What could be a more iconic zoological symbol of the transformation of the environment into a thoroughly human construct than the feral pigeon? To a modern human cliff-dweller in the canyons of the world’s metropoli, this humble creature is by far most familiar vertebrate, bobbing amongst the park benches with its deliberate, comical gait, searching for stale potato chips and other such urban flotsam, defiling the noble bronze heads of olden-day heroes in the public square. Their familiarity has bred our contempt. That and their astonishing capacity to turn urban garbage into bird biomass and guano.
But it was not always thus. Look closely and you can see the ghost of a beautiful and noble bird beneath the grime and worn feathers. The iridescent sheen of the nape, the soft gray plumage, the handsome wing bars. The lowly pigeon was among the very first animals to be domesticated by humans, appearing in the first known written documents in Mesopotamia more than 5000 years ago, and has a fascinating history. In primeval times the “rock dove”, as our pigeon’s wild ancestor is known, lived in colonies on rocky sea cliffs — and still does in some areas such as the island of Sardinia (see painting at left). This is of course one reason it has adapted so well to our cities, roosting in the baroque marble excrescences of neoclassical buildings, on the ledges of skyscrapers, and under bridges.
One would have thought that nothing could kill these legendary survivors. After the nuclear war, one expects to see, among the smoking rubble, only cockroaches, pigeons, and maybe Keith Richard (“Hey man — where is everybody?”).
But there may be trouble brewing for metropolitan pigeons, at least in the suburbs of the UK. It appears that their rustic country cousins are muscling in on their territory. The BBC reports that the wood pigeon, formerly a bird of farmland and woods, has appeared quite suddenly in suburban gardens. The British Trust for Ornithology, who keeps track of the birds that people record seeing in their gardens, says that a decade ago, wood pigeons did not even make the list in London. Now they are the fourth most common bird seen there, occurring in 46% of urban gardens, whereas feral pigeons are found in only 26%.
The new order appears due to changes in farmng practices, including a shift to planting cereal crops in autumn (hmmm . . . climate warming connection?), and increased production of oil seed rape. And feeding by Mary Poppins and her ilk. The enhanced food supply, particularly during the otherwise lean winter months, has produced a population explosion of wood pigeons. Like the Huns that poured into Europe off the steppes in medieval times, the new arrivals are invading cities and competing for food and nesting opportunities with their urban relatives.
The old adage uses the canary in the coal mine as a barometer of impending danger. It seems unlikely that pigeons could really be in much danger, even under this new competition, given the long strange trip of their assocation with humanity over the last 6000 years or so. Still, who would have thought that anything could beat a pigeon– even another pigeon? Regardless of whether pigeons are endangered, this is surely prophetic of profound changes in our ecosystem. Perhaps, contra the ancient wisdom, there is something new under the sun.
[Painting of rock doves on sea-cliffs by Dietrich Bornham, Celle]