Underdogs of the Animal World: Pigeon

Okay, so when I say ‘pigeon’, you don’t automatically screech with the sheer cuteness of it all. I get it, I totally do. Pigeons are not teacup pigs, after all. But hear me out here. Everything you think you know about pigeons is a lie – unless you know this stuff, then go you, you get a hypothetical medal and a psychic pat on the back. But don’t worry, I will guide you gently into your new-found adoration/respect/tolerance for our feathered friends. Okay? Okay.

Pigeons are not (despite whatever Woody Allen might think*) ‘rats with wings’. Pigeons have had some pretty slanderous stuff spread about them and their disease-ridden status, but they’re actually pretty clean birds. In fact, you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than catch some kind of ickiness from a pigeon. Unless you’re unlucky enough to have been struck by lightning already, then you should watch out for pigeons, I guess.

Most of the problems that people have with pigeons derive from their poop. I mean, I wouldn’t be too happy if you came over to my house, nibbled at my doorstep and then pooped on my wall. That would hardly be civilised. Not to mention, pigeon poop actually speeds up the breakdown of buildings and, in large quantities, (which you really DO NOT WANT) smells not great. Not great at all. But in the past, pigeon poop was desired more than a Chanel Lego handbag. Mainly because they weren’t invented yet, but still… In the 17th century, King George I claimed all pigeon poop to be property of the Crown, since it was the only source of saltpetre at the time, which was used for making gunpowder. Dovecotes (pigeon houses) were guarded fiercely, just in case anyone fancied some poop, or maybe a slice of pigeon pie. Btw, pigeon poop is also known as guano, but I just love writing poop. Poop, poop, poop. Okay, I’m done.

Pigeons aren’t only handy in battle because of their guano though, (see! Told you I was done!) they have also been used in wars to send messages and save lives. This is because of their awesome, in-built navigation system. There are many pigeons famous for saving soldiers’ lives, including White Vision, who received its Dickin Medal for “delivering a message under exceptionally difficult conditions and so contributing to the rescue of an air crew while serving with the RAF in October 1943”, which must be a big medal! It’s still uncertain exactly how pigeons navigate, but most researchers think that pigeons have a special map system, which works using magnetic fields, and a compass system, which works using the position of the sun. Oxford University is currently researching the pigeon’s ability to recognize landmarks too.

Pigeons aren’t just good at the not-getting-lost-and-having-to-ask-for-directions-from-people-who-clearly-know-less-than-you-about-where-stuff-is-and-having-to-follow-their-terrible-advice-anyway-because-they’re-watching thing though. They’re also super smart, like Mensa smart. Okay, so technically none of them are actually members of Mensa, but it’s only a matter of time. Pigeons are the only non-mammals to pass the mirror test, which is where they realise that they’re looking at themselves and not some super-hot stranger pigeon. They can also recognise every letter of the alphabet, use tools, and even tell different people apart in photographs, which is smarter than me on a Monday morning.

By far the most epic thing about pigeons is their commitment to gender equality. Pigeons are monogamous, and when they breed, the mother and father will both take responsibility in incubating the eggs and taking care of the babies (otherwise known as Squabs) once they’re born. Pigeons are also the only birds to produce milk for their young, just like mammals, which isn’t just produced by the female, but by the male as well. Pigeon milk doubles the squab’s weight in the first two days of being born, but all that weight doesn’t mean that the squabs get kicked out of the nest any earlier. You will very rarely see a baby pigeon, since they don’t fly the nest until they’re good and ready, which increases their survival rate and, once again, proves their smarts.

So you might not be totally and utterly convinced that you should start collecting pigeon friends and selling their guano for big bucks, but allow me to list a bunch of awesome people who are known pigeon fanciers: Pablo Picasso, Elvis Presley, Charles Darwin, Walt Disney, Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood and the Queen of England. Next stop: Beyoncé and world domination.

I will leave you with this video, which I could pretty much watch for the rest of my life without craving a dose of Netflx…**


*From the film Stardust Memories, not just a random, star-studded, bird-hating sesh.

**Okay, maybe I couldn’t, but add Vin Diesel and a dash of Austen and we’ll talk.

Featured image via Shutterstock. Additional images via Shutterstock and Shutterstock

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