21 Amazing Facts You Didn't Know About
old are pigeons?
Pigeons have lived alongside man for
thousands of years with the first images of pigeons being found
archaeologists in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and dating back
to 3000 BC. It was the Sumerians in Mesopotamia that first
started to breed white doves from the wild pigeon that we see in
our towns and cities today and this undoubtedly accounts for the
amazing variety of colors that are found in the average flock of
urban pigeons. To ancient peoples a white pigeon would have
seemed miraculous and this explains why the bird was widely
worshipped and considered to be sacred. Throughout human history
the pigeon has adopted many roles ranging from symbols of gods
and goddesses through to sacrificial victims, messengers, pets,
food and even war heroes!
The first biblical reference to the pigeon
(or dove) was in the Old Testament of the Bible in the first
millennium AC and was the story of
Noah and the dove of peace.
Later, in the New Testament, the pigeon was first mentioned
during the baptism of Christ where the dove descended as the
Holy Spirit, an image now used extensively in Christian art.
These early biblical references have paved the way for the many
different ways that the urban pigeon is viewed in modern
societies worldwide. Perception of the pigeon through the
centuries has changed from God to the devil and from hero to
guano -- foul or fantastic?
pigeon guano is seen as a major problem for property owners
in the 21st century, it was considered to be an invaluable
resource in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. Pigeon
guano was a highly prized fertiliser and considered to be far
more potent than farmyard manure. So prized, in fact, that armed
guards were stationed at the entrances to
dovecotes (pigeon houses) to stop thieves stealing it! Not
only this, but in England in the 16th century pigeon guano was
the only known source of saltpetre, an essential ingredient of
gunpowder and considered to be a highly valued commodity as a
result. In Iran, where eating pigeon flesh was forbidden,
dovecotes were set up and used simply as a source of
fertilizer for melon crops. In France and Italy it was used to
fertilize vineyards and hemp crops.
pigeon as a war hero
In modern times the pigeon has been used to great effect
during wartime. In both the
First and Second World Wars the pigeon saved hundreds of
thousands of human lives by carrying messages across enemy
lines. Pigeons were carried on ships in convoys and in the event
of a U-boat attack a messenger pigeon was released with details
of the location of the sinking ship. In many cases this led to
survivors being rescued and lives saved. In the
First World War mobile pigeon lofts were set up behind the
trenches from which pigeons often had to fly through enemy fire
and poison gas to get their messages home. The birds also played
a vital role in intelligence gathering and were used extensively
behind enemy lines where the survival rate was only 10%. In the
Second World War pigeons were used less due to advances in
telecommunications, but the birds still relayed invaluable
information back to the allies about the German V1 and V2 Rocket
sites on the other side of the English Channel.
pigeon as a messenger
The earliest large-scale communication network using
pigeons as messengers was established in Syria and Persia
around the 5th century BC. Much later, in the 12th century AD,
the city of Baghdad and all the main towns and cities in Syria
and Egypt were linked by messages carried by pigeons. This was
the sole source of communication. In
Roman times the pigeon was used to carry results of sporting
events, such as the Olympic Games, and this is why white doves
are released at the start of the Olympic Games today. In
England, prior to the days of telegraphs, pigeons were often
taken to football matches and released to carry home the result
of the game. Their use as a
messenger in wartime resulted in many pigeons being awarded
honours by both the British and French Governments. Incredibly,
the last 'pigeon post' service was abandoned in India in 2004
with the birds being retired to live out the rest of their days
religious significance of the pigeon
Many religious groups, including Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs,
feed pigeons for religious reasons. Many older Sikhs feed
pigeons ceremoniously to honour the high priest and warrior Guru
Gobind Singh who was a known friend of the pigeon (or rock
dove). Some Sikhs feed pigeons because they believe that when
they are reincarnated they will never go hungry if they have fed
pigeons in their previous life.
Other religious groups in
India believe that when a person dies his or her soul assumes
the form of a bird (normally a pigeon) and therefore by feeding
pigeons and other birds they are caring for the souls of their
The pigeon is revered in India with huge flocks numbering
many thousands of birds being fed daily at Hindu temples in town
and city centres throughout the country.
In both eastern
and western societies many of the most entrenched pigeon-related
problems in urban areas are considered to be caused, certainly
in part, by
religious feeding of pigeons.
Christian religion the pigeon is both a symbol of peace and
of the Holy Spirit.
the First World War a pigeon named Cher Ami (Dear
friend) saved the lives of many French soldiers by
carrying a message across enemy lines in the heat of
battle. Cher Ami was shot in the chest and the leg,
loosing most of the leg to which the message was
attached, but continued the 25 minute flight
avoiding shrapnel and poison gas to get the message
home. Cher Ami was awarded the French 'Croix
de Guerre' for heroic service. Another
heroic pigeon named G.I. Joe saved the lives of
a thousand soldiers in World War 2 after British
troops had established a position within an Italian
town that was due to be bombed by allied planes.
Communication equipment was down and the only means
of stopping the raid was to attach a hastily written
message to G.I. Joe and send him to the HQ. G.I. Joe
flew 20 miles in 20 minutes arriving at the air base
whilst the planes were taxiing on the runway.
Disaster was averted with 5 minutes to spare. G.I.
Joe received the
'Dickin' medal for his bravery.
Dove' or 'pigeon'?
The feral pigeon that we
see in our towns and cities today is descended from
Rock Dove (Columba livia), a cliff dwelling bird
historically found in coastal regions. The word
'pigeon' is actually derived from the Latin word 'pipio'
which meant 'young bird'. The word then passed into
Old French as 'pijon' and thus the English name
'pigeon' was derived and is now used the world over
as a common name for the Rock Dove. Other common
names include 'domestic pigeon' and the 'feral
pigeon'. In 2004 British and American Ornithologists
officially re-named the bird the Rock Pigeon.
do pigeons bob their heads?
pigeon has side mounted eyes unlike humans and owls
which have forward facing eyes. As a pigeons have
monocular vision rather than binocular vision
they bob their heads for depth of perception.
The pigeon's eyes work much better with stationary
images and therefore, as the pigeon takes a step
forward the head is temporarily left behind. The
next step jerks the head forward again and so on.
This allows the bird to correctly orient itself.
Air Mail service
The first organised pigeon air-mail service was
started in 1896 between New Zealand and the Great
Barrier Reef. The sinking of the SS Wairarapa
off the Great Barrier Reef, with the loss of 134
lives, was a catalyst for the service. News of the
disaster did not reach New Zealand for 3-days and as
a direct result a
pigeon-gram service was set up between the two
islands. The first message was carried in January
1896 and took less than 1.75 hours to reach Aukland.
Up to 5 messages were carried by each pigeon with
the record time for the journey being held by a
pigeon called 'Velocity' taking only 50 minutes and
averaging 125 kmph (only 40% slower than a modern
aircraft!). Special pigeon-gram stamps were issued
costing 2/- each (20 cents) with the fee being paid
in cash before the pigeon was released.
in Wall Street
One of the richest and
most famous families in the world amassed its
wealth, certainly in part, as a result of exploiting
the pigeon. In the early 1800's the Rothschild
family set up a network of pigeon lofts throughout
Europe and used homing pigeons to carry information
between its financial houses. This method proved to
be quicker and more efficient than any other means
of communication available at the time. The speed of
the service combined with the ability to send and
receive information ahead of the competition helped
the Rothschild family amass a fortune which still
habits of the pigeon
The feral pigeon
mates for life and can breed up to 8 times a year in
optimum conditions, bringing two young into the
world each time. The frequency of breeding is
dictated by the abundance of food. The eggs take
18/19 days to hatch with both parents incubating the
eggs. Young dependant pigeons are commonly known as
'squabs'. Both parents feed the young with a special
'pigeon milk' that is regurgitated and fed to the
squabs. Each squab can double its birth weight in
one day but it takes 4 days for the eyes to open.
When squabs are hungry they 'squeak' whilst flapping
their wings and as a result they are also commonly
known as 'squeakers'. At approximately 2 months of
age the young are ready to fledge and leave the
nest. This much longer than average time spent in
the nest ensures that life expectancy of a juvenile
pigeon is far greater than that of other fledglings.
are big business
We normally think of
the pigeon as being an unwelcome guest in our towns
and cities but most of us are unaware that racing
pigeons can be worth huge sums of money. One racing
pigeon recently sold for a staggering $132,517.00!
The 3-year old bird was a champion racer beating
21,000 other pigeons in one long distance race. For
this reason he was bought by one British company
that breeds racing pigeons for 'stud'. One very
happy pigeon! The previous record price for a pigeon
was $73, 800.00.
do pigeons navigate?
There are many
theories about how pigeons manage to return 'home'
when released 100's of miles from their loft. A
champion racing pigeon can be released 400-600 miles
away from its home and still return within the day.
This amazing feat does not just apply to 'racing' or
'homing' pigeons, all pigeons have the ability to
return to their roost. A 10-year study carried out
by Oxford University concluded that
pigeons use roads and freeways to navigate, in
some cases even changing direction at freeway
junctions. Other theories include
navigation by use of the earth's magnetic field,
visual clues such as landmarks, the sun and even
infrasounds (low frequency seismic waves). Whatever
the truth, this unique ability makes the pigeon a
very special bird.
people and pigeons
The humble pigeon
has attracted some
very famous fans over the last few thousand years
ranging from Royalty to rock and roll singers and
actors through to fashion designers. One of the most
famous royals is Queen Elizabeth of England who has
lofts and pigeon keepers at her estate in
Sandringham, Norfolk. Elvis Presley had a soft spot
for pigeons and Mike Tyson is also an enthusiastic
pigeon keeper. Even Maurizzo Gucci the
internationally renowned fashion designer is a keen
pigeon fancier spending a reputed $10,000 on one
American pigeon. 'One famous couple, Paul Newman and
Joanne Woodward, are keen pigeon fanciers but after
being swamped by autograph hunters at a pigeon show
they are apparently less comfortable to show their
affection for the birds publicly.' Last but not
least, and probably the most famous of all... Noah!
Probably the greatest
disaster to befall the species was the extermination
of the passenger pigeon in North America in the
early part of the 20th century. It is estimated that
there were 3-5 billion passenger pigeons in North
America at the time. Flocks of 100,000's of the
birds would blacken the skies as they flew over but
early settlers managed to wipe out every last bird
by 1914 through over-hunting. A more recent,
and quite bizarre disaster, befell tens of
thousands of racing pigeons released from Nantes in
France as part of a race held to celebrate the
centenary of the Royal Racing Pigeon Association in
England. 60,000 pigeons were released but only a few
birds ever arrived back at their lofts throughout
southern England. One theory suggests that the sonic
boom created by Concorde as it flew over the English
Channel, at the precise time the pigeons would have
been at the same point, completely disorientated the
birds, compromising their inbuilt navigation system.
Although pigeons are
one of the most intelligent of all the bird species
man has found limited uses for the birds other than
for the purposes of sport, food and as a message
carrier. A team of navy researchers, however, has
found that pigeons can be trained to save human
lives at sea with high success rates. Project Sea
Hunt has trained a number of pigeons to identify red
or yellow life jackets when floating in the water.
The pigeons were not only found to be more reliable
than humans but they were also many times quicker
than humans when it came to spotting survivors from
a capsized or sinking boat.
The pigeon can see color in the same way that
humans do but they can also see ultra-violet, a part
of the spectrum that humans cannot see, and this is
one of the reasons they are so well adapted to
in the news
One of the world's most
famous news agencies, Reuters, started its European
business by using trained homing pigeons. The
service was started in 1850 with 45 pigeons carrying
the latest news and stock prices from Aachen in
Germany to Brussels in Belgium. Although a telegraph
service between the two countries existed, numerous
gaps in the transmission lines made communication
difficult and slow. The birds travelled the 76 miles
in a record-breaking two hours beating the railway
by four hours.
do you never see a baby pigeon?
small birds rear and fledge their young in 2/3 weeks
with young birds sometimes leaving the nest after
only 10 days of life, but
pigeons are different, their young remain in the
nest for up to 2 months before fledging.
This gives the young pigeon a distinct advantage over many other
species of bird due to the fact that it leaves the nest as a
relatively mature juvenile, allowing the bird to cope better in
the first few days of its life, a dangerous time for all
Juveniles can be told apart from adults but it takes an
experienced eye. A juvenile�s beak often appears to be far too
long for the size of its body and the cere (the fleshy area at
the top of the beak) is white in adults and greyish pink in
the young pigeon an advantage over many other
species of bird. It leaves the nest as a relatively
mature juvenile, allowing the bird to cope better in
the first few days of its life, a dangerous time for
all youngsters. Juveniles can be told apart from
adults but it takes an experienced eye. A juvenile's
beak often appears to be far too long for the size
of its body and the cere (the fleshy area at the top
of the beak) is white in adults and greyish pink in
is the natural predator of the pigeon?
Although the natural enemy of the feral
pigeon is now man, with millions of pigeons being
killed in control operations the world over, it is
peregrine falcon that is the pigeons' real
natural predator. Although a shy and retiring bird
that has its natural habitat along rocky coastlines,
the peregrine is now being introduced into towns and
cities as a 'natural' pigeon control. The peregrine
is the fastest bird on the planet when in a dive and
can achieve speeds in excess of 200 mph, over 130
mph faster than a pigeon.
considered to be
one of the most intelligent birds on the planet
with pigeons being able to undertake tasks
previously thought to be the sole preserve of humans
and primates. The pigeon has also been found to pass
the 'mirror test' (being able to recognise its
reflection in a mirror) and is one of only 6
species, and the only non-mammal, that has this
ability. The pigeon can also recognise all 26
letters of the English language as well as being
able to conceptualise. In scientific tests pigeons
have been found to be able to differentiate between
photographs and even differentiate between two
different human beings in a photograph when rewarded
with food for doing so.