By Julia Coey
There is a remarkable species that can navigate great distances and is used by rescuers to find missing people. Individuals have received war medals for bravery and in the past, their droppings were prized (and expensive) as a source of saltpetre (needed to make gun powder). They’re extremely intelligent, able to identify all the letters in the alphabet and can recognize themselves in a mirror – a self-cognitive ability usually reserved for the higher primates.
What is this magical animal, you say. A dog? An elephant? A dolphin?
No, it’s a pigeon.
Pigeons (rock doves) illicit strong emotions. They are considered pests by some. Cornwall, ON, is trying to enforce a bylaw that would ban residents owning pigeons for sport or pets. At the same time, people are flocking to Cornwall to protest the ban. Pigeons also have their fans.
And why shouldn’t they? Despite being a common bird, pigeons really are extraordinary.
First, a brief history of our humble city companions.
Fossil records indicate they originated in Southern Asia. Because of their incredible homing ability, coupled with speed, they’ve acted as military messengers throughout history. Julius Caesar trusted pigeons with his important missives and they were an invaluable method of communication during both world wars.
Cher Ami is a famous Second World War pigeon that received a honourary service cross for his bravery. A miscommunication left an allied battalion surrounded by German soldiers and under attack from their own forces. Cher Ami was their only hope. He carried the message back across enemy lines, dodging German bullets. He was hit, but still flew 25 miles with a bullet lodged in his breast, missing an eye and most of leg to deliver the life-saving message.
Pigeons were brought to North America by settlers to Nova Scotia in the 1600s. Today, they thrive in cities.
Unlike most other birds, they have been known to have babies all year round, even in cold climates, usually laying two eggs at a time. Baby pigeons are fed crop milk (not really milk, an extremely nutritious liquid made in the crops, “a thin-walled, sac-like food-storage chamber that projects outward from the bottom of the esophagus”, according to www.stanford.edu/group/stanfordbirds/text/essays/Bird_Milk.html of parent pigeons) and seeds, so it’s a diet available even in the winter. Male pigeons bring nesting material to the female, who then constructs the nest. Both parents take turns sitting on the eggs.
Pigeons have been tested for use in search-and-rescue missions because of their excellent eyesight. They can see both colour and ultra violet light, which humans cannot. The pigeon rescuers spotted the orange life raft 93 per cent of the time, compared to 38 per cent for the human team.
Put aside your feelings about pigeons because it’s in your best interest to be nice to them. Turns out they have an excellent memory (http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/07/06/pigeons-remember-that-you-hate-them-will-probably-plot-revenge-later/) and you never know when you’ll need to be rescued.
Julia Coey is a writer and development coordinator at Toronto Wildlife Centre (TWC). TWC is a charity, relying on donations to run wildlife community education programs and an emergency wildlife hotline, dedicated wildlife rescue team and veterinary and rehabilitation programs that help about 5,000 sick, injured and orphaned wild animals a year. Visit www.torontowildlifecentre.com or www.torontowildlifecentre.com/toronto-wildlife-centre-psa