Wherever you go you are never far from a pigeon: there’s always at least one watching you, probably more. There’s a couple outside my window now, perched on a branch. They’re often there. Soon they’ll be breeding, if they haven’t started already. Pigeons are exceptionally prolific and mate for life, though I once had a pair in my garden that seemed content to be DINKies (double income no kids), and to go without the patter of tiny claws.
Few birds have such a long and intense relationship with human culture: records of this go back to ancient Mesopotamia some 5000 years ago. They feature in the beliefs of many of the world’s religions.
Though their names carry different cultural resonances, pigeons and doves are part of the same family. Name-wise the pigeon is the dark counterpart to the dove, the latter’s alter ego, the bad girl to its sister’s good. Pigeons are often looked down upon, proles to the doves’ aristos. You’d probably rather eat pigeon pie than dove pie, even though doves were reared in great numbers in dovecotes throughout Europe for centuries. Pigeons are what you use for racing and for carrying messages, but they don’t inspire lyricism the way doves do. It is a dove that is said to have announced to Noah the receding waters of the flood, and to have told Mary of the forthcoming birth of Jesus. We speak of the dove of peace, not the pigeon.
Which is a shame, because each side of the family has more than a little going for it. Both parents devote themselves to sitting on the eggs and rearing the young. Young pigeons, called squabs, need a lot of nurturing because they make a slow start in the world and remain in the nest – if you can call it a nest given the pigeon’s rudimentary building skills – for about two months: much longer than just about any other bird.
Pigeons are smart. They have exceptional eyesight and can see colour as well as ultraviolet light. They learn fast too, and have acquired all sorts of skills beyond the reach of most birds, such as using the London Underground to move between feeding places, and accurately identifying evidence of cancerous tissue in photographs of slide samples.
No other bird has been so widely recognised for its military capabilities as the pigeon. Its homing instincts have been put to use in carrying messages for thousands of years. World War II bomber crews took along an extra feathered member of the crew to carry home a message should the aircraft be shot down. Mobile pigeon lofts were widely deployed during WWI. It became an offence to shoot a homing pigeon, and peregrine falcons, their main enemy in the wild, were persecuted to ensure its safe passage.
Its small wonder that pigeon racing became a favourite hobby in working class men. The bird’s flight, its uncanny navigational skills, its speed and its grace were the very antithesis of the hard grimy labour that many men had to endure. Release a pigeon and see it fly upward and you can see why it might inspire a sense of freedom.
Not that we have treated the pigeon well. The famous Passenger Pigeon, once by far the most numerous bird in North America, which used to assemble in flocks of a million and more caused widespread havoc wherever it landed, was hunted to extinction in the 19th century.
The pigeons we know of in this country, including the feral pigeon that inhabits our towns, are descendants of the rock dove, a species still to be found on coasts, where it nests on steep cliffs. More common is the wood pigeon, often the only bird apart from crows that one will easily see on a country walk. Its call – My Toe Bleeds, Mary – can be recognised by anyone. Wood pigeons sometimes flock in large numbers especially in Autumn and Winter when they feed in fields.
Closely related to it are two species of European dove, prettier, more delicate and less inclined to flock. The collard dove has a fussy, clerical air and wears a coat of pinkish grey and is often found in gardens. But it’s the turtle dove, now a rarity, which claims the prize for the most positive avian imagery: “The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land,” goes The Song of Solomon (2:12). The bird has lent its name to many a lyric in various forms. This one, sung in an achingly beautiful version by June Tabor, expresses the dove’s enduring association with fidelity, loss and love:
Fare you well, my own true love,
Farewell for a while;
I’m going away, but I’ll be back
If I go ten thousand miles
Ten thousand miles, it is a long way,
Ten thousand miles or more.
And the rocks may melt and the seas may burn
If I no more return.
Oh don’t you see yon lonesome dove
Sitting on yon ivy tree:
She’s making her moan for the loss of her own
As I shall do for mine.
Oh come back, my own true love,
And stay a while with me;
For if I knew a friend all on this earth
You’ve been a friend to me.
Image 1 Dave Merrett Flickr Creative Commons
Image 2 Picasso