Monday, July 30, 2012

Noble bird

A clever ad campaign is currently being waged on an L car near you. Like many ads these days, if you're not paying close attention, you may get sucked into it without realizing what it's trying to sell you. Because I've enjoyed reading these ads during some idle time on the train, I'll put in a plug for the product they're selling, Amstel Light beer. The name of the campaign is "Savor Complexity" and the ads feature stories containing fascinating facts about common, heretofore under-appreciated stuff such as the stop light, burgers, dartboards and ping pong. I guess the comparison they're trying to make between these random objects and their beer is this: Amstel Light may taste like water, but that water has a very interesting (and complex) story.

Anyway the story that really caught my attention and inspired this post, is Amstel Light's tribute to the pigeon.

As an on again, off again birder, I understand the joy at seeing a species of bird for the first time, adding one more check to my "life list." However to most birders, a bird that one day is a splendid discovery, will become tiresome if you see it often enough. I remember going on a Audubon Society sponsored bird walk around a lovely nature preserve near our home. Some novice birders were thrilled at their first sighting of a beautiful black bird with red bands on its wings. The leader sighed, shook his head and said a little mockingly: "Man, that's just a Red Winged Blackbird." You can imagine then where the city pigeon fits on the hierarchy of your average birder. Of course, that's not the birds' fault, or problem.

Pigeons come from the same family as doves: Columbidae. Most people think of doves as lovely things to behold, the white one is known all over the world as a symbol of peace and love. Pigeons don't get that kind of respect. You may ask then, what's the difference between a pigeon and a dove. Well nothing actually, the two names are interchangeable, there is no scientific distinction between birds that are called pigeons and birds that are called doves. In fact, the official common name for your typical city pigeon is Rock Dove. Its scientific classification is Columba livia.

Many people however classify pigeons as flying rats, or Fugiens mures if you prefer. Here is a web site devoted to the cause of pigeon haters. This would be their anthem.

Whether you call them pigeons, rock doves, or winged rats, the birds do have some traits people find offensive. They're slobs for starters, roosting communally on poop strewn ledges, their nests are loosely thrown together collections of anything they can find, not the tightly woven architectural wonders that many other birds build. They don't seem to mind sharing their living quarters with the corpses of their fallen comrades either. 

It's true that pigeons share some traits with rats. Their populations are intrinsically tied to those of human beings, and both are indelibly associated with the city. Rats and pigeons have been domesticated for thousands of years and as such, they have contributed much to our own species. In the wild however, people consider pigeons and rats to be pests. Both Columba livia and Rattus norvegicus are resilient, opportunistic species perfectly willing to adapt and as a result are tenacious survivors. 

Here the comparison ends.

Pigeons came to be city dwellers because people brought them here, as pets or working animals. The pigeon population that exists in virtually every city on the planet, consists of descendants of these domesticated birds that either were released by, or escaped from their owners. You can tell city pigeons are feral animals because of the variation of plumage, a result of selective breeding. The pigeon pictured above for example, is a variant of the familiar bird found in nature whose body is made up of mostly light gray feathers with dark stripes on the wings. The plumage of the bird in the picture would not occur in nature without a little outside help.

Rats were brought to cities by humans too, but they came mostly as stowaways.

Pigeons mate for life reproducing prolifically, a pair of breeding birds can potentially produce up to eight offspring a year but...

The reproduction of rats is astronomical. According to Rats: Obeservations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, an excellent book by Robert Sullivan, male and female rats might have sex twenty times a day and ...a dominant male may mate with up to twenty female rats in just six hours." Given the right circumstances, one pair of rats "has the potential of 15,000 descendants in a year."

Unlike their rodent cousins the squirrels, rats will not reduce their birth rate as a means to control their population, rather they will continue to reproduce at a furious rate up to the point where the food supply has been exhausted, then will resort to murder and cannibalism to bring the population down, ensuring the survival of the colony.

Pigeons are strictly diurnal, meaning they are active during the day.

Rats are nocturnal; seeing at rat during the day means that the area is overrun with them. Daytime rats are forced to forage in the light much to their own risk, because the food supply can't support the number of rats in a colony. When that occurs, weaker rats cannot compete with stronger members of the colony feeding at night.

The damage that pigeons cause to human beings is negligible, most of the diseases the birds transmit are not serious and are passed on only through close, very close contact with their droppings. Here's the lowdown from the New York City Department of Health.  

Rats as everyone knows are carriers of deadly disease. Again, quoting from Sullivan, rats...
carry diseases that we know of and they may carry diseases that we do not know of-in just the past century, rats have been responsible for the death of more than ten million people...
That number is small compared to the days of the Black Death in Middle Ages where the disease caused by the Yersenia pestus bacterium transmitted by fleas who hitched rides aboard the backs of rats, took perhaps 100 million human lives, over one third of the populaetion of Europe, over the course of two years. If that were not enough:
Rats generally wreak havoc on food supplies, destroying or contaminating crops and stored foods everywhere, Some estimates suggest that as much as one third of the world's food supply is destroyed by rats. 
The biggest difference I suppose is our feelings about the two animals. Rats are without a doubt, the most universally despised animals on earth. We may call them rats with wings but let's face it, the best word to describe the emotion most of us have toward pigeons is, indifference.

That's where Amstel Light comes in.
I defy you to feel indifferent about pigeons after reading this ad copy:
It was a particularly gruesome battle in WW I when hundreds of US Soldiers were trapped behind enemy lines. But one soldier refused to surrender, he escaped, fleeing through a barrage of bullets. He was shot through the chest. He was blinded in one eye. But he made it back to base 25 miles south. He alerted Division headquarters, and helped save the lives of 194 men that day. His name is Cher Ami of the 99th Infantry division, and he was more than just a soldier, he was a pigeon. So the next time you think pigeons are simple creatures, only good for defecating on the statues of American heroes, REMEMBER: Some pigeons ARE American heros.
The ad goes on to point out that 32 pigeons were awarded the Dickin Medal for Animal Bravery. In case you're wondering, only 26 dogs received the same honor, as well as 3 horses and, believe it or not, one cat. The cat's name incidentally was Simon, a ship's cat who despite several injuries to himself, managed to rid his ship of numerous rats, (and bring this post full circle). Here's Simon's story.

Cher Ami predated the Dickin Medal but he too was honored with several medals for his bravery. I don't know what he did with them. Upon his death he was stuffed and you can visit him, what's left of him that is, at the National Museum of American History in Washington DC.

I'm not sure if reading Amstel Light's tribute will change the minds of the virulent pigeon haters. They continue to plot and scheme of ways to rid the city of the winged rat. My favorite plan is introducing Peregrine Falcons into cities all over the world. Like pigeons, the native habitat of falcons are regions with steep cliffs where they roost, which are very similar to the tall buildings in a modern city. It's a win win proposition, the city turns out to be the perfect habitat for these magnificent birds who were nearly at the brink of extinction not very long ago. And their favorite food is, you guessed it, pigeon. One would think pigeons would be no match for the fastest animal on the face of the planet. But that would be a mistake, for while falcons can dive at nearly 150 mph, pigeons are strong fliers too, a healthy adult can hold its own with the predator in level flight. Pigeons, having lived with falcons for millennia, have other ways to evade the raptors as you can see in this amazing video:

Pigeon lovers, and there are a few of them out there, needn't worry, the survival of this bird is not in jeopardy. There will never be enough falcons around to effectively control the pigeon population.

How then do we control out of control pigeon populations without doing damage to other animals or ourselves? Well the answer if not the implementation is fairly simple. Just as with rats, limit their food supply by covering up our garbage, and by not feeding them.

The problem its seems is not with the animals; as usual, to quote Charlton Heston: "it's people."

We humans have a strange relationship with animals. The animals we value most are the ones we create, namely our pets. In the wild we value vulnerable animals, especially if they're cute or pretty. It makes us feel good to rescue these not very successful (in the Darwinian sense) species from extinction. It's the successful species, the ones that will survive with or without us, that we're not so crazy about.

Pigeons have been faithful companions of ours for thousands of years. As you just read, they have served us very well without asking much in return. Only recently have we forsaken them, and left to their own devices, they have done pretty well for themselves. As such they are the quintessential urban dwellers.

In a way, they are like us.

That's probably why we dislike them.

I hope this display of pigeon prowess opens your eyes if just a little to one of God's great creations. Like all animals, they are truly amazing, even if their habits are a trifle disgusting. In all honesty, so are ours. In that vein, I'd like to suggest we do something in appreciation for our urban companions.

Maybe we could all take a pigeon out to lunch.

Just make sure he buys.

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