Pigeons: Pests or Pets?


 efore my father-in-law passed away, he took my two oldest children on a visit to see their cousin in England.  I gave them a list of things I thought the children would enjoy seeing, and I included feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.  At the time, one could purchase a bag of food (at a price higher than “tuppence” a bag) and feed the feral pigeon population.  Libby and Trip were 6 and 4 respectively, and were overwhelmed by the pigeons, which not only ate the pigeon food, but also grabbed Trip’s lunch, and tangled themselves in Libby’s hair.  Instead of having a Mary Poppins moment, the children were a bit frightened...and Trip was left hungry.


Since November 2003, it has been illegal to feed the pigeons in the square.  There are organizations in opposition of this law (see Save the Pigeons), while many others agree that there are just too many feral pigeons, not only in England, but world-wide (see Pests:  Pigeons).  Wherever your sympathies lie, you cannot deny the urban success story that is the feral pigeon.  Restrictions on feeding, pigeon spikes in nesting areas, dummy owls, and other tricks have not done much to curb the pigeon population.


Pigeons are originally native to the British Isles.  Sometimes called the rock dove, the common pigeon nests on rocky outcroppings.  The development of cities with bridges, tunnels and skyscrapers has provided the pigeon with more than enough nesting sites in urban areas.  Scavengers extraordinaire, the pigeon will eat almost anything, guaranteeing survival in cities world wide.  Natural predators, like hawks, are less common in cities than in native pigeon habitats, but this is changing.  We would, however, need many, many more hawks to make a real impact on these birds.


If you can’t beat ‘em, study ‘em, and maybe learn to enjoy ‘em.  The pigeon has been domesticated for centuries, and there’s a good reason.  They are pleasant, gentle birds, with amazing homing skills, a calming coo, and they require simple care.  Across the country, kids can join homing pigeon clubs to raise pigeons for fun and education.   Those interested in genetics might join a fancy pigeon breeders club (click here to see fancy pigeon types).


Pigeons and their kin deserve a special place in any study of birds.  Unique among birds, pigeons feed their young with “crop milk” which both the male and female can produce (flamingos and penguins may have similar “milks,” but they are not produced in the crop).  This is not the same as mammalian milk, but is high in protein and just right for young pigeons.  Pigeons care for their young by providing food and shelter, and may mate for life.


If you can’t own pigeons, you can watch them!  Cornell University’s Pigeon Watch project is a city-kid’s companion to Project Feeder Watch


In literature and historically, they have saved the day by delivering messages.  The pigeon “Cher Ami” (click here for pdf info and coloring pages) was a WWI hero who saved the lives of 200 men.  He is currently on display in the Smithsonian Billy the pigeon carried news of an airplane crash in 1942.   Rumors are that a pigeon named Paddy was the first to report the news of D-Day.


The title character of the 1928 Newbery Award winner Gay-Neck is a heroic carrier pigeon in India.  Follow his adventures from three story-telling perspectives:  An old man, a young boy, and the hero himself.   Fans of the American Girl History series will be delighted to find Night Flyers, a tale of a girl and her pigeons in 1918.  Bill Peet’s Fly Homer Fly is sure to delight all.


Our favorite book about pigeons is Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post.  The Swallows, Amazons and Ds are mining for gold in the dry drought-afflicted fells of England’s Lake District.  Three homing pigeons, “Homer,” “Sophocles,” and “Sappho,” are the children’s main means of communication with the folks back home.  When a fire breaks out, will the pigeons save the day?   


Younger children will enjoy Mo Willem’s silly picture book pigeon in Don’t let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, or Rosemary Well’s more serious Language of Doves.  Don Freeman’s Fly High, Fly Low features a San Franciscan pigeon who lives in the letter “B.”  George Selden’s famous cricket takes a ride with a pigeon in Chester Cricket’s Pigeon Ride


Pigeon keeping is an international hobby, as young readers will see in Only a Pigeon, the story of an Ethiopian pigeon fancier, or in Angelo, David Macauley’s story of an Italian craftsman with a soft heart.  Or visit Rome though the eyes of a pigeon, in the more stylistically Macauley-esque Rome Antics.   Set in the German countryside, Come Back Pigeon is a sweet story for young readers.


At this point in this newsletter, I usually add recipes, but I like pigeons, and I do not have the heart to encourage you to eat them.  Since pigeon is eaten in many places, there are many recipes online. 


Whether you are reading about pigeons, or watching them out in the “wild,” I hope you develop a new appreciation for them!