I’m not crazy about pigeons, but they do have interesting stories to tell. #dontrunaway
As I sit in the outdoors café of my local park, I take in the pretty surroundings and listen to birds chirping in the background. A pigeon flies past and perches on the chair just next to mine. I flinch.
I’m not crazy about pigeons. To be honest, my unwanted reflex is to dance in angst when one flies my way. (Yes, you may have already been entertained by me when walking down Cannon Street some day.)
I watch the pigeon fearfully, trying to figure out what or who its next target will be (please don’t come for me). Oh wait. It’s distracted. Someone left their table with half a cheese sandwich up for grabs on their plate. The pigeon wastes no time and flies over, pecking over the remainders. I shudder.
But I do try to see the beauty in nature… are there any redeeming features that we can admire in pigeons? And what have scientists learnt from them – has pigeon science taught us anything, or are they, as they say – ‘rats with wings’?.
For starters, pigeons were often used as postal carriers, even managing to go coroporate – in its early years, Reuters used pigeons to carry stock market updates between Aachen and Brussels.
Pigeons also have a history in art: Picasso was fond of the birds and used them as subjects of his paintings frequently. He even named his daughter Paloma, Spanish for pigeon.
Historically, pigeons were used by many as messengers – partly because of their speed that averages at around 80 km/h. But some have sought to benefit from pigeons’ velocity in other ways…
So, pigeon racing exists. It is a centuries-old sport, which can actually be quite profitable.
It’s the sport of releasing specially bred and trained racing pigeons that then have to race back to their home lofts. The Royal Pigeon Racing Association prizes the races as “a sport for the whole family”.
A specific type of pigeon is bred for racing, the Racing Homer. These birds are specially trained for races varying from 100 to 1000 kilometres. Racing Homers are known to travel up to 700 miles a day, at an average speed of 90 miles per hour (now we know why it was so hard to catch that darn pigeon!).
Over the past 20 years, the world of pigeon racing has become more serious as the stakes have increased – in January this year, the 19th annual Million Dollar Pigeon Race in South Africa gave a prize of $150,000 to the winning flyer. And in May 2013, a pigeon dubbed Bolt was sold to a Chinese businessman for around $400,000.
But the sport isn’t without its scandals – in October 2013, six Belgian birds failed tests for banned performance-enhancing drugs. One even tested positive for cocaine…
The pigeon trade
There are groups of avid pigeon collectors who prefer to trade and raise them as friendly pets and companions. Syria’s pigeon collectors, who are known as hamemati – are among the most well known in the Arab world.
There are also communities in New York City who look out for and enjoy raising pigeons on rooftops. New York City Pigeon Rescue Central is an organisation where animal activists and pigeon lovers come together to rescue and rehabilitate injured pigeons from streets.
Pigeons communities on Facebook
Albeit not often updated, a Facebook page called Pigeons of New York now exists, which has some 1,600 followers. Its raison d’etre is that “Not all New Yorkers are Human. Some of us happen to be pigeons.”
What to make of bird brains?
Although it’s great to see that pigeons have started to have a presence on social media… what about their brains and how they work – have scientists discovered anything useful?
Pigeon brains aren’t any bigger than the tip of your index finger, but scientists have found that some of their brain regions operate quite similarly to our own.
One study has found that pigeons learn language in a similar way to children. Scientists have also learnt that pigeons can recognise specific people and aren’t fooled from changes of outfits. Pigeons can even distinguish between Monet and Picasso paintings (maybe that’s why Picasso liked pigeons so much).
Monet vs Picasso. Which do the pigeons prefer?
Pigeons have also been seen to make intelligent decisions and have problem solving skills. And they’ve been taught to use computerised touch screens. This is what I like to call Pigeontelligence. (Please keep reading – the jokes truly cannot get worse.)
Scientists have learnt that pigeons have excellent visual senses too: Richard Levenson and his team from the University of California Davis Medical Center recently showed that pigeons are capable of being trained to distinguish between malignant and benign breast tumours, just from looking at a mammogram or a slide from a biopsy.
But its still not quite clear how these hidden talents could be used commercially. Levenson suggests that birds could one day be used to help test new medical diagnostic technology, in place of expensive human testers in the early development phases. But even this seems a little far-fetched.
Pigeons’ cool contributions to the science of sleep
Pigeons seem to have an sharp visual senses, but what do scientists say about them when their eyes are closed?
Dolores Martinez-Gondalez and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany, looked into just this, finding that pigeons are able to recover lost sleep without having to spend more time sleeping (my ideal superpower).
So, if pigeon has lost sleep over the presence of a predator, it can recover its lost sleep later in the day by sleeping more deeply.
The team discovered that the ways in which sleep is regulated in birds and mammals may be more similar than previously thought. Studying sleep in birds could then help uncover a little more about the function of sleep in us humans…
Instead of running in fear
So, next time you see someone jump in fright from the sight of a pigeon, perhaps telling them some of these facts will help them see the birds in a different light. But perhaps not – I am still pretty wierded out by them. (See my pigeon-reflex in Kenwood park every other Sunday at 2pm).
Follow me on Twitter @SharonDarwish