The rock pigeon Columba livia was the wild ancestor of the feral pigeon and the first bird to be domesticated, in the Middle East some 6,000 years ago. Since then its contribution to human wellbeing has been astonishing.Until agricultural advances in quite recent times, a dovecote, rabbit warren and carp pond were the three essentials to provide fresh meat throughout the year in Europe. In addition to food, pigeons produced valuable guano so rich in nutrients that one load of it was worth 10 from any other species. In many countries, pigeon dung actually played a key part in agricultural development.
It might seem improbable that the rock pigeon, a relatively uncommon species of remote cliffs, was the first bird we domesticated. But this process did not involve capture and selective breeding – merely the provision of an alternative place to nest, usually a dovecote with rows of ledges or clay pots along its internal walls. Some designs could accommodate several thousand sitting females.
The pigeons themselves were given little food, generally flying off to forage elsewhere. Despite requiring minimal attention, each pair typically produced about 10 squabs a year. Pigeons were thus the perfect source of protein.
Though pigeons were still an important food source in the 1800s, they were being stolen from lofts in large numbers to supply the newly fashionable sport of pigeon shooting: they were used as live targets in competitions.
The Hurlingham Club in London was founded in 1869 expressly for pigeon shooting. When the practice was made illegal in 1921, clay pigeon shooting was invented.Apart from supplying us with food, fertiliser and fun, pigeons have also played a useful role in medicine. Prolactin, the hormone responsible for milk production in mammals, was first isolated in 1933 in pigeons; the same hormone stimulates the male and female birds to secrete ‘milk’ from their crops to feed their young.
The consensus is that pigeons use the sun and/or the Earth’s magnetic field on long journeys, with visual cues becoming important near their loft, though recent studies suggest that they may also use odours. Not bad for birds with very small brains.
Lots of people enjoy their interactions with these charming birds, which have long drawn the crowds in tourist hotspots such as London’s Trafalgar Square and Venice’s Piazza San Marco.And let’s not forget that feral pigeons are some of the most beautiful birds you could hope to see. Their plumage has a multitude of different colours, including metallic greens, bronzes and purples on the neck, as well as exquisite wing patterns.
DID YOU KNOW?
Pigeon ‘milk’ is a cottage cheese-like fluid secreted from the lining of the crop. Flamingos are the only other birds to feed their young this way.
Experiments have shown that the humble feral pigeon can be trained to distinguish music by Bach and Stravinsky, and paintings by Monet and Picasso.
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