What do pigeons have in common with yaks and snow leopards?
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Despite the fact that thousands of pigeons share our city with us, very few of us know anything about them.
For example, did you know that pigeons are actually doves? Their official name is actually “Rock Dove” or “Rock Pigeon”, and they are in the same family—Columbidae—as the dove. In English, the name “pigeon” is usually used for larger members of the family and “dove” for smaller members, but many languages only have one word for these birds. But for a long time, “pigeon” and “dove” were used interchangeably.
Back to the original question: What do city pigeons have in common with snow leopards and yaks?
For one thing, they share the same original habitat—wild places like the Himalayas! Before we brought pigeons to our cities, they lived in the world’s wildest places, like the cliffs and mountains of Europe and Asia. How did they come to share our sidewalks with us? Well, like many species, they’re here because we brought them. Some of these domesticated pigeons escaped and have thrived because the ledges, windowsills, and bridges of a city are so similar to the cliffs of their original homes. (source)
Some people think that pigeons are dirty, but fortunately for all of us, this just isn’t true. In fact, a search of disease studies over more than 60 years found so few cases of diseases transmitted from feral pigeons to humans that the researchers concluded, “Although feral pigeons pose sporadic health risks to humans, the risk is very low, even for humans involved in occupations that bring them into close contact with nesting sites.” (D. Haag-Wackernagel and H. Mock, “Health Hazards Posed by Feral Pigeons,” Journal of Infection 48 (2004): 307-13. ) You are actually more likely to get a disease from a pet bird than a city pigeon. (The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, “Facts About Pigeon-Related Diseases,” The City of New York 2005.)
What can you do if you have pigeons on your property and you don’t want them there? In Vancouver, the favoured way of dealing with pigeons is putting up small metal spines on the edges of buildings or signs. A friend of mine told me that she keeps a little squirt bottle to spray water in their direction when they land on her balcony. Both options are humane and effective, but there is an even better method of population control when it comes to pigeons: stop feeding them! Everyone knows that it is a lot of fun to feed the birds, but we must remember that feeding wild animals is not necessarily in their best interest.
This is because a pigeon breeds anywhere from 1 to 6 times a year, depending on how much food she is able to get, and young birds can breed by the age of just 6 months. (This is why poisoning pigeons is not only extremely cruel but totally useless, and may even result in a larger population than before. More here: Pigeon Control Advisory Service, “Why Lethal Bird Control Fails”)
One more thing–did you know that pigeons are pretty smart? They have been featured in numerous studies, and scientists have learned a few things:
- Pigeons can be taught to tell the difference between the art of Monet and Picasso, or other Impressionist and Cubist artwork. After training the birds, researchers at Keio University in Japan presented them with artwork that they had never seen before, and they chose correctly. Even after the paintings were blurred or changed to black-and-white, the pigeons were still successful. (source)
- Pigeons appear to have passed the Mirror Test, a test of self-awareness that only a few animals—such as dolphins, chimpanzees, bonobos, and elephants—have managed to pass. Humans cannot pass the test until they are 1 ½ or 2 years old. (source)
- Keio University Professor Shigeru Watanabe and Tsukuba University graduate student Kohji Toda trained pigeons to discriminate real-time self-images using mirrors as well as videotaped self-images. The pigeons’ video image discrimination was superior to that of a 3-year-old child. (source)
More pigeon-related info:
The Human Nature of Pigeons (PDF from United Poultry Concerns)