Many of us dwelling in and around the myriad concrete jungles of the world may not realize that we have the great honor of sharing these spaces with the last living descendants of the dinosaurs, namely an ancient group of two-legged giants known as theropods. Few of us give these beings the consideration that their unique characteristics and evolutionary histories warrant. The urban denizens that I’m referring to are the ones so callously referred to by former Parks Commissioner Thomas P. Hoving in a 1966 Times article as ‘rats with wings‘, a phrase later popularized by Woody Allen’s 1980 film Stardust Memories: the feral pigeon. Perhaps the utterance of that derogatory phrase, in addition to the pigeon’s historical classification as a disease-ridden pest and public health hazard, is what helped spawn such widespread revulsion towards these rather remarkable, resilient, and highly adaptable creatures. I constantly hear the phrase uttered in the streets amidst occasional kicks and swats by passing pedestrians intent on clearing them out of their way, out of their sight. However, such a careless lack of respect and consideration of living beings is what led to the extermination of the feral pigeon’s relative, the formerly abundant but now extinct passenger pigeon, who like so many other species throughout history fell victim to relentless overexploitation. Now during the Anthropocene, wherein a continuation of rapacious human production and consumption patterns portend the loss of 67% of thousands of monitored vertebrate species around the globe by 2020 (WWF, 2016), it’s high time that we began reassessing the ways in which we perceive and interact with our wondrous co-evolutionary kin. The feral pigeon, our long-disregarded, despised, objectified, and poorly understood urban co-habitant, would be a great place to start.
The great Charles Darwin found pigeons interesting enough to devote considerable sections of his first chapter in The Origin of Species to the multifarious and spectacular variations that these beings manifested through artificial selection. A wild ancestor of the feral pigeon, the rock pigeon, was the first bird to be domesticated around 6,000 years ago in the Middle East, and was associated with goddesses Aphrodite and Venus by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Since then, their “contribution to human wellbeing has been astonishing” (Harris, 2010). Throughout history they’ve been utilized (or rather, exploited) as a source of food, of nutrient-rich guano for fertilizer, as messengers for their incredible navigational abilities, hunted for sport, and systematically exterminated. Today, no longer depended upon for ferrying messages about the world, pigeons inhabit every continent except Antarctica and have become ideally suited to life in the city, that ultimate feat of human engineering, as it offers protection from predators such as the peregrine falcon, as well as fairly regular access to food. You may wonder, what could we possibly have in common with a creature seemingly so different from us? Yet, despite often being perceived as an ultimate external (and inferior) ‘other’ who merely scurries about in filthy alleyways in search of food scraps, with little to no semblance to human ways, pigeons are actually considered to be among the most intelligent birds on the planet. They’ve even passed the ‘mirror recognition test’ for self-awareness! Pigeons embody some of our most cherished Western romantic ideals, wherein adults mate for life and each takes turns incubating and assiduously caring for their soon-to-be chicks. In addition to seeing colors very much the way humans do, they have the extraordinary capacity to see ultraviolet light. While pigeon flock dynamics were believed to be rigidly hierarchical, wherein dominance is correlated with aggression, body size, and access to food, further studies have found that pigeon hierarchies are actually context-specific and transitive, with different types of hierarchies often coexisting simultaneously within the same flock of birds.
As a lifelong biophiliac, I have cherished pigeons as I do all other living beings, as marvelous co-evolutionary kin with whom we are equally entwined in the great cosmic dance of evolution. I see them as unique, agentic subjects with their own equally valid ways of ‘knowing’ and experiencing our world. What’s more, to me they represent a microcosm of our overall strained and morally deficient relationships with natural others. We’ve used pigeons (and countless other animals) throughout history exclusively for our benefit and for profit. Rarely if ever do we pause to consider what they might feel or need, what we might be depriving them of; and when they are no longer of any use, we cast them out and ostracize them, treating them as mere objects utterly devoid of inherent worth. Why should we care about pigeons? The magnificent pigeon, like us and like every other living being in existence, is the bearer of the six fundamental elements of life that bind us all: carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. They have life trajectories, desires, joys, and aversions just like ours. But apart from any similarities at the atomic, physiological, or behavioral level, I would reiterate what philosopher Lori Gruen calls for in her extraordinary book, Entangled Empathy: an empathetic attentiveness and mode of interaction with our animal counterparts that’s founded on the realization that we are always embedded in relationships with others, human and more-than-human, and that a crucial feature of empathy entails the recognition and reverence of difference. Thus, we should cherish and celebrate everything that makes animals different from as well as similar to us. Pigeons, with their graceful flight patterns, their human-like interactions with one another and with any human bystander who is generous enough to share food with them, their stunning and various color patterns, the curious, bobbing manner by which they traverse the bustling city streets that they share with us, and the bottomless depths of their inquiring gaze which we’ll likely never fully understand; these characteristics and so many more make them infinitely valuable and worthy of respect. Crucially, they are daily reminders that we are not alone on this planet. If they ever seem an inconvenient burden, imagine our cities resounding only with human voices and populated only by human presences. Such desolation would be an intolerable tragedy indeed.