Monday, June 04, 2007

Animal of the Week -- June 4, 2007

After five whole months in exile following the festive avian glut at Christmas, the ornithologists, twitchers, and bird fanciers among you might be pleased to hear that this week's animal is an ave. Although you may be less excited to hear that this week's animal is actually Columba livia domestica (domestic pigeon, feral pigeon, rat with wings).

Now, the coincidence is striking: this time last year I related to you a tale of bloody murder featuring a herring gull, a pigeon, and the Regent's Canal. I have not seen anything like it since, that is, not until yesterday evening. Stood in the waterfront bar of King's College Union attending a gig by Australian wonderband Architecture in Helsinki and overlooking the Gormley dotted skyscape of the Southbank, my eyes were drawn to a commotion in the sky above the river by Gabriel's Warf. What first appeared to be a dogfight among a group of lesser black-backed gulls was actually aerial pursuit. Barrelling along in front of the five or six gulls was a pigeon -- scraggly, dirty, unloveable, and unloved. Diving this way and that, skimming the treetops, hurtling towards buildings in a deadly collision course before wheeling away at the last minute, the little thing was desperately trying to shake off its pursuers. The dastardly gulls matched the pigeon's every move, frequently seeming to catch up with the pigeon trying to nab him, jab him, tab him, grab him, but never quite getting more than the tip of a tailfeather.

From Blackfriars to Waterloo the birds shot, from north bank to south. Disappearing from sight for a few moments, they would dramatically reappear from above outside the gallery windows at King's Union. I, and other interested onlookers (ie, the kind person I was with who was too polite not to feign interest), watched the dramatic chase for a few minutes. The pursuit was lost to sight finally, but a flock of gulls reappeared shortly after, no pigeon among them, so I assume it escaped.

So, I am pleased to report that the pelicans and the gulls that have turned pigeon killers don't always have it their way. The escape of domestic pigeons has made this species perhaps the most widely distributed non-migratory species of bird, being populous among many cities, with plenty of places being famed for their large flocks. Descended from rock doves, although there are a variety of domestic forms (see the Jacobin breed in the pics), most feral versions have reverted to a rock dove shape with varied colour. They might be a pain sometimes, yes, and being crapped on one cannot be considered lucky, but none of their badness is their fault, they just do what comes naturally in the unnatural settings created by people with all the ideal nesting sites and plentiful discarded food. Talk of pigeons fouling the street occur in Mesopotamian scripts of 4000 years ago; and in classical Rome, large colonies were plundered as a source of fat young pigeons, squabs, for food. They are remarkable animals, adapting better than almost any other to the manmade environment.

One of the domestic pigeon's most famous skills is its ability to navigate home over great distances, up to 1000 km, of unknown terrain. This trait was used to great effect during various wars, when the birds were used to send messages from the frontlines, and a couple of pigeons have been awarded medals for their contributions to war efforts. A lesser known ability that people have claimed for pigeons is an ability to distinguish between impressionist and cubist paintings. In 1995, scientists encouraged a pigeon to sort artwork, after a little training, in which pigeons were rewarded with food for pecking at Picassos but given nothing for pecking at Monets, they soon only ever pecked at Picassos. When new paintings and other artists were included the pigeons could still distinguish between the two schools. And like the punchline to some appalling 1970s sitcom joke in which a dowdy conservative tries to get to grip with modern art, when the paintings were turned upside down, the pigeons didn't know what to do with the impressionist work, but continued to behave as ever with the cubist pictures.

Big up the pigeons!


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