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Monday, January 22, 2007
ONE of the commonest birds in our cities and larger towns is the pigeon.
The true city pigeon is feral. In other words it’s descended from birds that were once domesticated but escaped or were released.
We’re not sure when pigeons were first domesticated but it was at least 1000 years ago and it was probably for food.
Young pigeons, called "squabs," are still raised for this purpose and there’s a special breed of meat pigeon called a king pigeon.
As pigeons were bred in captivity the breeders selected traits that interested them and other uses emerged. A variety of colours and shapes were produced and it became fashionable to keep ornamental pigeons in dovecotes in larger country houses.
The breeders also noticed that pigeons have strong homing instincts and are excellent long-distance navigators. This is odd because their wild ancestors are not migratory and seldom stray far from home.
Pigeons bred for their homing instincts were used as message carriers. The message was written on a scrap of light material and usually put in a tube on the leg.
Pigeons provided the world’s first airmail services. They can fly at 100km/h and cruise comfortably at 50km/h in a reasonably straight line. Before telecommunications, they were the fastest way of sending information long distances. There was the disadvantage that it was a one-way system — pigeons will only fly back to their home loft.
Pigeons were used as messengers in 1150 in Baghdad and later by Genghis Khan. The news of the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo reached Britain by pigeon and they played a role in war and peace up until recently.
In 1860 Reuters News Agency employed 45 pigeons and in the First World War a pigeon called Cher Ami was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for his heroism in delivering 12 important messages, despite being shot and wounded on one occasion.
Pigeon Post services were established in several places, including New Zealand where Pigeon Post stamps were issued. The police department in the Indian state of Orissa demobilised its last pigeons in March, 2002.
PIGEON racing originated in Belgium in the mid-19th century and spread round the world to provide pleasure to many people. So much pleasure that it was banned by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
If you’re interested there’s an excellent Irish web site at www.racingpigeon.ie
The ancestor of domestic pigeons is a bird I always called the rock dove.
But recently the ornithological authorities have changed its name to rock pigeon.
It lives on cliffs, usually sea cliffs, around western and southern coasts of Europe and in North Africa and the Middle East.
It’s found in Ireland and I was familiar with it when I lived on the rocky coast of Waterford, where it preferred to roost and nest in sea caves.
Most feral pigeons choose tall buildings to replace their ancestral sea cliffs. But some have returned to the real thing and inter-bred with wild rock pigeons. They tend to revert to the shape and colour of the wild bird.
This poses difficulties for people who census birds, so we don’t really know how many true wild rock pigeons are left in the country — a unique gap in our knowledge.
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