeons. Credit: Stanhope Medicine

When researching this post, I found out that Charles Darwin used the pigeon as a focus in four of his seminal theories of evolution, particularly in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. He likened the breeding of the Rock Dove by humans over hundreds of thousands of years for certain characteristics to suit their purpose to natural selection. In fact, it’s likely that Neolithic man was breeding pigeons 10,000 years ago! There’s a lot of information about that and more besides on this great page which I used as a source for many of the facts here.

So, Rock Doves were – at least initially – bred for food, so presumably the importance was put on making them fatter to feed the whole family. Some were bred by ye olde pigeon fanciers, so they were bred to be prettier, hence though coppery coloured pigeons you see around sometimes. Carrier pigeons have been bred to make them look distinctively different from other pigeons (long Isadora Duncan necks and appropriately streamlined, but with crazy wattles around their beak and eyes), but ultimately they too descend from the same source.


English Carrier Pigeon (Blue Bar) by Jim Gifford – https://www.flickr.com/photos/12015033@N00/2298849606
Rock Dove by David Nicholls – https://www.naturespot.org.uk/species/feral-pigeon-rock-dove

Along with carrier pigeons, there are Homing or Messenger Pigeons (they were used for this purpose since at least 3000BC in Ancient Egypt), and it’s no secret how incredibly important and lifesaving they’ve been for military communications over the millennia.

Speaking of… here’s a story about a pigeon called Cher Ami and how she saved nearly 200 men of the Lost Battalion in October 1918.

Please Note: I’m going to discuss war and all that goes with it. If you’re at all sensitive to that and animals being injured, plus a photo of taxidermy, you can skip it by clicking here. No one would blame you.

Pigeons at War and how one pigeon saved nearly 200 soldiers

Cher Ami, 1918.

Cher Ami (‘Dear friend’) was donated by British pigeon fanciers to American trainers to be a homing pigeon in on the Western Front during WW1. She (because she was female, but they didn’t know that, hence the masculine form of her name) was one of many animals used on both sides during conflict, and she, like the other war animals, was incredibly brave. Knowing what she went through, it’s easy to wonder that maybe she knew that so many lives depended on her, because her determination is astounding for any creature, let alone a little bird in a war zone.

She went with 77th Division of the United States Army Infantry to the Argonne Forest, Or what was left of it.

U.S. Marines at the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, 1918
The Meuse–Argonne offensive, 1918

Due to communication problems from the start and really shitty luck, the battalion became trapped behind enemy lines with no food or ammunition, surrounded on all sides by enemy soldiers. As if that wasn’t bad enough, nearby allied troops weren’t aware of the battalion’s location and subjected them to friendly fire. As a result of this, out of the 550 men, including runners desperately trying to take messages for relief and to tell the allied troops to… y’know, stop firing on them, most were killed, injured, missing and presumed dead, or were captured by the enemy. Carrier pigeons became their only hope of making contact with HQ, but most of the pigeons were shot by the enemy as soon as they took flight, and one that did arrived had the wrong coordinates. I hope you get the idea that it was a clusterfuck, like war is by definition.

The last pigeon they had left, and their last hope, was Cher Ami. Like with the other carrier pigeons, the Germans opened fire as soon as they saw her, peppering her with bullets. She dropped down to earth, having been shot in the leg, chest, and blinded in one eye. However, the bird had the determination and bravery to fly into enemy fire again, severely wounded. Her leg was hanging by a tendon, and the blood loss and shock alone would surely kill most humans, let alone a pigeon.

The message delivered by Cher Ami, despite her horrific injuries.

She flew 25 miles in 25 minutes, which is so fast, considering. Don’t trust my maths at all, but I worked out that she must have been flying at approximately 60 mph (96.6 kph) to get there so quickly. Because of her, at least 194 men were saved.

The Lost Battalion, mostly made up of New Yorkers, marching under the Victory Arch on 5th Avenue, New York, 11th May 1919
(credit: wiki)

So Cher Ami was literally a heroic lifesaver and the medics treated her such. Though they couldn’t save her leg, they cared for her and carved a wooden prosthetic for her. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre with an additional oak cluster decoration for her service in delivering a dozen important dispatches during the war. Afterwards, she was retired and taken to America, where she lived in peace.

Sadly, she died as a result of her wounds in June 1919. She was 1 year old.

It was decided that she should be preserved for eternity by a *cough* not hugely gifted taxidermist, but here you go.

Through her being stuffed, it was found that Cher Ami was actually Chère Amie! In 2019, more than 100 years after her death, she was awarded the Animals in War & Peace Medal of Bravery.

And there you have it!

I hope that this pigeon post has gone some way in defending these surprising creatures. I’ve never been able to understand why they’re so despised by so many. To me, they’ve proved themselves loyal and trusting and There are other stories I’d like to cover, including Nicola Tesla’s beloved and paranormal pigeon! But it will have to wait for another day and another illustration.

Finally… the mystery of the missing pigeon toes solved?

Pigeons often lose their toes, feet, or whole legs either through injury, either by accident or through the following (Spoiler: people are at fault):

  • contact with chemicals
  • netting/string/human hair (!) gets tangled around their feet and cuts off the circulation (there’s an article all about this hazard on New York City Pigeon Rescue site).
  • sharp things like broken glass sunk into concrete which people put on architecture to stop pigeons and other wild birds from pooping on said architecture.

Another common cause is it’s thought that pigeons stand in their poop a lot, because they poop a lot. It can act like acid over time, and eventually can cause an infection which basically rots their feet away. Sorry to be graphic about it.

There are other diseases and infections like mites or bumblefoot, which sounds cute but isn’t. Either way pigeons are so badass they usually adapt and manage quite well without toes, a foot, a whole leg, or even both legs! Everyone must have seen some pigeons missing feet.

Take care for all our wild feathered friends out there and be mindful of dumping string outside. Some people have good intentions leaving yarn and hair our for nesting birds, but it’s not a good idea.

Illustrating Cher Ami

As well as the illustration at the beginning of this post, I did an another version of my Cher Ami 100 years later illustration, but this one with altered colours to commemorate her and her posthumous award for bravery in 2019.

The story of Cher Ami is so moving it really hit me hard. I wanted to do something to commemorate her and the lives she saved. The medics fashioning a prosthetic for her out of wood was so sweet and spoke of their respect and appreciation of what she did, and she deserved such kindness.

I thought, because it’s about 100 years after her death and she’s just been given another medal recently, I’d give her a more up to date prosthetic and a funky pigeon shoe. May she fly far and fast forever in peace.

They paddle with staccato feet
In powder-pools of sunlight,
Small blue busybodies
Strutting like fat gentlemen
With hands clasped
Under their swallowtail coats;
And, as they stump about,
Their heads like tiny hammers
Tap at imaginary nails
In non-existent walls.
Elusive ghosts of sunshine
Slither down the green gloss
Of their necks in an instant, and are gone.
Summer hangs drugged from sky to earth
In limpid fathoms of silence:
Only warm dark dimples of sound
Slide like slow bubbles
From the contented throats.
Raise a casual hand -
With one quick gust
They fountain into air.

~ PIGEONS - RICHARD KELL

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