“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues haven’t been discovered yet.”Ralph Waldo Emerson, Transcendentalist essayist, poet, and lecturer
When Emerson wrote his lecture Fortune of the Republic, he described how the importance of cotton to the United States overshadowed the other 200,000 plants known to botanists at the time. This was simply because man had not yet found a use for them. The oft overused quote that you’ll find sprinkled throughout the quote compendiums and nature themed agenda books of the world is often used within contexts where people refer to undiscovered potential or not judging a book by it’s cover. While the passage that appears in the lecture certainly can suggest that, the context that I believe was more relevant is that until humans think of and find a use for the animals or plants that live among them, they will consider them to be little more than (at best) part of the background or (at worst) inconveniences.
It’s little wonder how economic ornithology grew out of this vein of thinking and influenced scientists like Edward Howe Forbush when he sought to categorize the birds of Massachusetts and other New England states by their usefulness to the economy of man in addition to their purpose within their native habitats.
Having been written in the mid to late 1920s, the three volume works barely covers the common street pigeon in its pages. Indeed, the only pigeons given the time of day are ten or more pages on the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) and it’s slow demise at the hands of man and at five pages, the native mourning dove (Zenaida macroura). Pigeons have been used by man for centuries and until recently, their feral descendants have been causing anxieties about human-animal diseases, fears about cleanliness, and the desire the separate ourselves from the outside spaces where they can be found.
It’s a pretty safe bet that you’re not the biggest fan of the common street pigeon. In the scientific community it is known as Columba livia or rock pigeon. It is also known as rock dove, street pigeon, feral pigeon, rats with wings, or from the title of this article, repulsive sky rat. Most people are rankled by seeing them perching on the edges of buildings, looming over our heads waiting for our freshly waxed cars and our unhatted heads to come within pooping range. I personally think some people are weirded out by birds in the same way people are weirded out by snakes. They stare at us long and hard as if studying us, waiting for us to make a mistake and then, they swarm!
I like pigeons for a few reasons. They are an interesting bird to watch, they are common enough that people who are just getting into birding will always have something to watch, and they’re surprisingly adaptable to their environment. Even when you mention these opinions though, there will always be people who refer to them as pests.
Personally, I think we should rethink our definitions of “pest” as well. Pests always seem to be their most….pestersome (not a word, but then again, neither is “unhatted” and for another matter, “weirded”) when they are near humans. It’s hardly the pests fault when we seek to create our own habitats suited for our needs. We get annoyed at cabbage white caterpillars (Pieris rapae) and tomato hornworms (Manduca quinquemaculata) at daring to eat food we’ve planted for ourselves. We squeal with fear when paper wasps (Polistes spp.) and the bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) choose our eves for their crafted wood pulp nests because stability is key when you’re building a home for you and your sisters. We wring our hands when our bird feeders attract wildlife that take “more than their fair share” like jays, squirrels and the occasional bear.
I think that most of us are aware of our encroachment on the habitats of the animals around us. We’re constantly told in environmental science courses, in publications like National Geographic, in nature documentaries, and online media that we’re at fault for removing vital habitat from wildlife, endangered or otherwise. But pigeons don’t do this. They occupy a different realm entirely.
This is why some shun pigeons because like a lot of adaptive species, they “dare” to cross the space that we’ve ordained as our own. It’s no surprise why. We as a species have provided the perfect opportunities for them to thrive. Our style of buildings resemble the cliffs their wild ancestors built their nests on while their ability to process grain-based foods like bagels, bread, and other glutenous snacks have made them a biological hazard that cities have sought to address for decades.
In Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, the author relates how being “cute” can help people want to protect certain animals over others. While having a wolf as a pet doesn’t seem like a good idea because the wolf could kill you and eat you, a wolf pup with its big eyes, high-pitched squealing, and soft fur reminds us of our own newborns (and although I’ve met few hairy babies) the instinct to protect them grows strong. Once you form a connection with an animal and are responsible for their care, you are significantly less inclined to do harm to them or other animals that look like them.
On the flip side, wolves and by extension, dogs can be trained and habituated to human needs and uses such as hunting, providing alert systems, and herding. The problem that pigeons have is that they don’t have the “cute factor” going for them nor the “usefulness factor” either. While they have been used historically, the feral descendants we see today are by and large, wild birds that flee at the approach of humans and even with taming through regular feeding and handling, can still survive outside for long periods of time.
So where does that leave us?
Pigeons may not be everyone’s favorite animals, but I think they are worth watching because they give us a chance to look into a world we don’t often have access to. When I went to Portsmouth last Friday, the birds I photographed were beginning to form a relationship, a partnership to ensure the survival of their young. I saw attentiveness and courtship between two creatures that wanted to be together. And while I’m careful not to read anthropomorphism into their actions, they did give off the appearance that they were “in love”. Why else would they “kiss” so passionately?
For those of you who refuse to be convinced however, there is another way of looking at these birds; as food. Not for people. No, no, no. But for the peregrines that nest nearby on the Piscataqua bridge. Perhaps that ecological truth can help you realize a form of “usefulness” for the wildlife we admire by eating those that we’d like to see fewer of.
If you have any opinions on the pigeons of Portsmouth or anywhere really, leave a comment below and remember to share on Facebook and Twitter.