Tuesday, June 13, 2023
You are NOT going to believe what today is. Are you sitting down? Are you holding onto your hat?
It’s National Pigeon Appreciation Day.
I swear I am not making that up. I swear I had no idea. It’s just the ridiculous karmic nature of the universe that a day after I chirped the praises of birds in general, and said I’d follow up with a post about pigeons in particular, that this is what happened.
If ever there was a word handed to me on a red velvet cushion, this is it.
Come spread your wings with me and let’s talk about this amazing bird!
Let’s get one thing out of the way before we start: pigeons are not dirty, and they are no more likely to spread disease than your dog or cat or pet chicken or the raccoon that tipped over your garbage can last night. Pigeons bathe and groom themselves just like any other animal, just like any other bird.
And yes, you can catch some diseases from them, the same way you can catch a disease from eating cow or playing with your bunny rabbit, but it is rare and almost always non-lethal.
They get a bad rap because they poop on our cities and don’t care where, but that is entirely our fault. We brought them in, then we fed them breadcrumbs and bagels and pizza, none of which a pigeon should eat.
From the 16th through the 18th centuries, pigeon poop was so valuable as a fertilizer that soldiers guarded dovecotes to prevent people from stealing it.
Ok, enough about poop. There is quite a lot more to pigeons!
Plenty of famous people have kept pigeons as pets and used them as messengers. Fashion designer Gucci, and actor Paul Newman are two you may recognize. Elvis loved pigeons.
Probably the most famous pigeon aficionado of all? Noah.
That’s right, your biblical dove is just a pigeon with a pretty name. They have a slightly different look but they’re the same exact species.
So how did doves get to be the harbinger of peace and pigeons get to be reviled?
Sad, sad, people.
There doesn’t seem to be consensus on why June 13th is pigeon appreciation day, but it is the day that one of the most famous pigeons died, so there is speculation that it was instituted as an honorarium.
During World War I American troops got trapped behind enemy lines. Their only way to communicate with allies was through carrier pigeons. This “Lost Battalion” was being shredded not only by enemy fire but by accidental friendly fire. The battalion’s Major sent his last surviving carrier pigeon, Cher Ami, with a message to allies giving their position and begging them to stop firing.
During his flight he was shot in the chest and fell from the sky, but managed to take flight again and deliver the message 25 miles away.
One hundred and ninety four lives were saved thanks to Cher Ami and other pigeons like him.
It kind of makes you want to cry. Whether in joy for the success or despair for our opinion of pigeons is open to debate.
Another way pigeons save lives? They can spot survivors from shipwrecks and capsized boats far quicker than humans can. During training projects, pigeons spotted targets quicker than humans 84% of the time. The Coast Guard used them in search and rescue operations for a while, but, you know, we’re humans, so we discontinued that program.
In a true feat of human accomplishment, we also managed to wipe out every single last carrier pigeon.
Who are the real dirty rats in this story?
If you’ve never been to Central Park or Washington Square and seen flocks of pigeons cooing, then you have not truly had a chance to appreciate them.
If you have never seen a flock roar to life as one, then you have not truly had a chance to appreciate them.
In spite of their urban ubiquity, pigeons are not an invasive species. They will never fight it out with the Spotted Owl or wreck the habitats of Starlings. In fact, they have become so familiar with humans that they’re the most domesticated “wild” animal in existence. If there really was a zombie apocalypse, the rats would thrive but pigeons would probably go extinct. That’s how much they depend on us for food and shelter.
Pigeons may not be as smart as crows or ravens, but they are pretty amazing in their own right. They have been taught to play ping pong, and to distinguish between Picasso and Monet. They are on par with primates when it comes to numerical abilities. And in one study they were taught to differentiate and identify 725 (725!!!) different random visual patterns.
But wait, there’s more!
Are you ready to have your mind totally blown?
Pigeons have been trained to diagnose malignant breast cancer tumors with 99% accuracy. Seriously, look it up.
As recently as 1999 they have been used as messengers in the aftermath of deadly cyclones and floods to help locate survivors in remote regions.
They can recognize human faces, and know which ones are friendly and which to avoid even when those humans wear a hat or change their clothes.
And numerous studies have shown that they can be taught to recognize real words in a sea of nonsense words, even when they have never seen those words before.
Honestly. If you’re not convinced that pigeons are smarter than some humans you know, there is nothing I can say at this point.
The story of pigeons is one of triumph and tragedy. Triumph for the brilliance and beauty and adaptability of nature, and tragedy for how we treat that.
Remember those old Sesame Street skits where they gave you a grid of objects and sang “One of these things is not like the others”?
You could put anything in those grids next to humans, and we would be the ones who have to go.
Here’s a human who gets it: in 2016 a guy named Duke Riley created a living art exhibition in Brooklyn. He strapped LED lights to the ankles of 2,000 pigeons and orchestrated a light show above the old navy boatyard.
I only learned about this recently, much too late to see it in person, but the idea is enchanting. I have yet to find a video that could possibly do it justice.
You don’t have to like pigeons, but you can’t not appreciate them. Next time you see one, instead of shooing it away, feed it a few of your strawberries and you might just make a loyal friend who will find you when your boat tips over and always, always make his way home.
Photo: a passel of pigeons in Washington Square Park. Also called a flock, a kit, and a band, among other things. Listen… listen…