The Washington Post

Why so many pi­geons feel at home in ur­ban ar­eas

- JA­SON BITTEL kid­spost@wash­post.com Wildlife · Animals · Washington · London · England · Greater London · India · Mumbai · Melbourne · Australia · New York University · New York County, NY · North Africa · Africa · North Carolina

Some peo­ple feed pi­geons bread crumbs or keep them as pets in rooftop coops. Oth­ers see the an­i­mals as pests, car­ri­ers of disease or sim­ply “rats with wings.” But what­ever you think about th­ese birds, there’s one fact no one will ar­gue: Pi­geons are ev­ery­where.

Have you ever won­dered how one kind of bird man­aged to take over ur­ban ar­eas as far apart as Wash­ing­ton; Lon­don, Eng­land; Mum­bai, In­dia; and Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia? Or why it is that pi­geons are so plen­ti­ful in cities and not ea­gles, tur­keys, hum­ming­birds or vul­tures?

Well, the first thing you need to know about pi­geons is that they’re ac­tu­ally doves. Or doves are ac­tu­ally pi­geons. Sci­en­tif­i­cally, there’s no dif­fer­ence be­tween the two.

“In some lan­guages, there isn’t even a sep­a­rate word for ‘pi­geon,’ ” said Colin Jerol­mack, a sci­en­tist at New York Univer­sity who stud­ies hu­man so­ci­eties.

There are still pi­geons liv­ing in the wild to­day. They evolved on the shores of North Africa and the Mediter­ranean Sea, where they make their homes on rocky ledges and cliffs. And it was this nat­u­ral love for hard sur­faces that made them a per­fect fit in ur­ban ar­eas.

“They ac­tu­ally re­ally like con­crete, mar­ble and stone, so they pre­fer to live and build nests not in the trees and shrubs and grass, but along­side build­ings,” said Jerol­mack, who wrote a book called “The Global Pi­geon.”

But per­haps the big­gest rea­son you’ ll find pi­geons in cities around the world is be­cause hu­mans brought them there.

At least as long as 5,000 years ago, the peo­ple of an an­cient Mid­dle East­ern civ­i­liza­tion known as Me­sopotamia started putting out houses for th­ese birds. As the birds be­came more tame, peo­ple be­gan breed­ing them for food in ar­eas where other wild an­i­mals had be­come scarce.

Later, peo­ple learned that they could also use pi­geons to carry writ­ten mes­sages over long dis­tances, thanks to the birds’ hom­ing in­stinct.

“You can take a street pi­geon in D.C. and drive it down to North Carolina and re­lease it, and, more of­ten than not, it’ll find its way home,” Jerol­mack said.

As you can see, pi­geons can be quite use­ful. It’s been only in the past 80 to 100 years that peo­ple started dis­lik­ing the birds, Jerol­mack said. And much of the dis­like comes from mis­un­der­stand­ing.

For ex­am­ple, there’s re­ally no solid ev­i­dence that pi­geons pass dis­eases on to peo­ple. And once you get to know them, you might change the way you think.

Did you know that pi­geons mate for life, for in­stance? Or that once their chicks hatch, both par­ents take turns feed­ing their young a liq­uid pro­duced in their diges­tive tract called “crop milk?”

Any­way, hu­mans have only them­selves to blame for the pi­geons coo­ing on ev­ery cor­ner.

“We bred them and do­mes­ti­cated them, and kept them in cities as we de­vel­oped cities,” Jerol­mack said. “So they’ve al­ways been here, from the be­gin­ning.”

 ?? MATT MC­CLAIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST ?? Vi­jay Ku­mar Mak­wana feeds bread to pi­geons in Ar­ling­ton. Pi­geons love hard sur­faces af­ter evolv­ing in North Africa and the Mediter­ranean Sea, where the birds live on rocky ledges and cliffs.
MATT MC­CLAIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST Vi­jay Ku­mar Mak­wana feeds bread to pi­geons in Ar­ling­ton. Pi­geons love hard sur­faces af­ter evolv­ing in North Africa and the Mediter­ranean Sea, where the birds live on rocky ledges and cliffs.
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