My process of recognizing pigeons as life overlooked actually began a couple years ago. Between reading about the Dickin medal, the Victoria Cross for animals, on Cracked.com and having an experience of truly acknowledging a pigeon as it brought its partner building materials for a nest, in the Toronto Coach Terminal, I began to reflect on the lives of pigeons in the city, how they are treated, how they act, and their histories. At the time, I planned to develop these musings into a comic book series which framed pigeons as stereotypical homeless war veterans and anarchist punk youth, shitting on statues of dead politicians and generals, such as Winston Churchill, as petty revenge for how pigeons were treated during the wars, and how they have since come to be, at best, things to be ignored. Delving into the topic of pigeons, I was fascinated to learn how they are adapted to living in cities, with buildings serving as substitutes for the rock cliffs of their natural habitats. And I was appalled to learn how domesticated pigeons were brought to Turtle Island (North America) by European settlers, at the same time that their local relatives, passenger pigeons, were being made extinct, especially as this story is so easy to relate to and feel complicit in. Although only now given the language of trying to do justice to, and justice with, life overlooked, I believe this has always been my project in relation to pigeons. But in order to do justice with something, I believe we need to do justice to it, and in order to do justice to something, we need to know it. My part in this project has been a real attempt to know pigeons, and with my background in studying evolution and ecology, I have taken a rather scientific bent, attempting to understand what pigeons are and how pigeons live, questions humans so rarely consider, despite encountering pigeons so often. I have also attempted to look at the relations between pigeons and humans over time, albeit regrettably from a largely, possibly completely, Eurocentric standpoint, as well as how and where pigeons continuously appear in popular culture. I hope that this work will help others, and me, to better recognize pigeons as life that should not be overlooked, but more importantly, I hope that in recognizing pigeons, we may recognize that no lives should be overlooked, and we might be able to work towards doing justice with pigeons: justice for animals, humans, and, truly, all life.

-Benjamin J. Kapron



Pigeons are not a life overlooked. They problematize the whole notion of overlooking life, and suggest that even the most invisible parts of our world are never untouched by human hands. I came to pigeons and this project with the understanding that pigeons were a bird that was ignored by the larger population, and cherished by the special few that took the time to sit with the pigeons, be with them, and feed them. From this perspective I saw pigeons as fallen heroes, veterans of a long distant war left to fend for themselves amid the towering grey of the city. I soon found that this framework to be too simplistic, however, the association of pigeons with war veterans, with the homeless, and with other politically unwanted populations, remained crucial for understanding how the birds operate as symbolic registers. Pigeons are deeply entangled in a biopolitical process that seeks to reduce them to bare life. Their lives are political projects of systemic neglect, marginalization, and Othering. Pigeons are a killable form of life; a tool for (primarily) humans to destroy for their gain. Let me take a small tangential stroll through a very selective history of these birds: the beginning of the 20th Century saw the end of Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) in North America. For centuries prior to the collapse of the population, spectators of the massive nomadic flocks of these birds had remarked on their ominous nature, with flocks large enough to block out the sun. In a rapid collapse of the population, directly caused by human processes, Passenger Pigeons went from being approximately 40% of the avifauna in North America to extinct in less the 50 years. In 1914, the last Passenger Pigeon died in captivity. That year saw the beginning of the First World War and the beginning of another 30 years of pigeon death. The two Great Wars saw the use of the Passanger Pigeon’s cousin, the Homing Pigeon (also known as the Carrier Pigeon, Columba livia domestica) as tools of war. Throughout the First and Second War Homing Pigeons became machines of war, inserted into, between, and around machinery; they became automaton. Today, pigeon deterrents, metal spikes on every ledge of the city, remind pigeons of their precarious place in the world as killable beings. And so our stroll ends abruptly with this realization: Pigeons are not overlooked, they are a life very much looked at, politicized, and engaged with. The birds have been reduced to a malleable form of bare life, used to evoke the more depraved sides of urban life and to be killed at will; they are, like the rat, an extremely mobile symbolic register. And yet, we can, like the small few who still take the time to be with the pigeon and enjoy a meal together, learn from these birds. Their histories provide with vivid details the errs of humanity, whether in hubris or exemptionalism. Perhaps, rather than trying to kill the “killer pigeons” and “rats with wings,” we might take the time to talk “pidgin,” and learn something with them.

-Dylan McMahon



Pigeons as…



1. Pigeons as Taxonomies

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According to scientific taxonomy, the beings in Toronto most readily called pigeons are Columba livia domestica, (feral descendants of) a domesticated subspecies of rock pigeons (Columba livia).

More broadly, pigeon refers to many of the roughly 300 species constituting the family Columbidae {the International Ornithological Committee (IOC) claims that there are 334 species in Columbidae [1]; the Oxford Dictionary of Zoology (ODZ) claims that there are 296 species [2]}. Most of the remaining species within this family are called doves; however, nothing scientifically differentiates pigeons and doves. Pigeon is often used for relatively larger birds and dove for relatively smaller birds, but there is no law to this, and the term rock dove is used interchangeably with rock pigeon to refer to Columba livia. In fact, release doves used for weddings and other ceremonies are often white breeds of Columba livia domestica [4] (more on breeding below, in relation to pigeon fancying).

Nevertheless, outside of science, pigeons are not doves, so when we talk about pigeons, we are not talking about all Columba livia.

“Have you ever been sitting eating a sandwich in Peace Park and you have all these pigeons come up and surround you, the miserable rats. And of course there’s always the pathetic one. The pathetic one, he’s the big problem. He’s got a wing dragging on the ground or something and you have to sit there and try to choke down your tuna-fish sandwich while you watch the filthy bastards hound that poor cripple.” . . . .

“And you know what else really gets my goat? My Japanese students think they’re DOVES for God’s sake. DOVES, I said! They are NOT doves! Doves are pretty and white and they go coo-coo. They’re gentle and lovely to be around. You’d never catch a dove stepping over another dove to get at a dirty piece of Pocky that some stinking kid who needs his diaper changed has a mind to throw at him.” . . . .

“Don’t you see! That’s what’s so dangerous!” Xavier says. “To confuse something vile and ugly, like a low and foul pigeon, with a gentle, tender dove … it gets to the root of all the evil in the world! Every instance of evil! The deception in the Garden of Eden! Oh no, that’s not a pigeon offering you that apple, Eve my dear! That’s a dove! A lovely pure white dove who wants only the best for you!”

From Mary Cartherin Koroloff’s “Killing all the Pigeons in Peace Park”[5].

Pigeon (and others)

Pigeon (and others) (Source: Francis Marlani; Flickr)


2. Pigeons as Ecological

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Rock pigeons are currently found on every continent except Antarctica, but given the long history of interaction between Columbus livia and Homo sapiens sapiens, it is difficult to know, for certain, where these birds lived before they travelled around the world with humans. The common belief is that Columbus livia (pre-domestica) lived in parts of southern and western Europe, northern Africa, and south-western and central Asia [6,7].

Rock pigeons were introduced to North America in 1606, when some arrived in Port Royal, Acadia (now Nova Scotia) [8].


Columba livia distribution map
Dark red: approximate native range. Light red: introduced non-native populations
(Source: Viktor Kravtchenko; Wikimedia Commons)


With wild populations of rock pigeons often found living on rocky cliff faces in their (suspected) native range, it is believed that these are their natural habitats [7,8,9]. Now in cities, buildings serve as substitute cliffs, and it is speculated that the similarities between these habitats have helped pigeons to adapt so well to living in cities [10]. Compared to passenger pigeons, where deforestation contributed to their extinction, rock pigeons thrive because of the rise of cities.


(Modified from: Andrew Fogg; Corey Leopold; Flickr)


(Modified from: Loozrboy; Corey Leopold; Flickr)


Pigeon nests are commonly found in sheltered areas of buildings, such as under awnings, within crevices, and in eavestroughs [10]. One member of a bonded pair of pigeons will build a rather weak nest out of materials, such as straw and sticks, collected by its bonded partner. Over time, the nest will be strengthened by feces contributed by the pigeons occupying the nest (adults and any offspring). Using feces to build a nest is uncommon in birds; most species remove feces from their nests. This lack of concern for where one defecates might help to explain why pigeon excrement seems so prevalent even compared to other bird excrement. As pair bonds reuse the same nest for multiple clutches of eggs, these nests gradually become quite solid masses, containing “unhatched eggs and mummies of dead nestlings” [6,8]. Mass nesting is common, with many nests occurring in close proximity to one another. Mass nesting is just one aspect of pigeon sociality, which also sees pigeons gathering, feeding, and flying in groups [8].

Via pair bonding, pigeons are monogamous long-term, although, like most monogamous animals, it is not uncommon for pigeons to engage in sexual activity with other pigeons than their bonded partners. Same-sex pairings and matings are not uncommon, with, in some cases, same-sex bonded female pigeons even laying unfertilized eggs [11]. According to Dr. Luc-Alain Giraldeau, “they [male pigeons] can’t tell males from females, so they just coo anything” [10] [a male pigeon will coo to attract a (female) pigeon to a nesting site that he has found, thereby beginning a pair bonding or mating process].

Recently, pigeon mating has made its way to media. In the text-based video game Hatoful Boyfriend [72], players control  “the only human attending St. PigeoNation’s Institute, an elite school for birds” [70]; a dating simulator, “[t]he playable character has the opportunity to woo no less than seven different birds,” including several pigeons [71]. The game is available for PC, via Steam, and is coming to PS4 and PS Vita next year.

For real pigeons, both parents will take turns sitting on the nest to incubate eggs, after mating has occurred [8,10]. Pigeons generally lay one to three eggs, which take eighteen days to hatch, and newly-hatched pigeons will stay in the nest for another twenty-five to thirty-two days [6,8]. During this growing period, both parents will feed young pigeons milk: regurgitated secretions from their crop [6,8]. According to “The Secret Life of Pigeons”, pigeons are one of the fastest growing vertebrates on earth [8]: although pigeons are largely helpless when hatched, with only “sparse yellow or white down” [12], pigeons reach their maximum body weight and full feathering by twenty-eight days old [8]. Sexual maturation takes longer, complete after six to ten months [13]. Female pigeons will often lay a new clutch of eggs before the young pigeons leave the nest [12], though once the young pigeons do leave, the father will often spend some time with them away from the nest, showing them where to find food and otherwise, how to survive [10].

The question is sometimes asked, why do we never see baby pigeons? That pigeon nests are generally built in sheltered or hidden areas, and young pigeons are fully grown by the time they leave their nests, provides an answer.

On average, pigeons live for about three to five years in the wild and up to fifteen years in captivity [8,12]. Predation, disease, lack of food and/or water, and weather conditions are the primary causes of death [12] and thirty percent of pigeons die annually in urban areas (OvoControl claims thirty percent [12]; “The Secret Life of Pigeons” claims thirty-five percent [10]). As to why streets aren’t “littered with dead pigeons”, “licensed wildlife-control specialist” David Seerveld claims that pigeons tend to “‘crawl under a building or into a tight space [before they die], because as they die they are vulnerable and don’t necessarily want to get eaten alive in their last moments’”, while “Gary Graves, a curator at the Smithsonian’s bird division” posits that “most [pigeons and sparrows] are cryptically colored (blends in to the background) [sic] and that . . . processes and scavengers clean them up quickly” [14].

Pigeons feed terrestrially, pecking at food on the ground: generally seeds, fruits and food items discarded by humans, and occasionally also insects and spiders [6]. Unlike most birds, which need to tilt their heads back to swallow water, pigeons are able to keep their beaks in water and suck water up, like using a straw [6]. According to Dr. Giraldeau, pigeons behave according to ideal free distribution: pigeon populations will spread themselves out over an area corresponding to the proportion of food in different sections.

If you measure how many pigeons you find in a park in downtown Montreal it does correspond almost precisely to the relative proportion of food compared to the other parks that is present in this one park [sic]. So imagine if one park has twice as much food as this other park, there are twice as many pigeons. If another park has five times more food, it has five times more pigeons. The only way you can get a population like that is if they can actually form a network where they will spread out. . . . .

So it means that the pigeons over here are not getting any more food per capita than the pigeons over there. So if I’m giving out more food to these pigeons, what I’m really doing is I’m bringing in more pigeons. I’m not feeding them more.

What will happen is if I do this [give more food] regularly, it will suck in pigeons from elsewhere, so the population will grow. You can never feed pigeons more, you can just attract more pigeons.[10]

Although feeding terrestrially often keeps pigeons on the ground, they are very strong fliers, with strong muscles in their wings. Pigeons do not migrate, and do not tend to travel far from their nests [10]. If, however, they are brought far from their nests, they will fly home with purpose [6,8,10,15], travelling up to 600 miles in a single day, at speeds up to eighty miles per hour [15]. Therefore, pigeon messaging goes, more-or-less, one way: pigeons are brought, by humans, to locations away from their nests, and will readily carry messages with them, back to their nests, when released to do so (more information on human uses of pigeons below). Pigeons can make their way home from extreme distances and unfamiliar locations, and the talent for homing has been, perhaps, the pigeon behaviour most exploited by humans.

Homing requires a map sense and a compass sense. Map sense refers to an animal’s ability to know the location of its destination, whereas compass sense refers to an animal’s ability to know what direction it needs to travel to reach that destination. While pigeons’ apparent ability to recognize landmarks helps to explain their map sense [16], how they are able to orient themselves towards home has raised more significant questions. Given the distances that pigeons are able to return home from, some scientists believe that pigeons must be able to detect the earth’s magnetic field and orient themselves in relation to it. However, in a study shown on “The Secret Life of Pigeons”, scientists attached magnets just above pigeons’ beaks, believing that this should disrupt detection of magnetic fields and disorient the pigeons if they are using magnetic fields. With these magnets in place, the pigeons were still able to find their way home without much difficulty, suggesting they were not relying on magnetic fields. However, when, in the same experiments, scientists inserted objects into pigeons’ nostrils, thereby obstructing their sense of smell, the pigeons had much greater difficulty making their way home. This study suggests that pigeons greatly rely on smell for homing [10].

Pigeons characteristically bob their heads when they walk. In 1978, Dr. Barrie J. Frost put pigeons on moving treadmills and found that they stopped bobbing their heads. This discovery supports the theory that pigeons bob their heads to stabilize their visual surroundings as they move. Humans move their eyes for similar purposes. When walking on a treadmill, the pigeons are not moving and do not need to continue stabilizing their vision. Head bobbing may also help with depth perception [17]. Pigeons are able to see 340° around themselves. They can also process visual information three times faster than humans. “If a pigeon watched a feature film, 24 frames per second would appear to it like a slide presentation. They would need at least 75 frames per second to create the illusion of movement on screen. (This is why pigeons seem to leave it until the very last second to fly out of the way of an oncoming car; it appears much less fast to them)” [18,10].

“The Secret Life of Pigeons” suggests that pigeons evolved this ability to react to fast moving objects in order to survive in cities, but given the time it takes for adaptations to fully take hold in species, compared, for instance, to how long motor vehicles have been in wide use, I have to challenge this chronology. I believe that pigeons have been able to survive in cities because they already possessed suitable adaptations, such as this high visual frame rate: whereas other species may be poorly suited to survive in urban environments, pigeons are able to exploit the niche of urban environments, given the adaptions they possess.

Pigeons have proven themselves to be very intelligent. They are able to:

Detect suitable food items in groups of items [19]

Search for specific items in groups of items [19]

Recognize human faces [20,10]

Recognize themselves in mirrors, though (apparently) only after training. [Creating problems for the traditional mirror test, pigeons only seem interested in their reflection when there is something (food) to gain] [21,22]

Determine when objects are moving [23]

Learn behaviours by observing other pigeons [24]

Learn behaviours by observing models of pigeons (when provided with a reward) [24]

Learn from multiple sources simultaneously (i.e. multitask), though they learn better when presented one source at a time [25]

Perform specific learned-tasks in response to specific circumstances and stimuli, including arbitrary categories such as sound intensities, combinations of sound and light intensities, and dox-matrix patterns [26]

Distinguish identities and categories of objects, including on the basis of physical similarities, location, spatial considerations (length vs. width), and “having learned that some objects share a common function or association” [24,27,28,29,30]

Differentiate between visual displays with very subtle differences, perform different tasks according to these different visual displays, and remember which tasks to perform 2 years later [26]

Understand information as locally or generally relevant, depending on the situation [31]

Assess the number of items in a group [32]

Keep track of the number of events that have happened [32]

Count the number of times a light flashes, even when the length of the flash varies [32]

“Serially order numerical quantities” (understand that “7/6 > 5 > 4 > 3 > 2/1”) [32]

Distinguish between colour and number in visual arrays [32]

Learn, long-term, how to perform, at least, 4 tasks in order [33]

Perform actions a specific number of times, according to “digit-like symbols” [32]

Memorize patterns of, at least, 320 photographs [27]

Act according to superstitions (controversially proposed by B.F. Skinner) [34]

Tell differences between cubist and impressionist paintings [35]

Most of these studies were not conducted for the benefit of the pigeons or out of interest of learning about pigeon capabilities. Instead, pigeons, likely under the assumption that they are dumb birds, are used as model organisms to better understand animal, including human, intelligence and behaviour. Psychology and behavioural sciences owe a lot to studies that used pigeons, and pigeons were one of B.F. Skinner’s favourite animals to use in experiments [40].


3. Pigeons as Lost History

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This is a story of hubris. One of expansion, modernity, and death. This story follows the decline of the North American Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). The Passenger Pigeon was, perhaps, the most prolific bird ever to have existed on the continent, with populations estimated between 3 and 5 billion potentially representing a quarter of the population of avifauna at its height [54] (The Smithsonian places the figure higher, at potentially 40 per cent [55]). Consistently the birds were described as swarming, ominous sights, blackening the sky in “countless numbers” (Samuel de Champlain) and “infinite multitudes” (Gabriel Sagard Theodat) [55]. Upon encountering a flock of Passenger Pigeons in 1749, the Swedish botanist Pehr Kalm described,

[…] an incredible multitude of these pigeons  [traveling towards] Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Their number, while in flight, extended three or four English miles in length, and more than one such mile in breadth, and they flew so closely together that the sky and the sun were obscured by them, the daylight becoming sensibly diminished by their shadow. (in Fuller) [56]

During a pigeon hunt in 1831 amid the desolate landscape of a nesting colony, which looked “as if the forest had been swept by a tornado,” ornithologist and painter John James Audubon depicted a frightening scene in which,

[…] suddenly there burst forth a general cry of ‘Here they come!’ The noise, which they made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea passing through the rigging of a close-reefed vessel. I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands [of pigeons] were soon knocked down by the pole men. The birds continued to pour in […]. The pigeons, arriving by the thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses as large as hogs heads, were forming on branches all round. Here and there the perches gave way under the weight with a crash, and falling to the ground, destroyed hundreds of birds beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It was a scene of uproar and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak, or even to shout to those persons who were nearest to me. Even the reports of the guns were seldom heard, and I was made aware of their firing only by seeing the shooters reloading. (in Schorger) [56]

Audubon later calculated, based on their flight speed and the assumption of “two pigeons per square yard,” that this flock (or superflock) contained 1,115,136,000 birds [54]. Wilson had already, in 1806, calculated a flock of 2,230,272,000 passenger pigeons, and in 1866 King observed a flock in Ontario whose “movement lasted for 14 h[ours] the first day and continued in diminished intensity for several days more,” this flock was later (in 1955) calculated by Schorger as being comprised of 3,717,120,000 pigeons [54]. And yet, by 1892, the last nesting colony in the province was comprised of approximately 20 birds [57]. Then in 1899, 68 years after Audubon’s chaotic encounter with a billion birds, a boy in Wisconsin killed the last wild Passenger Pigeon [58,73; disputed by 56]. Finally, at 1p.m. on September 1st, 1914, Martha the last captive Passenger Pigeon died [55]. From “incredible multitudes” to extinct in 150 years.


Today, a plaque dedicated by the Wisconsin Ornithological Society stands on the alleged site of the final wild pigeon kill, which reads: “Dedicated to the last Wisconsin Passenger Pigeon shot at Babcok Sept. 1899. This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man” [73]. This was the fate of the Passenger Pigeon in North America. It’s an interesting story, and certainly a poignant one. Like the Cod fisheries of the northern Atlantic Ocean in the late 1980s and early 90s, Passenger Pigeons danced with a newly capitalized resource economy, expansionary harvesting, and the forces of modernity, both technological and social. Their decline was caused as much by resource exploitation as it was progress. For Walter Benjamin, this was the “Angel of History”

[h]is face turned towards the past. Where we perceived a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what had been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. [59]

In a similar way as Benjamin’s Angel of History, so too were the Passenger Pigeons’ wings caught in the storm of progress. However, unlike the angel, Passenger Pigeons were swept into the maelstrom of humans.

Key to the ecology of the Passenger Pigeon is the nomadic swarming behavior that Naturalists, Ornithologists, and hunters were so captivated by. As Blockstein notes,

much of Passenger Pigeons’ ecology and behaviors can be considered a response to predators. The immense numbers of individuals that congregated in breeding and migrating flocks effectively satiated predators. There were simply so many pigeons in a flock that not only was each individual effectively shielded by others, but no predator could make a dent in their numbers. [54]

While it is difficult to get accurate numbers on how many pigeons there were at any time in North America, the estimates given above of superflocks exceeding 1 billion birds would have represented only one of multiple flocks at any given moment. Beyond the population of birds in these flocks, their nesting colonies occupied vast amounts of space. Blockstein describes a single nesting colony in Wisconsin in 1871, which covered an area of 2,216km2 (which he describes as a “conservative” estimate) [54]. Geographically, “this nesting covered most of the southern two thirds of Wisconsin, with other nestings in adjacent Minnesota” [54]. On average, Passenger Pigeon nesting colonies covered 70.6km [54]. In anthropomorphic jest Jerry Sullivan asks us to,

Imagine if you were a turkey living on acorns in Georgia woodland. Life is good, until one day a billion passenger pigeons move down the block. They all plan to eat acorns too. […] To feed their hordes, the pigeons needed a large area of forest that was enjoying a great year, a year when every oak produced an abundance of acorns. […] Passenger pigeons did a sort of avian version of slash-and-burn agriculture. […] It is a benign way to use the land as long as you have enough space […] [60]

Here, in Sullivan’s final point, is where we find one of the two major reasons for the decline of the Passenger Pigeon. Their fall was of both spatial and economic genesis. Because of the need for large colonies for the pigeon to nest, the loss of habitat due to the expansion of farmland, particularly in the expansion of the American agricultural frontier westward, was disastrous [54,55,56]. With extensive loss of habitat due to deforestation the birds became more and more localized. This may account for the population bubble that seems to be reflected in flock estimates. As there became less and less areas suitable for nesting, flocks became larger and larger in their collective pursuit of appropriate habitat. Sullivan’s comparison of the birds to “slash-and-burn agricultural[ists]” is an interesting one. Indeed, this type of agricultural production is land demanding. However, more importantly it is a type of agricultural production not often associated with neoliberal capitalist models, which seek to maximize profits. Indeed, the capitalization of the countryside through the commodification of land (through agriculture) and its resources (logging), and the expulsion of pigeons is an interesting (if, perhaps, only symbolic) juxtaposition. In this sense, the Passenger Pigeon can be seen as a ‘canary in the coal mine’ for capitalist expansion and its problematic nature. Like the Lorax from the Dr. Seuss children’s book of the same name, Passenger Pigeons became a casualty of commodity fetishism [68].

The loss of land, however, is not the only factor that seems to have spelled the demise of the bird. It seems that the effects of habitat destruction were coupled with the zealous and intensive commodification of Pigeons themselves, as meat and a variety of other products, leading to the precipitous demise of the species. Furthermore, in this context, it was not simply the killing of pigeons, but rather a variety of social, economic, and technological transformations that occurred during the 19th century that lead to the eradication of the birds. Superflocks, allowed for the massive exploitation of pigeon, and without any restrictions on allowable catch, or season they were extensively exploited [56]. Pigeons were captured by professional hunters using a variety of methods, and sold (both live and deceased) as food and as live targets for shooting ranges [54,61]. Due to their abundance, pigeons were a cheap staple meat for the rural and urban poor, being sold for “as little as fifty cents a dozen” [54,55]. Their use by the urban poor was particularly enhanced both during and following the American Civil War, which saw a vast expansion in the scale and efficacy of the rail infrastructure in the United States [62:849]. Furthermore, the introduction of the telegraph alongside railroad tracks allowed for rapid consultation as to the exact location of Pigeon colonies [62:849]. Prior to the introduction of these technologies, Blockstein argues that Pigeon hunting would have had an unsubstantial effect on the populations of the birds [54]. However, with the introduction of these technologies, and the professionalization and modernization of the pigeon hunting industry, populations began to decline. And indeed, this was due to prolific hunting of the birds. Blockstein highlights the rapid transformation of this industry: “in 1842, 3,000 live pigeons were transported by rail from Michigan to Boston. In 1851, an estimated 1,800,000 pigeons were sent to New York City from a nesting in [northern] New York” [54]. Blockstein and Tordoff recall a harvest in Grand Rapids in 1860 that saw the shipment of 200,000 pigeons, but note that the most extensive harvest of Passenger Pigeons may have occurred in Petoskey, Michigan in 1878, where a colony of 250 mileswas harvested for three months producing 1.5 million live pigeons, and 80,000 dead pigeons, with an estimated 10 million total dead [62:849-50].

Amid this mass-exploitation, there were some attempts at conservation. A bill was put forward by the Ohio State Legislature in 1857 but rejected by the special committee who stated: “The Passenger Pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them […]” [74]. This verdict was perhaps seemingly accurate in the middle of the century, where infinite multitudes were still evident. However, with the intensity of hunting occurring at this time, birds were unable to roost, lay eggs, and care for their young. As Blockstein notes, “for nearly 30 years [from approximately 1860 onwards], well over twice the age of the average bird, there was a history of unsuccessful nesting” [54]. Because of disturbances in roosting, due to hunting, and abandonment of nesting grounds prematurely, by the 1880s flocks were predominantly comprised of older birds [54]. This process was amplified by hunts, like one in 1883 where “all the young were taken” [54].

In a similar way to the destruction of North Atlantic Cod stocks, as total populations declined, due to the swarming behavioral strategies of Passenger Pigeons (like Cod), populations seemed to be steady. However, as the turn-of-the-century neared, populations became noticeably diminished, “once the population reached a level of thousands, rather than billions, the species was unable to recover” [54]. As Bendire wrote in 1892,

Isolated and scattering pairs probably still breed in New England States, northern New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and a few other localities further south, but the enormous breeding colonies […] are […] things of the past, probably never to be seen again. In fact, the extermination […] has progressed so rapidly during the last twenty years that it now looks as if their total extermination might be accomplished in the present century. [54]

Unfortunately he was correct.

As the end of the century drew near, so too did the reign of the Passenger Pigeon. Calls for closed season on the bird, heard in Michigan, were fruitless [74]. As Blockstein suggested above, after a tumultuous century, the birds were reduced to a point in which they were unable to recover. Without the ability to satiate predators Passenger Pigeons were left vulnerable and with nowhere to go. As Paul Elrich (et al.) notes, “The fate of the [P]assenger [P]igeon illustrates a very important principle of conservation biology: it is not always necessary to kill the last pair of a species to force it to extinction.” [61] The ‘death of the Passenger Pigeon’ is often cited as the very specific time of 1pm September 1, 1914, just over 100 years ago [55]. On this date, the last captive pigeon, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. But as Elrich might argue, the death of the Passenger Pigeon had occurred far earlier. If we are to accept this premise, then the plaque in Wisconsin that indexes the final wild Pigeon kill becomes a particularly important place. Certainly it was here, that the most poetic homage to a pigeon was every uttered. In the dedication of the plaque, Aldo Leopold delivered a moving requiem for the Pigeons. It seems only fitting that towards then end of this piece of writing; we should mourn the very subject of the essay. Leopold writes:

There will always be pigeons in books and in Museums, but they are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, nor clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wing and weather; they live forever by not living at all. [63: 3]


Man is only a fellow-voyager with the creatures in the odyssey of evolution, and that his captaincy of the adventuring ship coveys the power, but not necessarily the right, to discard at will among the crew. [63: 3]

And finally, in regards to the monument being erected,

This, then, is a monument to a bird we have lost, and to a doubt we have gained. Perched like a duck hawk on a cliff, it will scour this wide valley, watching through the days and years. […] But no pigeons will pass, for there are no pigeons, save only this flightless one, graven in bronze on this rock. Tourists will read this inscription, but their thoughts, like the bronze pigeon will have no wings. [63: 4]

Leopold, like Mick Smith sees a world in which, “a loss in this world alters the constitution of this community irrevocably” [64: 23]. The loss of Passenger Pigeons signals, for Leopold, not only the loss of a species with unique constitutive capacities, but he also evokes death as a way of better knowing the world that remains, even if it is for the worse. Leopold, highlights human hubris (as masters of the ship) towards our ecological community. For Smith, the ecological and ontological exemptionalism/exceptionalism of humans is driving us towards the Anthropocene, a mass death of species [64]. Leopold, however, suggests something crucial to understanding human hubris towards our ecological community: apathy. Apathy towards Passenger Pigeons lives, and towards their deaths. Perhaps, then, we need to rethink death, in a way that evokes the complicated entanglements of life and death [67]. Lessons learned from the human destruction of Passenger Pigeons need to take flight, steering us away from apathy and away from hubris. Currently there are attempts to “de-extinct” or bring the species back to life using DNA sampling [65,66]. However, in the “shadow of the Anthropocene” [67], perhaps a more pertinent issue is not what we can learn from the resurgence of pigeons, but rather through their extinction. It is a question that is, certainly more about humans than it is about the birds, but the issue of Passenger Pigeons always has been. The extinction of Passenger Pigeons is a story that we need to tell ourselves over and over again until we get it right. It may be the only way to avoid the chaos that the winds of progress blow us towards.


4. Pigeons as Domesticated

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The pigeons now commonly found in Toronto, and other North American cities, are not passenger pigeons, or other indigenous North American pigeons, but immigrants from Europe, who first arrived in North America at Port Royal, Acadia (now Nova Scotia) in 1606 [8]. At the time, they were used for communication, but also (especially the young) as food, mirroring the history of their domestication.

Rock pigeons are thought to be the first domesticated birds, domesticated between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, in the eastern Mediterranean region [36]. Without any recorded history of how pigeon domestication occurred, two theories have arisen:

1) Humans took young rock pigeons (squabs) from their nests to be raised in cages until they were big enough to eat. Raising some pigeons to maturation, and having them reproduce, allowed humans to secure a steady supply of squabs for food.

2) Pigeons took a more active role in domestication, nesting on man-made structures in early cities, especially given the availability of food, such as wheat, in human cities. Humans, then, gradually introduced pigeons into more confined structures, and domestication proceeded similarly to the first theory [36].

In either case, pigeons were originally domesticated as a food source, and only later was their propensity for homing discovered and exploited [37].

While there is no certainty of where and when pigeons were first domesticated,  domesticated pigeons appear in both Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphics, from more than 5,000 years ago [38]. The Egyptian sources suggest a strong economy around breeding, rearing, and eating pigeons, and also using their feces to fertilize arid fields [36]. The results of the first Olympics were communicated via pigeon in 776 B.C., and feral pigeon populations were commonplace in ancient Rome [38]. Genghis Khan communicated via pigeons in his conquests during the early 13th century [39], and dovecotes, buildings for housing pigeons, have a significant history in Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, England, and France [36]. The Normans brought pigeon keeping to England in the 13th century, though as a practice for lords and clergymen, people of a certain social class. These pigeons, housed in dovecotes that “are massive, round and were usually associated with manor houses or monasteries” [36], became a nuisance for “the poor, industrious, crop-raising tenant neighbours, who saw their crops being destroyed by thousands of pigeons” [36]. Pigeon rearing grew in popularity over time, reaching a peak in the 18th century, when “over 26,000 dovecotes were recorded in England” [36]. Saltpeter, an important element in making gunpowder, was manufactured using pigeon excrement, making pigeon feces a valuable commodity. For centuries in England, all pigeon feces was the property of the Crown, given this value [38]. Later, pigeons would communicate the first news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo [38].

It is not hard to see why European settlers brought their pigeons with them to North America. And our current feral pigeon populations are descendants of these birds, with some ancestor along the line either escaping from captivity or being released, especially as the popularity of keeping pigeons declined [36].

“The Secret Life of Pigeons” seems to suggest that feral pigeons, today, may still be domesticated, as they rely on humans for much of their food. Talking significantly about humans consciously feeding pigeons, and seemingly overlooking food that is just discarded by humans, the documentary draws parallels between feral pigeons and domestic pets, stating: “Like domestic pets, pigeons rely on us for food” [10]. This raises questions about ideas of domestication and ferity. Are wild pigeons still domesticated because they rely on humans for food? Are urban raccoons and coyotes domesticated, when they eat discarded human food? What about birds (and squirrels) eating from bird feeders? What about animals that eat food from human-tended gardens?


4.1 Pigeons as Food

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Sqaub Recipe Joy of Cooking 1997 1

Sqaub Recipe Joy of Cooking 1997 3

Sqaub Recipe Joy of Cooking 1997 4

Sqaub Recipe Joy of Cooking 1997 5

Sqaub Recipe Joy of Cooking 1997 6

All pictures from The All-New, All-Purpose Joy of Cooking [10].

4.2 Pigeons as Conquerors

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Saint Olga , Princess of Kiev by Bruni , Nikolai Alexandrovich ( 1856 1935 ) , Russia , second half of the 19th century . State Russian Museum , St . Petersburg , oil on canvas , Russian Painting of 19th century
(Source: Cracked.com)


Condensed from the Russian Primary Chronicle:

“Igor’ heeded [his retinue’s] words, and he attacked Dereva in search of a tribute. […] After thus gathering the tribute, he said to his followers, after some reflection, ‘go forward with the tribute. I shall turn back, and rejoin you later.’ […] He returned on his tracks with a few of his followers.”

“The Derevlians heard that he was again approaching, and consulted with Mal, their prince, saying, (55) ‘If a wolf come among the sheep, he will take away the whole flock one by one, unless he be killed. If we do not thus kill him now, he will destroy us all.’ […] The Derevlians came forth from the city of Iskorosten’ and slew Igor’ and his company”

“The Derevlians then said, ‘see, we have killed the Prince of Rus’. Let us take his wife Olga [of Kiev] for our Prince Mal […]”

“Olga was informed that the Derevlians had arrived, and summoned them to her presence with a gracious welcome. When the Derevlians had these announced their arrival, Olga replied with an inquiry as to the reason of their coming. The Derevlians (56) then announced that their tribe had sent them to report that they had slain her husband, because he was like a wolf, crafty and ravening […] and that Olga who’ll come and marry their Prince of Mal.”

“Olga made this reply, “your proposal is pleasing to me; indeed, my husband cannot rise again from the dead. But I desire to honor you tomorrow in the presence of my people. Return now to your boat […] I shall send for you men the morrow, and you shall say, ‘We will not ride on horses not go on foot; carry us in our boat.’ and you shall be carried in your boat.”

“Now Olga gave command that a large deep ditch should be dug in the Castle with the hall, outside the city. […] On the morrow, Olga, as she sat in the hall, set for the strangers, and her messengers approached them and said ‘Olga summons you to great honor.’ But they replied, ‘We will not ride on horseback not in wagons, not go on foot; carry us in our boats.’ The people of Kiev then lamented ’slavery is our lot. Our Prince is killed, and our Princess intends to marry their prince.’ So they carried the Derevlians in their boat. […] They thus were borne into the court before Olga, and when the men had brought the Derevlians in, they dropped them into the trench along with the boat. [….] [Olga] commanded that they should be buried alive, and they were thus buried”

“Olga then sent messages to the Derevlians to the effect that, if they really required her presence, they should send after her their distinguished men, so that she might go (57) to their Prince with due honor, for otherwise her people in Kiev could not let her go. […] When the [best of the] Derevlians arrived, Olga command that a bath should be made ready, and invited them to appear before her after they had bathed. […] The Derevlians entered in to the bath. Olga’s men closed up the bathhouse behind them, and she gave orders to set it on fire, so that the Derevlians were all burned to death”

“Olga then sent to the Derevlians the following message, ‘I am now coming to you, so prepare great quantities of mead in the city where you killed my husband, that I may weep over his grave and hold a funeral feast for him.’ […] Olga made the journey with ease […] She bade her followers pile up a great mound and when they had piled it up, she also gave the command that a funeral feast should be held. Thereupon the Derevlians sat down to drink, and Olga bade here followers to wait upon them.”

“[…] When the Derevlians were drunk, she bade her followers fall upon them, and went about herself egging on her retinue to the massacre of the Derevlians. So they cut down five thousand of them; but Olga returned to Kiev and prepared an army to attack the survivors.”

“[…] The Derevlians barricaded themselves within the city [of Iskorosten’], and fought valiantly from it, for they realized that they had killed the prince, and to what fate they would in consequence surrender.”

“Olga Remained there a year without being able to take the city, and then she thought out this plan. She sent into the town the following message: ‘why do you persist in holding out? All of your cities have surrendered to me and submitted to tribute, so that their inhabitants now cultivate their fields and their lands in peace. But you had rather die of hunger, without submitting to tribute.’ The Derevlians replied that they would be glad to submit a tribute […]”

“The Derevlians then Inquired what she desired of them, and expressed their readiness to pay honey and furs. Olga retreated that at the moment they had neither honey not furs, (59) but that she had one small request to make. ‘Give me three pigeons,’ she said, ‘and three sparrows from each house. […]” The Derevlians rejoiced, and collected from each house three pigeons and three sparrows, which they sent to Olga with their greetings. Olga then instructed them, in view of their submission, to return to their city, promising that on the morrow she would depart and return to her own capital. The Derevlians […] rejoiced.”

“Now Olga gave to each soldier in her army a pigeon or a sparrow, and ordered them to attract by a thread to each pigeon and sparrow a piece of sulfur bound with a small piece of cloth. When night fell, Olga bade her soldiers release the pigeons and the sparrows. So the birds flew to their nests, the pigeons to the cotes, and the sparrows under the eaves. Thus the dove-cotes, the coops, the porches, and the haymows were set on fire. There was not a house that was not consumed, and it was impossible to extinguish the flames […]. The people fled the city, and Olga ordered her soldiers to catch them. Thus she took the city and burned it […] [76].”


4.3 Pigeons as Birds of War

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No wires to string, no big plants, no necessity for lives lost, as linesmen work under fire – and no expense. All he asks is a little affection and a few handfuls of corn. (Anonymous French General) [77: 456]

Pigeons were used extensively in the First and Second World Wars as modes of communication, carrying a variety of media, for both the Allied and Axis forces. As one estimate puts it, “during the first World War over half a million pigeons were used by the combined Allied forces. Add to that the number of birds used by the enemy and you have a total of about a million” [77: 455]. The birds were influential, and widely used. During the Second World War the British government created the National Pigeon Service in 1938, which drafted pigeons:

Pigeons for this special service will be drawing from the lofts of members living in the neighborhood of certain Royal Air Force stations. A grant of £5 a year will be paid to owners whose pigeons are accepted for the service of the Air Ministry […].[78: 517]

And in the United States, Frank Lane noted in Flight [77: 455] that, “at the outbreak of the present war [The Second World War] every known loft in this country was visited and the pigeons were forced to fly.”

What we would like to do in this particular section is not to trace a history of “Pigeons in War” but look at the ways in which Pigeons have been brought into the machine of war (sometimes literally), and examine how they have been represented, both contemporarily and historically.


For a more comprehensive history of Pigeons in the Second World War:



4.3a Pigeons as The [Bird] in the Machine

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Writing for Flight in 1943, Frank Lane elaborates some particular qualities of the pigeon that makes it such a useful bird in war:

Several factors are responsible for making the pigeon an efficient message-carrier. In the first place, it is a wonderful natural flying machine. Its compact, streamlined body is an ideal base for the attachment of strong wings […] housing a powerful ‘engine’, which supplies the energy for flight [77: 455].


Some idea of the power of the pigeon’s driving mechanism can be gathered […]. In flight a pigeon develops nearly 0.02 horse-power, which represents 0.057 h.p. per kilogram of weight [77: 455].


I understand that the highest speed ever maintained by a pigeon over a long distance was 93 m.p.h. for 8-miles [77: 455].

And finally,

Add to such superb natural flying equipment the facts that it seems to possess an almost psychic knowledge of weather lore and aerial navigation; that its feathery ‘flying coat’ insulates its body so perfectly that it can fly through the foulest of weather with probably little discomfort (all emphasis added) [77: 455].

In fairness to Lane, his use of simile is admirable, and perhaps in this context – Flight being a popular magazine – warranted. However, his comparison of animals to machines is particularly interesting. It bares striking resemblance to Descartes’ assentation “that nature should produce its own automata […]. These natural automata are the animals” [79: 4]. While Lane does not necessarily posit on the subjectivity, or the physiology, of his avian counterparts he does certainly evoke some interesting imagery. While we may be able to take a favorable approach towards his evocation of Cartesian vocabulary, Lane seems to be tangled in a particular political process, which, during The Wars dramatically transformed bodies and beings.

Both the First and Second World War wrought dramatic changes to Western ontologies. Chemical and trench warfare in the First World War, and the rise of Nazism, the Holocaust, Nuclear warfare, and the sovietization of Russia in the Second World War, with mass death running central through both, were history-changing – or history-ending, as Agamben notes [80]. Death was transformed into a daily experience. Topographies of death, and the bodies that it affected, were altered. Pigeon death was perhaps the least of worries at this time. Pigeons became reduced to bare life, easily killed or “made to die” [81: 2-3]. Through this biopolitical process, they ceased to become animals and began to resemble something more like Descartes’ automaton. Pigeons became appropriated into the masculine “orgy of war” [93], and became machines. Although Haraway advocates for cyborg imagery as a mode of rebelling against hegemonic state ontologies, it was these very institutions that captured pigeons and inserted their bodies into technological assemblages of death.

Lane’s description of pigeons, and their mechanical bodies, draws attention to their use as technological artifacts inserted into assemblages. Pigeons were commonly used as message-carriers, and would deliver messages in extraneous circumstances. Pigeons are still used this way, delivering photos [82], and have been proven to be faster than the Internet in certain countries [83]. However, in the Second World War the birds were also used as a back up communication measure in planes. Pigeons were, “added as an additional safety measure for use when wireless communication breaks down” [78: 517]. Flight Magazine reported in 1939 that:

A British pilot flying off the cost found himself short on petrol. He released one of his pigeons which flew to the Royal lot at Sandringham with a message. This was duly telephoned to the pilot’s base, where arrangements were made at once to go to his assistance. The pilot managed to reach his aerodrome, but if, as had seemed likely, he had come down in the sea, the pigeon might well have saved his life.[84: 407]

As the article suggests, pigeons became linked to a variety of other technological artifacts. As message carriers they are intimately intertwined with text and photographic media, and therefore the technologies that produce each. However, they also become intermediaries between technologies; in this case between the plane and the telephone. Furthermore, they in this case become physically inserted into the technological assemblage (the plane). As Lane notes, “[p]igeon are used both in tanks and submarine, some birds have to become accustomed to the peculiar conditions obtaining in both these engines of war” [77: 455].

As some pigeons were being inserted into technologies, others were having technologies attached to them. With the realization that pigeons were able to evade both the detection and the bullets of enemy soldiers, pigeons became spies.  Pigeon cameras were built which allowed the creation of “pigeon photographs,”

[t]he mechanism of this camera consists of a tiny rubber ball operating a small lever connected to the shutter. The rush of air passing through the ball, releases the level thus clicking the shutter, and the pigeon brings back to General Headquarters an excellent idea of enemy terrain, position of troops and location of batteries. (O’Chance) [77: 456]


Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip singing about pigeon cameras (and incest):



German apothecary Julius Neubronner had learned from his father the practice of using pigeons to deliver prescriptions, hospital correspondences, and even small doses of medicine. After losing one delivery pigeon for about a month, Neubronner wanted a way to keep track of where his pigeons were, so developed the pigeon camera [85]. Developed around the beginning of the 1900s, this invention was soon taken on by the German military, especially during World War One. Trained pigeons, brought to the front in special dovecotes or cages carried by dogs, would fly over enemy lines, providing aerial surveillance. After WWI, Neubronner wanted to continue exploring how pigeons could be useful to war efforts, but the German War Ministry told him that they had no further use of pigeons. Nevertheless, Germany used pigeon cameras again in WWII, although not to the same extent as WWI, and the technology was also explored by the Americans and French [86]. Pigeon cameras have been used occasionally since WWII. Notably, the CIA used pigeon cameras in the 1970s for still classified purposes, although the cameras they originally tried to use were too heavy for the pigeons to fly with, creating one incident where a pigeon spent two days walking home [87]. And in May of 2010 Indian authorities held a pigeon after being captured on the suspicion of spying for Pakistan. In a fairly comical news report, the Telegraph reported that the police were keeping the Pigeon under “armed guard” and that “senior officials [had] asked to be kept updated on the situation three times a day” [88].

Pigeon cameras have seen a recent, recreational, revival on Youtube. And see Cracked.com for a more comedic write-up on the history of pigeon cameras [89].


Long after the Second World War, B.F. Skinner – a behavioral psychologist – wrote of his involvement in, what had at the time become, a declassified military project during the Second World War called Project Pigeon, at the Navel Research Laboratory ORCON or ‘Organic Control’ [94]. Skinner’s invention was, as he openly admits, “a crackpot idea” [94: 426.01]. Simply, the project was to create a missile that would be guided by pigeons housed in the nose of the bomb. After multiple iterations, Skinner designed a system in which,

An image of the target was projected on a translucent screen as in a camera obscura. The pigeon, held near the screen, was reinforced for pecking at the screen. The guiding signal was to be picked up from the point of contact of screen and beak. [94: 426.05]

When the missile was on target, the pigeon pecked at the center of the plate, all valves admitted equal amounts of air, and the tambours remained in neutral positions. But if the images [on the screen] moved as little as a quarter of an inch off center, corresponding to a very small singular displacement of the target, more air was administered by the calves on one side, and the resulting displacement of the tambours sent appropriate correcting orders directly to the servosystem [94: 426.07]

By the final iteration of the missile guidance system Skinner had developed a three pigeon model, which assured that pecking was consistent, allowing for the missile to be guided correctly to its target [94: 426.07]. Skinner notes that the technology was never adopted for military purposes, despite its advantages [94].

Throughout the report Skinner’s reference to Pigeon’s as “lower organisms” [94: 426.01, .02, .03] despite his lifetime of work with the birds says a great deal about how he and his contemporaries saw these animals. For Skinner, like others during the Second World War, pigeons were bare life, disposable life, automata. The use of the birds under the notion that no “lives” would be lost (as suggested by the anonymous French General at the beginning of this section) highlights this fact. Skinner concludes his discussion of ORCON and Project Pigeon, by stating that, “a pigeon is an extraordinary subtle and complex mechanism capable of performances which at the moment can be equaled by electronics only of vastly greater weight and size […]” [94: 426.16].


4.3b Pigeons as Heroes

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After Skinner, and Project Pigeon; after homing pigeons, and back up communications; after The Wars there were a lot of dead pigeons. In the wake of the Second World War, as with the First World War, those who remained were left to pick up the pieces, reconstruct the world, and tell the (sometimes apocryphal) stories of valor, duty, and dedication. Projects like ORCON remained still in the shadows, but during and after the war a great deal of lore emerged about pigeons and other heroes. Here is one particular case:

Take as an outstanding example of a service pigeon’s ‘devotion to duty.’ Pigeon No. 2,2709, IXth Corps. This gallant bird was killed in action, but not before it had struggled home to its loft, delivered its last message and won the Victoria Cross. Now its blood stained body rests in a glass case at the royal United Services Institution. Around its breast is hung the world’s highest award for gallantry, and on a plaque can be read these words:

‘in the action which was fought in the region of the Menin road on October 3, 1917, this bird was dispatched from the front line to divisional H.Q. at 1.30pm. The bird was hit by a bullet, which broke one of its legs, drove the message-carrier into its body, and passed through the neck. In spite of wounds and being out in the wet all night, the bird struggled home to its loft, a distance of nine miles, and delivered its message at 10.53pm., October 4. It died shortly afterwards.’ [77: 455]

The pigeon Lane is referring to in this particular passage is more commonly known as Cher Ami, “good friend” (however, Lane seems to get the date wrong). As Sam Mowry recalls,

On [Cher Ami’s] last mission, 4 October 1918, he was shot through the breast and the leg by enemy fire but still managed to return to his loft with a message capsule dangling from the wounded leg. [90]

The message Cher Ami was delivering was from Major Charles Wittlesay, whose unit – sometimes referred to as the “Lost Battalion” – was surrounded by German soldiers and was being shelled by friendly artillery [91]. The message reads:

We are along the road parallel 276.4. Our artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it. [91]

For his service Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm [90].  Harry Farrington wrote this poem about him:

(Hear it sung: http://tedstrauss.bandcamp.com/track/cher-ami)


Cher Ami, how do you do!

Listen, let me talk with you;

I’ll not hurt you, don’t you see?

Come a little close to me.


Little scrawny blue and white

Messenger for men who fight,

Tell me of the deep, red scar,

Just there, where no feathers are.


What about your poor left leg?

Tell me, Cher Ami, I beg.

Boys and girls are at a loss,

How you won that Silver Cross.


“The finest fun that came to me,

Was when I went with Whittlesey;

We marched so fast, got way ahead!

I guess we’re lost, the keeper said;


Mon Cher Ami (that’s my dear friend),

You are the one we’ll have to send;

The whole battalion now is lost,

And you must win at any cost.


So with the message tied on tight.

I flew up straight – with all my might;

Before I got up high enough,

Those watchful guns began to puff.


Machine-gun bullets came like rain,

You’d think I was an aeroplane;

And when I started to the rear,

My! The shot was coming near!


But on I flew, straight as a bee,

The wind could not catch up with me;

Until I dropped out of the air,

Into our own men’s camp, so there!”


But Cher Ami, upon my word,

You modest, modest little bird;

Now don’t you know that you forgot?

Tell how your breast and leg were shot.


“Oh, yes, the day we crossed the Meuse,

I flew to Rampont with the news;

Again the bullets came like hail,

I thought for sure that I should fail.


The bullets buzzed by like a bee,

So close, it almost frightened me;

One struck the feathers of this sail,

Another went right through my tail.


But when I got back to the rear,

I found they hit me, here and here;

But that is nothing, never mind;

Old Poilu, there, is nearly blind.


All I care is what they said,

For when they saw the way I bled,

And found in front a swollen lump,

The message hanging to this stump;


The French, and Mine, said, ‘très bien’,

Or ‘very good’ – American,

Cher Ami, you brought good news,

Our Army’s gone across the Meuse!


You surely had a lucky call!

And so I’m glad, I guess that’s all;

I’ll sit, so pardon me, I beg;

It’s hard a-standing on one leg. [92: 14-16]


Cher Ami, as well as other “famous” carrier pigeons, such as Valiant and Commando, provide an interesting window into how war is represented after-the-fact. As displayed above, pigeons were seen, during both the First and Second World Wars as bare life, hardly alive, and disposable. Pigeons were inserted into bombs, killed, and disposed of with “no necessity of lives lost” (anon. French General) [77: 455]. However, there becomes a dramatic transformation after The War. The animals that became entangled in human conflict and death become valourized. Monuments, whether literary such as Farrington’s or physical begin to emerge in the wake of the World Wars, paying homage to Pigeons. It is an interesting transition, and one that does not necessarily need much said about it, so here we will leave some monuments to the birds, a hall of heroes for your consideration.

The Dickin Medal is often described as the Victoria Cross for animals. Thirty-two pigeons have won the award, more than any other animal [95].


White Vision

Pigeon – SURP.41.L.3089 – Date of Award: 2 December 1943 – “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.”



Pigeon – NEHU.40.NS.1 – Date of Award: 2 December 1943 – “For delivering a message under exceptionally difficult conditions and so contributing to the rescue of an Air Crew while serving with the RAF in February, 1942.”


Animals in War Memorial, Ottawa
(Source: Ben Kapron)


Tyke (also known as George)

Pigeon – Number 1263 MEPS 43 – Date of Award: 2 December 1943 – “For delivering a message under exceptionally difficult conditions and so contributing to the rescue of an Air Crew, while serving with the RAF in the Mediterranean in June, 1943.”


Beach Comber

Pigeon – NPS.41.NS.4230 – Date of Award: 6 March 1944 – “For bringing the first news to this country of the landing at Dieppe, under hazardous conditions in September, 1942, while serving with the Canadian Army.”



Pigeon – NPS.42.31066 – Date of Award: 1 September 1944 – “For delivering the first message from the Normandy Beaches from a ship off the beach-head while serving with the RAF on 6 June 1944.”



Pigeon – NPS.43.9451 – Date of Award: 1 September 1944 – “For the best recorded time with a message from the Normandy Operations, while serving with the RAF in June, 1944.”


Kenley Lass

Pigeon – NURP.36.JH.190 – Date of Award: March 1945 – “For being the first pigeon to be used with success for secret communications from an Agent in enemy- occupied France while serving with the NPS in October 1940.”


Navy Blue

Pigeon – NPS.41.NS.2862 – Date of Award: March 1945 – “For delivering an important message from a Raiding Party on the West Coast of France, although injured, while serving with the RAF in June, 1944.


Flying Dutchman

Pigeon – NPS.42.NS.44802 – Date of Award: March 1945 – “For successfully delivering messages from Agents in Holland on three occasions. Missing on fourth mission, while serving with the RAF in 1944.”


Dutch Coast

Pigeon – NURP.41. A.2164 – Date of Award: March 1945 – “For delivering an SOS from a ditched Air Crew close to the enemy coast 288 miles distance in 71⁄2 hours, under unfavourable conditions, while serving with the RAF in April 1942.”



Pigeon – NURP.38.EGU.242 – Date of Award: March 1945 – “For successfully delivering messages from Agents in Occupied France on three occasions: twice under exceptionally adverse conditions, while serving with the NPS in 1942.”


Royal Blue

Pigeon – NURP.40.GVIS.453 – Date of award: March 1945 – “For being the first pigeon in this war to deliver a message from a forced landed aircraft on the Continent while serving with the RAF in October, 1940.”


Ruhr Express

Pigeon – NPS.43.29018 – Date of Award: May 1945 – “For carrying an important message from the Ruhr Pocket in excellent time, while serving with the RAF in April, 1945.”


Animals in War Memorial, Ottawa
(Source: Ben Kapron)


William of Orange

Pigeon – NPS.42.NS.15125 – Date of Award: May 1945 – “For delivering a message from the Arnheim Airborne Operation in record time for any single pigeon, while serving with the APS in September 1944.”


Scotch Lass

Pigeon – NPS.42.21610 – Date of Award: June 1945 – “For bringing 38 microphotographs across the North Sea in good time although injured, while serving with the RAF in Holland in September 1944.”



Pigeon – NU.41.HQ.4373 – Date of Award: August 1945 – “For delivering a message from a force-landed bomber, while in a state of complete collapse and under exceptionally bad weather conditions, while serving with the RAF in 1942.”


Broad Arrow

Pigeon – 41.BA.2793 – Date of Award: October 1945 – “For bringing important messages three times from enemy occupied country, viz: May 1943, June 1943 and August 1943, while serving with the Special Service from the Continent.”


Pigeon – NPS.42.NS.2780

Date of Award: October 1945 – “For bringing important messages three times from enemy occupied country, viz: July 1942, August 1942 and April 1943, while serving with the Special Service from the Continent.”


Pigeon – NPS.42.NS.7524

Date of Award: October 1945 –“For bringing important messages three times from enemy-occupied country, viz: July 1942, May 1943 and July 1943, while serving with the Special Service from the continent.”



Pigeon – NPSNS.42.36392 – Date of Award: October 1945 – “For bringing important messages three times from enemy occupied country, viz: May 1943 (Amiens) February, 1944 (Combined Operations) and June, 1944 (French Maquis) while serving with the Special Service from the Continent.”



Pigeon – NURP.40.WCE.249 – Date of Award: November 1945 – “For outstanding endurance on War Service in spite of wounds.



Pigeon – NURP.41.DHZ56 – Date of Award: February 1946 – “For delivering a valuable message from Holland to Lancashire under difficult conditions, while serving with NPS in July 1942.”


All Alone

Pigeon – NURP.39.SDS.39 – Date of Award: February 1946 – “For delivering an important message in one day over a distance of 400 miles, while serving with the NPS in August, 1943.”



Pigeon – 42WD593 – Date of Award: May 1946 – “Sent on special mission to Crete, this pigeon returned to her loft (RAF Alexandria) having travelled about 500 miles mostly over sea, with most valuable information. One of the finest performances in the war record of the Pigeon Service.”



Pigeon – NURP.37.CEN.335 – Date of Award: August 1946 – “For carrying out a special task involving a flight of 480 miles from Northern Denmark while serving with the Special Section Army Pigeon Service in July 1942.”


Animals in War Memorial, Ottawa
(Source: Ben Kapron)


Pigeon – NURP.38.BPC.6.

Date of Award: August 1946 – “For three outstanding flights from France while serving with the Special Section, Army Pigeon Service, 11 July 1941, 9 September 1941, and 29 November 1941.”


GI Joe

Pigeon – USA43SC6390 – Date of Award: August 1946 – “This bird is credited with making the most outstanding flight by a USA Army Pigeon in World War II. Making the 20 mile flight from British 10th Army HQ, in the same number of minutes, it brought a message which arrived just in time to save the lives of at least 100 Allied soldiers from being bombed by their own planes.”


Duke of Normandy

Pigeon – NURP.41.SBC.219 – Date of Award: 8 January 1947 – “For being the first bird to arrive with a message from Paratroops of 21st Army Group behind enemy lines on D Day 6 June, 1944, while serving with APS.”


Pigeon – NURP.43.CC.1418

Date of Award: 8 January 1947 – “For the fastest flight with message from 6th Airborne Div. Normandy, 7 June, 1944, while serving with APS.”


Pigeon – DD.43.T.139 (Australian Army Signal Corps)

Date of award: February 1947 – “During a heavy tropical storm this bird was released from Army Boat 1402 which had foundered on Wadou Beach in the Huon Gulf. Homing 40 miles to Madang it brought a message which enabled a rescue ship to be sent in time to salvage the craft and its valuable cargo of stores and ammunition.”


Pigeon – DD.43.Q.879 (Australian Army Signal Corps)

Date of award: February 1947 – “During an attack by Japanese on a US Marine patrol on Manus Island, pigeons were released to warn headquarters of an impending enemy counter-attack. Two were shot down but DD43 despite heavy fire directed at it reached HQ with the result that enemy concentrations were bombed and the patrol extricated.”



Pigeon – NURP39.NPS.144 – Date of Award: Unknown – “For homing from a crashed aircraft over Cologne although seriously wounded, while serving with the RAF in 1943.” [95]


4.3c Pigeons as (Movie) Heroes

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War pigeons have appeared in a number of films and television shows, generally along the themes suggested by awarding them medals: pigeons are willing participants of the war effort, good ol’ boys stepping up to do their part to defend freedom against the tyranny of the enemy.

Pigeons as good ol’ boys is perhaps best presented in Valiant, a typical war story, albeit toned down for a young audience. Young Valiant signs himself up to become a carrier pigeon in the Royal Homing Pigeon Society. And through courage, determination, and a bit of help from his misfit friends, he is able to overcome seemingly impossible odds, to save the day and get the girl [96].



Earlier, Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines, a 1969-1970 Hanna-Barbera cartoon spun-off from Wacky Races, had also depicted war pigeons, in similar roles. The cartoon focused on Dick Dastardly and his canine sidekick Muttley, members of the Vulture Squadron, a fictitious air force similar to the Luftwaffe. Following a typical chase storyline, episodes depicted Dastardly and Muttley’s far-fetched and inept attempts to catch Yankee Doodle Pigeon, the all-American  carrier pigeon. Although the show needed Yankee Doodle Pigeon, he was a minor character in most episodes, simply a stand-in hero that our villainous protagonists chased after, perhaps because the virtue of the Allied War Effort needed no explanation [97].



Even in Blackadder Goes Forth, a comedic television series that poked fun at the World War I British military, and was often critical of military leadership, war pigeons are given a certain level of prestige. In the episode, “Corporal Punishment”, Captain Blackadder shoots and eats a carrier pigeon, not realizing that it is delivering him a message. It turns out that the pigeon is Speckled Jim, the beloved pet of Blackadder’s superior, General Melchett. As Melchett discovers what Blackadder did, the episode follows Blackadder being court-martialed and sentenced to death by firing squad, although he is saved at the last minute. Although played for laughs and the absurdity of military leadership, the episode presents pigeons as things that can be deeply cared for, even loved, and important to the (WWI) military, especially when other forms of communication break down [98].


4.4 Pigeons as Fancied Animals

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Jim Gifford - American Domestic Flight (Indigo Crested)Jim Gifford - Pigmy PouterJim Gifford - Fantail (Silver Barred)Outside of their use as messengers, in war and otherwise, the domestication of pigeons has taken on more recreational and hobbyist qualities.

Pigeons are one of many animal species that fancying has developed around—the practice of rearing animals in order to create ideal representations of different breeds. Pigeon fanciers can bring their pigeons to competitions, where the best of different breeds and categories are awarded prizes. There are around 800 different breeds of Columba livia [41], which help to reveal the varieties of colours, feathers, and body shapes in a species typically described as bland, grey and ugly.

The Canadian Pigeon Fanciers Association (CPFA), founded in 1902, claims that pigeon keeping is the “third most followed hobby in the world, after stamp, and coin collecting” [41]. The CPFA is affiliated with 29 different fancying clubs, including the Ontario Giant Runt Club (OGRC) in Toronto, the Balkan Club of Canada in Scarborough, and the Pak Pigeon Club of Canada (PPCC) in Pickering. The CPFA National Classic Show is held every year. Last year, it was hosted by the Sarnia Poultry Pigeon & Pet Stock Association [41].

Jim Gifford - Scandaroon (Yellow Magpie-Marked)Jim Gifford - Bokhara Trumpeter (Black Self)Jim Gifford - Iranian Highflier (Dark Chequer)As mentioned, white breeds of pigeons are commonly used as release doves for weddings and other ceremonies. Many release dove associations prefer using pigeons, as they will return to their roosts, whereas ringneck doves, another common release dove, are not good at homing and are not adapted to surviving in urban environments, resulting in many ringneck doves becoming lost and dying, after being used in release ceremonies [4].

Jim Gifford - Koenigsberg Reinaugen Tumbler (White Self)Jim Gifford - Rakovnic Roller (Blue Magpie-Marked)Jim Gifford - German Beauty Homer (Blue Bar-pied)Famous pigeon fanciers include King Edward VII, King George V, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II, Terry Bradshaw, Marlon Brando, Yul Brynner, Charles Darwin, Walt Disney, George Foreman, Lee Marvin, Claude Monet, Wayne Newton, Pablo Picasso, Elvis Presley, Roy Rogers, and Mike Tyson [99].

(All fancy pigeon photos from: Jim Gifford; Flickr)




4.5 Pigeons as Athletes

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Closely linked to the pigeon fancy, is pigeon racing. Although some sources indicate a long history of pigeon racing, the modern practice arose in Belgium in the 1800’s, where a breed of pigeon known as the Homer became popular. In pigeon races, racing pigeons are brought to a location and released, but because pigeons will fly to their home nests, not to a specific finish line, determining the winner of pigeon races has always been difficult. Originally, racing pigeons carried rings with them, and once a pigeon returned home, the ring would be rushed to the nearest post office, where the pigeon’s time and speed could be determined, relative to the distance it had to fly to get home. Later, people would use racing clocks to time their own pigeons. Most recently, microchips have been attached to racing pigeons, to more accurately record race times [100]. Racing pigeons typically fly between fifty and eighty miles per hour, depending on whether the birds are flying with or against the wind, though speeds of 110 miles per hour have been recorded. Race distances vary, but are usually between 100 and 1000 miles [101].

Pigeon racing remains popular around the world, with the biggest race likely being the South Africa Million Dollar Pigeon Race. Winners do not win a full million dollars. In 2015, the prize for first place will be US$150,000, with runner-up prizes including large sums of money and cars [102]. According to the Canadian Racing Pigeon Union (CRPU), there will be 39 races in Canada in 2014 [103].

Keeping in mind the Million Dollar Race, pigeon racing is big business. In 2013, a Belgian pigeon breeder sold Bolt to a Chinese businessman for €310,000, the current record sale for a racing pigeon [104]. The high stakes of the sport  also means it is not immune to some of the vices that plague other professional sports: doping has been a major issue in pigeon racing in recent years [105].

Also controversial is the number of pigeons who die while racing, causing some people to call for a ban on the sport. Though typically discussed as pigeons who do not finish the race, and simply disappear, a report from PETA in the UK claims that thousands of pigeons die every year, with less than one quarter of pigeons surviving races over the English Channel. Many birds are also killed as part of the breeding practices which ensure only the fastest birds will pass on their genes [106].


5. Pigeons as Pests

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Although almost always expendable, as food, tools of war, or fancied and raced animals (where only the best are truly valued), there is still a disconnect between the ways we have been talking about pigeons and the ways that we normally encounter them. Albeit largely ignored, when people do talk about pigeons, they often discuss them with disdain, describing them as dirty and disease-carriers. This is, however, a fairly recent understanding of pigeons.

In “How Pigeons Became Rats: The Cultural-Spatial Logic of Problem Animals”, Colin Jerolmack traces ideas about pigeons, utilizing New York Times articles from 1851 to 2006 and articles from another fifty-one newspapers from 1980 to 2006. In older articles, pigeons are not discussed with the same hatred that now follows them. In fact, between 1874 and 1909, of eight articles that mention pigeons, four condemn the sport of shooting them [107: 77]. Instead of the pigeon, the hated bird was the sparrow, described as “‘an imposter, a thief, and a murderer,’ ‘filled with hatred of all honest birds'” [107: 77]; pigeons were seen as innocents, even victims of sparrows.

These opinions began to change in the early 1900s. The first shift was towards pigeons as nuisances, not overly problematic, but their cooing apparently interrupted church services, and they were likely to turn the areas where they nested into messes. The fear of mess even resulted in a ban on keeping pigeons on rooftops [107: 78]. Yet, as Jerolmack describes, “the bird as a species was not morally denigrated or deemed an illegitimate urban inhabitant”[107: 78].

In the mid-1930s, the species itself was beginning to be demonized, with articles and letters in the New York Times calling for pigeons to be killed, and other stories reporting on people who had listened to this advice: sometimes officials, sometimes active citizens. The mid-1940s saw another development, the first articles suggesting pigeons are disease carriers, specifically carrying ornithosis and psittacosis, two terms for the same disease [107: 79]. This led to further officially-sanctioned pigeon killings. “[P]igeons had been linked with disease, so the threat was no longer one of just messy buildings and sidewalks. While there had been no confirmed cases of pigeons passing a disease to humans, the possibility seemed real and the fear was growing” [107: 79]. By 1960, the idea of pigeons as disease carriers had been solidified, with New York City health officials stating the claim without hesitation, but 1963 saw the nail in the coffin, when a health official, Dr. Litman. “‘ascribed two recent deaths to diseases carried by pigeons and called for a campaign to rid the city of its 5,000,000 pigeons.’ These were the first deaths directly blamed on pigeons” [107: 79], but “[t]he doctor went even further than this. He spread paranoia, warning that the threat existed in all five boroughs of New York City and that those who fed pigeons were contributing to the deaths of New Yorkers” [107: 84].


The cruel irony is that there is little truth to the claim that pigeons are disease-carriers. By 1964, an Italian medical expert was already disputing Dr. Litman’s verdict that pigeons killed those two New Yorkers, stating that the claim was “illogical and without foundation” [107: 80], and as of 2003, “the New York Department of Health officially state that there are no substantiated transmissions of disease from pigeons to people” [107: 85]. People can catch psittacosis and a rare cryptococcal meningitis from pigeon feces, but it requires inhaling a large amount of dried, infected feces. Of less than 50 known new cases of psittacosis each year, “pet birds (such as parrots and parakeets) and poultry (such as chickens and turkeys) ‘are most frequently involved in transmission” [107: 84]. If anything, pigeons appear to be highly resistant to disease. In 1983-1984, scientists were unable to infect pigeons with highly pathogenic H5N2; in 1992 and 1996, they were unable to infect pigeons with avian influenza; and in 2001-2002, they were unable to infect pigeons with H5N1, despite devoted and controlled attempts at doing so [108].

However, the damage was already done. The 1960s saw pigeons aligned with people seen as deviant: homosexuals, alcoholics, homeless people. And in 1966, a New York Times article referenced New York City parks commissioner Thomas Hoving calling pigeons “rats with wings” [109], likely the first use of the term [107: 81]. It was later made famous by Woody Allen in Stardust Memories [50]

Although decades later, this journey more-or-less takes us to our present understanding of pigeons: they are dirty, useless, and disease-carrying. The moment of becoming disease-carriers and rats with wings does a lot to make pigeons lives overlooked. While efforts to eradicate pigeons do exist, most citizens do not take active roles in this endeavour. Instead, we try to ignore them, our NIMBY attitudes hoping that if we don’t see them and don’t acknowledge them, they’ll leave us alone too.


5.1 Pigeons as Fed Up

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I love the relationship between pigeons and statues.


On one side, a statue.

Almost always a Great Man:

Rich, white and dead.

Often a military man, who proved himself in war,

from the backlines of the battlefield,

or a desk a world away.

Inevitably, someone who made decisions,

and affected millions.


On the other side, a pigeon.

Perhaps, itself, the descendant of a soldier.

Likely, itself, the descendant of a bird brought to the New World,

because it was useful.

More useful than the birds who lived here.

But now, marginalized.



And yet… who pays more attention to statues, than pigeons?


It’s too much anthropomorphizing and too much speculating, but I hope, amongst the stories that pigeon parents tell their children, the stories of who you can trust for food and where you need to watch out for cats,

are stories passed down generation to generation of who these men are.

Of why they deserve statues.

And what decisions they made.


And that’s why pigeons are so eager to return the favour.



And if you’ve ever wondered: “[i]f you went outside and lay down on your back with your mouth open, how long would you have to wait until a bird pooped in it?[69]


I’ve been told that a pigeon shitting on you brings you good luck, but I think that’s just to raise your spirits when it happens.


6. Pigeons as Pop. Culture

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There is a difficulty in assigning pigeons the title “Life Overlooked,” for, more often than not, they refuse to go away. We would like them to become invisible, but they seem to bleed through the cracks. Perhaps this is why they are so adapted to urban life. Their grey bodies, blend like biological camouflage to the grey streets and grey buildings and grey skies. However, their necks, with handkerchiefs of color, betray them. Pigeons blend in, until they don’t, until they cannot be ignored, until they won’t go away. Like Süskind’s The Pigeon (Die Taube) who blocks a Parisian man’s door, pigeons often refuse to be ignored [42]. Pigeons, whether literary, imaginative, or real, proliferate. They seem to be particularly present in pop-culture. In order to gain an understanding of pigeons’ refusals to be ignored, we want to take you on a journey through pigeon language, pigeon literature, and finally pigeon mecca: New York.

For more depictions of pigeons in pop culture, check out the Pigeon Movie Database.


6.1 Pigeons as Language

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Pigeons consistently appear, unexpectedly, in language, pigeon (pidgin) language, itself being one example. Here, is a glossary of pigeon terms:

Clay Pigeon: thrown or flying targets used in recreational shooting activities. The term comes from historically shooting pigeons, including in recreational events [110].

Pidgin (Language): a dialect usually made by combining simplified vocabulary and grammar from two or more languages, often arising in colonial settings or where two or more separate groups are involved in trade or other negotiations. The term pidgin is thought to come from the Chinese pronunciation of the English word business and is therefore, itself, a pidgin word [111]. However, it has also been proposed that pidgin might come from pigeon, referencing pigeons’ capabilities for carrying brief messages [112].

Pigeon Drop: a type of scam wherein the person being scammed, sometimes called the pigeon, is tricked into giving away a small sum of money in order to gain a larger sum of money or something else valuable: think of now-stereotypical Nigerian Prince internet scams.

Pigeonhole: to sort (and often negate) diverse ideas or objects into narrow categories. The term has broader implications in mathematics, via the pigeonhole principle and pigeonhole sorting algorithm. Pigeonhole can also refer to a cubbyhole mail box system.

Pigeon-toed: a condition wherein a person’s feet turn inwards, especially when they walk.

Stool Pigeon: a term for an informant, often referring to someone who informs on criminal activity, including in prison. The term comes from hunting passenger pigeons, when live pigeons were sometimes captured, maimed to prevent them from flying away, blinded by sewing their eyes shut, and placed on stools, to attract other pigeons to the area. These stool pigeons were thus, betraying their fellow pigeons [61].


6.2 Pigeons as Literature

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The introduction to this section referenced Süskind’s The Pigeon (Die Taube), the story of a man who experiences an existential crisis because of a pigeon roosting outside his door [42]. The Pigeon is just one example of pigeons in literature, though many others exist, positioning pigeons in various roles. Here, we want to look at just a few more examples of pigeons in literature.

Pigeon English, Stephan Kelman’s debut novel, tells the story of Harri, a young Ghanaian immigrant living in London, England. The “Pigeon” of the title talks both about the language used by Harri, and his fellow immigrants [see Pidgin (Language)], but also a pigeon character, who lives outside  of Harri’s house and watches over him, similar to Süskind’s pigeon. For Harri, however, the pigeon is not a haunting figure, but a guardian angel, protecting him as he attempts to solve a murder [113].

Pigeons are haunting in the classic short story, “Pigeons from Hell”, by Robert E. Howard. An acclaimed horror story, “Pigeons from Hell” tells of a man named Griswell, who investigates a haunted manor in the South, complete with zombies, voodoo, and the title pigeons from hell, ghost-like birds thought to possess the souls of the manor’s previous owners [114].

John Updike also wrote about pigeons, in “Pigeon Feathers.” The story climaxes with fourteen-year-old David shooting a family of pigeons who live in his barn, and while he finds great pleasure in killing the birds, their deaths also help David to realize the beauty of the world, and overcome the moral crisis that has been plaguing him [115]:

Ironically, an act of brutality frees David of his dread of death. By depicting this, Updike insinuates that the fear of death is at the root of all human violence, but that it also drives our appreciation for beauty. Here, David’s fear of death is mitigated by his religious beliefs. David’s faith is cemented by the beauty he witnesses, thus ending the crisis of faith he has been in throughout the story. David’s faith does not quite follow any particular religious doctrines, though he is Lutheran; instead it is rooted in expressions of beauty evident even in lowly creatures [116].


6.3 Pigeons as New Yorkers (Pigeon Mecca)

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New York is pigeon Mecca, the “big leagues”. The big apple in the gutter. So it seems only natural that there has emerged a large amount of urban-based, pigeon-centric, media focusing on the intertwined lives of people and pigeons in the city.

A particularly interesting place that pigeons seem to appear consistently is in children’s television. Perhaps this is due to the ubiquity of the birds in public areas. Pigeons become “nature” for the imaginative youngster. And they appear early on in children’s media, as evidenced by Sesame Street’s very realist portrayal of the birds [43]:


Bert exclaims, “I love pigeons more than anything else in this world […] Now, watch how these Pigeons move, I took these photos in Asbury Park.”[43] The location Bert references (Asbury Park) is a small city just outside of New York, and still part of the New York Metropolitan Area. Bert’s film truly shows an accurate representation of the pigeon as an urban symbol. Grey (Pigeon) on grey (concrete) against gray (background). Sesame Street’s commitment to showing children realist images is central here, and interestingly, for children living in cities pigeons are a necessary part of urban topography.

While Bert’s depiction remains realist, some children’s shows remain more fantastical. Hey Arnold! gives us a slightly different angle to examine the birds. In one episode titled “Spelling Bee/Pigeon Man”, we gain insight into symbiotic relationships between pigeons and humans. In this episode both the main protagonist Arnold and a mysterious “Pigeon Man” are keepers of the birds. After one of Arnold’s birds falls ill, he enlists the help of the pigeon man to nurse his bird back to life. Near the end of the episode, the pigeon man’s cotes have been destroyed, and he departs from Arnold with these closing remarks [44]:


While Sesame Street and Hey Arnold! slide on gradients of realism and narrative, other children’s shows use the birds as anthropomorphic comic relief. The (very) 90s television cartoon Animaniacs featured a set of pigeon characters called the “Goodfeathers.” One of the particularly interesting tropes that the Animaniacs play on with these characters is the association of pigeons not only with New York, but also with New Yorkers. The “Goodfeathers” draws its thematic influences from, perhaps obviously, Goodfellas [46] and The Godfather [47]. In so doing, pigeons become simultaneously reified as Staten Island Italians and your typical New Yorker. In many ways, certainly for the latter, this is an accurate depiction. Here is a short cartoon from the Animaniacs, titled “Boids on the Hood” [45]:



And a short clip involving the “God Pigeon” [48]:



This trend in cartoons continues today. Consider this clip from Disney’s Bolt , which depict some “typical New Yorker” pigeons (again with distinctly New York accents), while questioning the cognitive abilities of pigeons (assuming the higher visual recognition abilities of talking-dogs, than those of talking-pigeons) [49]:


In children’s shows and movies there seems to be an almost exclusive use of pigeons as anthropomorphic or friendly characters. However this is starkly contrasted by sitcoms and dramatic depictions of the birds. Particularly famous is Woody Allen’s exclamation that Pigeons are “Rats-with-Wings” [50] (although he did not invent the term):


Seinfeld also approaches Pigeons, but instead of posing them as the enemy, they are imagined as fellow (although considerably Othered) urbanites. As Seinfeld suggests, in the following clip, we have a deal with the Pigeons, “they get out of the way of our cars, and we look the other way on the statue defecation” [51]:


For others, pigeons present a potent symbol for social and political mobility. As Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox suggests, rather immodestly in reference to his song “Pigeon”:

“Pigeon is basically a genius song. My partner came up with the concept, Shamar, Vordul [Mega], he was like, ‘Yo, birds that, like, survive, but they’re at the bottom of the food chain, but yet they still survive, they still make it.’” [52]

In the underground hip-hop world, rappers and pigeons, in many ways, are on equal footing. Listen to “Pigeon” by Cannibal Ox [53]:



7. Pigeons as Things to be Deterred

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Bathurst Station


In the neighborhood where I grew up there were no pigeons. Smothered in the warm embrace of Seaton Village, I lived in an urban paradise. School was another story. Traveling far away from the security of home, I reached out to the rest of Toronto. My gateway to these uncharted lands was Bathurst Subway station. The station itself was simple enough. Two entrances, one main, one auxiliary. Arriving at the main station one is met with a large open concept building, built in a flaccid attempt at the evanescent aesthetics of modernity. If Schivelbusch was correct in suggesting that the goal of the train was to collapse the world, and bring forth some sort of McLuhanesque global village, then perhaps the TTC has done this to Toronto. It has brought into existence a, sputtering, stammering, global village. Or at least it tries to, if only we could get to our destinations.

The most captivating feature of the station is not this attempt at modern aesthetics, nor is it the large grey growth that seems to strike out of the station in random hybridity, and loom over the streetcar platform. No. The most striking feature is the pigeons. A mass of bodies attacking the air, attacking crumbs. On the periphery of my neighborhood lay these beasts.

If one were to descend into the station, they would find that it’s pigeons all the way down. These miscreants, deviants, enter the subway without paying their fare, and flap around as if to say to their human counterparts, “you idiots are missing out on some deals.” There seems to be no question that they are opportunists. Below the entrance of the station is wind cover, crumbs, and perhaps a bit of a pigeon adventure. They flock aimlessly through the hurried crowds, following passengers down to the subway platform, and in an exceptional few cases take rides on the train.

But this is all history, gone now for better or worse.

Now, upon entering the station, one is met with the screeching of anti-pigeon measures. The sounds of hawks and distress signals fill the air. I don’t mean to give the wrong impression, this isn’t your traditional walk in the park nature cassette, “I’ll just put this on while I fall asleep” kind of thing. This is not the Brian Eno of nature recordings. It is sonic war. Probably against the pigeons, but it doesn’t entirely feel that way. Littered across the station are signs that inform the public that pigeon feeding is wrong and that these hawk sounds are normal.

I can’t help but walk through the station, and look up through the paneled ceiling hoping to see one of the birds. A spy perhaps. And as I walk out of the station, back towards the solitude of my home, away from the screeching of hawks and people, there they are. Standing on a telephone wire, directly outside of the station, like grey sentinels, they wait.



“Are you tired of seeing dozens of birds roosting on your ledges or rooftops?“


“Sick of having to clean up after them?”


“Have you considered the lawsuit that might result from slipping and falling due to the unsightly mess?”


“Is your historic building being damaged by caustic bird droppings?”


“Then don’t wait another day to get Bird-B-Gone’s stainless steel bird spikes.”

The war against birds is an ever-present, ongoing conflict. It occurs above our heads and all around us. There have been attempts at deterring birds, mostly pigeons, through legislature. Primarily this has been targeted at bird feeding in public places. Notably in 2003, Trafalgar Square in London, a long time pigeon stronghold, and bastion for the birds, banned the feeding of pigeons [117,118]. However, in Toronto there remains an absence of legislation regarding pigeons (although, pigeon defecation does remain under the authority of the Department of Public Health) [119]. In Toronto, the war on pigeons is predominantly fought as a high-tech assault on the homes of the birds themselves. A vast arsenal is available for property-owners to wage war with the birds. These methods are mostly, although not exclusively, non-lethal, operating as deterrents rather than extermination methods. Yet, with that being said, pigeons are necessarily reduced to a killable form of life. The use of deterrents acts as an offsetting of pigeons (and pigeon related problems) in an urban context. Pigeon deterrents disrupt the birds with no real end goal, suggesting that solving pigeons related problems is not as much the issue here, as is the rhetoric of “as long as they are not here.” In this context pigeons are reduced to a form of bare life, similar to other abject populations such as the poor or homeless, in a constant state of displacement as both physical bodies and political problems.

With that in mind, here is an arsenal of biopower. Pigeon deterrents:


Bird Spikes


Electrical Deterrent Tracks


Bird Netting


Sonic Deterrents, such as those used in Bathurst station



(Source: Stardust Memories [50])

Bird-B-Gone also provides a great deal of other deterrent products [120], including something called Bird-B-Gone Fog [121], which bares a comical similarity to Woody Allen’s use of a fire extinguisher in Stardust Memories [50].

In some cases, when deterrents fail to solve pigeon problems (which, it must be made clear, are never the problems of pigeons, but rather pigeons as a problem), other measures may be brought in. One common method of deterrent and extermination, particularly potent in urban areas, is the use of Red-tailed Hawks. Hawks were used in the First and Second World Wars as a method of bringing down homing pigeons, and today, are used in urban centers such as New York and London to hunt down problem birds. There is an interesting relationship formed between the two birds, rife with symbolic dichotomies. As pigeons become pests, disposable, problems, and colored as not only disruptive but also intentionally maleficent, hawks become heroes, majestic, pure, and superior in both physical capabilities and intelligence (outwitting the dumb rats-with-wings). One particular hawk in New York City has gained widespread fame. Roosting above Fifth Avenue, the “Pale Male” protects the affluent shoppers of this exclusive district and has gained a wide fan base[122].


7.1 Pigeons as Things to be Killed

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The rise of pigeon deterrents suggests that we are in yet another epoch in our relationship with pigeons. They are no longer things to be used, for food or communication, or things to be ignored, but now things to be killed. This depiction has become prevalent in recent media and pop culture depictions of pigeons.

In The Simpsons episode, “Bart the Mother” Bart accidentally shoots a mother bird, then spends the episode protecting two eggs and eventual hatchlings from the bird’s nest. It turns out, however, that the eggs were not laid by the bird and are not birds, but  Bolivian Tree Lizards, a fictional brood parasite that “‘feasts on the bird eggs and lays its own in the nest. The unsuspecting mother bird cares for them until the babies hatch and devour her too'” [123]. Given the threat that these lizards pose to the local bird community, the bird-watching society decides that they need to be killed, something which Bart cannot accept, and he runs away with the lizards in an attempt to save them. Ultimately, the birds are saved not by Bart’s efforts but by their propensity for killing pigeons. As TV broadcaster Kent Brockman reports: “‘the population of parasitic tree lizards has exploded, and local citizens couldn’t be happier! It seems the rapacious reptiles have developed a taste for the common pigeon, also known as the ‘feathered rat’, or the ‘gutter bird’. For the first time, citizens need not fear harassment by flocks of chattering disease-bags'” [123]. The lizards become valued for their ability to kill pigeons, something that Springfield society sees as good.


This is not, however, the only depiction of pigeons in The Simpsons. In the same episode, The Simpsons plays with the idea of pigeons as lives overlooked: as a pigeon lands on a windowsill, bird-watcher Jasper Beardly notices it, even using his binoculars to get a better look despite the bird being very close to him. “‘My god, a pigeon. That’s the last bird on my list'” [123]. The joke plays on the commonness of pigeons in the city, and therefore, the absurdity of them being unseen by a bird-watcher, although Jasper’s advanced age likely plays a role in Jasper not realizing he has already seen pigeons. At the same time, that Jasper has not seen a pigeon creates an interesting prospect in regards to our project. Despite how common pigeons are, it is still easy to not see them.

More recently, in “How Munched Is That Birdie in the Window?”, Bart adopts a carrier pigeon and uses it to send messages, after nursing it back to health when its wing is hurt in a storm. Unfortunately, Bart’s new pet ends up being eaten by his dog, Santa’s Little Helper. In turn, Bart rebuffs the dog and decides to give it away to an ostrich farm, with the admonishment to never kill a bird again. In the end, however, Bart is attacked by an ostrich and Santa’s Little Helper needs to attack the bird in order to save Bart. This causes a reconciliation between the boy and his dog [124]. What this means for Bart’s future relationship with pigeons remains to be seen. This episode also reveals Lisa’s fear of pigeons, unusual for the generally progressive and animal-loving character, although her mother posits that everyone hates one kind of animal [124]. However, the Simpson family owes quite a lot to pigeons: a pigeon led Lisa to the information that helped her clear her father’s name when he was accused of shooting Mr. Burns, although even at that time, Lisa maintains a certain uneasiness towards pigeons, claiming: “[o]h, Mr. Pigeon, I’d kiss you if you weren’t swimming with disease!” [125]



The complex depiction in The Simpsons of pigeons at times deserving death, but also being worthy of consideration, is fairly common across media depictions. In 24 Hour Party People, a purportedly true story is recreated wherein Shaun and Paul Ryder of the alternative rock band, the Happy Mondays, poisoned bread and killed some 3000 pigeons. While the narrator of the scene initially appears sympathetic towards the pigeons, recognizing the cruelty of the action, he later seems to change his mind, understanding the act as somewhat justified with the claim “there are those that claim they’re [pigeons are] pests. Rats with wings” [126].



The Clash had earlier gotten in trouble for their own antics regarding pigeons, after Paul Simonon and Topper Headon shot a number of pigeons from the rooftop of a building where they were rehearsing the album “Give ‘Em Enough Rope”. Unfortunately for the pair, the pigeons were racing pigeons, and their owner witnessed the whole event. Police, including a helicopter, quickly descended on the scene, and Simonon and Headon were taken to jail. In the end, they each had to pay a £30 fine, as well as £700 to the owner of the pigeons. The incident appears in the docu-drama “Rude Boy”, and is immortalized, at least in title, in the song “Guns On The Roof”. Supposedly, shooting pigeons was Simonon and Headon’s method of stress relief that day [127].



You too can relieve stress by shooting pigeons, and without the fear of legal reprisal, in a number of video games. In Hitman: Sniper Challenge, players can unlock the achievement “No Pigeons Were Harmed” by shooting five pigeons [128]. And while the achievement title is a play on the (hopefully true) disclaimer that no pigeons were harmed in the making of this game, there is something unsettling when the very act of the achievement is killing pigeons. This achievement is, also, uncharacteristic of the protagonist, Agent 47, an extremely anti-social man who has shown a strong affinity to birds throughout the game series [129].



Grand Theft Auto IV had a similar element regarding pigeons, where players were awarded a helicopter and progressed 2.5% towards completing the game, for killing 200 “Flying Rats” located across the game map [130].

Grand Theft Auto V has, however, taken its relationship with pigeons in another direction. In the updated versions of the game, recently released for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, players are able to ingest peyote, hidden in different locations across the map. The peyote transforms the player’s character, temporarily, into one of a number of animals, including a pigeon. As the pigeon, players are able to fly around the map and attack by defecating [131,132].




8. Conclusions

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It becomes hard to think of something as “overlooked” when you immerse yourself in it. It also becomes harder to look away from something when it becomes captivating. I’m not sure anymore if pigeons are a life overlooked, but I am sure they are captivating. Perhaps that is what “life overlooked” is driving towards. More of a philosophic project than anything.

After a great deal of pigeon contemplation, I have learned that nothing is overlooked unless you want it to be. Nothing is devoid of meaning, nothing exists as tabula rasa. Pigeons are a wonderful example of this. Approaching the birds, I think Ben and I were slightly trepidatious towards what we’d find, if we’d find anything. It turns out there is a lot of information about pigeons. The vast majority (aside from those who have made it their life’s work to kill the birds) speak of pigeons with love. Most of the information about the birds is amateur, written with great pride and deep respect. I hadn’t imagined that would be the case. When I entered the project, one of the things I really wanted to discuss was pigeon defecation. I wanted to hear peoples stories. However, what meagre information we found was not what we expected. A lot of the time, people discussed defecation as good luck!

What we have tried to do here is tell some pigeon stories, ones that the birds might not be able to tell by themselves, or ones humans don’t have the patience to hear. Pigeons don’t need to be “lives overlooked,” and perhaps, if we look long enough we can find something we haven’t seen before.

-Dylan McMahon


Here, we arrive at pigeons as things to be killed, without consideration for them or their lives. This project, an attempt to see pigeons, has, in my mind, largely manifested itself as something of a chronological story. Starting from a mythic, Edenic pigeon as pure biological being, pre-human and without history, we moved through the domestication of pigeons, the death of the passenger pigeon, the changing dynamic of domesticated pigeons, especially as war pigeons, and now to pigeons as things to be ignored or killed. There are undoubtedly things we missed, such as failing to go into a deeper discussion of the use of pigeons for communication, including as mail services, and ignoring historic cultural depictions of pigeons. I know Dylan wanted to look more at people who continue refusing to ignore pigeons, such as people who regularly feed pigeons, and I regret that our discussion has been so Eurocentric. Moreover, since reading Laurie Ricou’s Salal [133], we have both been reflecting on what it would mean to manifest this project as pigeon . I maintain that we haven’t done this. Given my understanding of pigeons, their primary concern is homing, which raises interesting ideas if one considers home along the lines of loving family, which is so often suggested for humans. I am stuck on how to realize this project as homing, but perhaps inverting it, so we move from where we are now with pigeons, back to where they came from, might be a first step. The idea of pigeons as homing also complicates the project of doing justice with pigeons, if one considers that rock pigeons may not be home in North America, at least as far as settlers are never home in colonized lands.

The project has also made me question what it means to be a life overlooked, especially regarding pigeons. On one hand, as things that people don’t want to see, pigeons seem so obviously overlooked, yet they continue to pop up across media and culture. I think that working on this project has brought me too deep into pigeons, but I’ve been catching comments and glimpses of pigeons more frequently than I expect to, making it hard for me to describe them as overlooked. I think, perhaps, I need to draw a line between overlooked and ignored, for although they may not be ignored, I feel that pigeon lives have almost always been overlooked. Pigeons have always been something to be used by humans: as food, in war, and even in fancying and racing. Pigeon lives, and what pigeons may want to accomplish with their lives, has never been considered. This question, of what X wants, has come up several times throughout the semester, and I think it might be the fundamental question when striving to do justice with something. I don’t think I know what pigeons want, yet, but their shared history with humans suggests some things pigeons likely don’t want. And I’m going to try to keep my eyes and ears open; I’ll try to listen, and hopefully I’ll be able to hear.

-Benjamin J. Kapron




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