A Sentience Article from All-Creatures.org

Respecting Pigeons

From Bill Crain, Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary
June 2024

We humans are quick to form negative opinions of many nonhuman animals. But as we learn more about them, and observe them with open minds, our views can change. I hope this will happen in the case of the ordinary pigeon.

Cher Ami
Cher Ami: Smithsonian Institution

A recent Direct TV television commercial featured two pigeons on a rooftop, talking like a pair of elderly comedians. They first observed the absence of the familiar Dish, on which one “used to love doing my business.” Then they turned to the topic of respect. One complained that baseball teams are named after blue jays, cardinals, and orioles, but not pigeons. “To be fair, we’re not very athletic,” the other replied.

Pigeons have often been held in low regard. Woody Allen famously called them “rats with wings.” One of my colleagues, a psychologist who performed lab experiments on them, told me that it’s fine to confine them to cages because their lives are so empty. Even gangsters express their contempt, using the term “pigeon” (short for “stool pigeon") to refer to a snitch.

One afternoon I learned about attitudes toward pigeons through a troubling experience. I saw an SUV emerge from New York City’s Central Park carrying several crates of the birds. I had heard about pigeon theft, so when the two men in the vehicle pulled over to adjust the crates, I confronted them. “Where did you get the pigeons?” I asked. They didn’t have a ready answer.

I tried to engage them in conversation long enough to spot a police car, but they didn’t stick around. They just shouted, “F_ _you,” and almost ran me over as they sped away.

I was able to write down part of their SUV’s license plate and went to the nearby precinct. ”Those pigeons will be saved yet,” I thought. But the desk officer brushed me aside. “We don’t deal with pigeons,” he said. A man standing beside the officer added his own advice: “Come back when you have something important.”

Such low opinions disregard these birds' admirable traits. These traits that are present in a variety of breeds, including the common street pigeon (sometimes called a feral pigeon or rock dove). Here are some of their special qualities.

*Pigeons are fast. Common pigeons can fly 40 to 50 miles per hour. Some who have been selectively bred and trained have been clocked at over 90 miles per hour.

*They possess a homing instinct that enables them to return to their original residence even if it is hundreds of miles away.

*People who put a high value on marriage will admire their lasting monogamous bonds. When they have eggs, the male and female take turns sitting on them.

*Pigeons have demonstrated amazing courage. A prime example is Cher Ami (which means dear friend in French). He was a small bird who carried messages for U.S. soldiers in France during World War I:

Cher Ami served an Army unit known as the Lost Battalion. The soldiers ventured too far into the forest and were under German assault. Making matters worse, U.S. troops inadvertently began to fire on them. To stop this bombardment, the battalion needed to get a message to the U.S. base, but the distance was too far for radio contact. So the battalion turned to its pigeons. With messages attached to their legs, the pigeons attempted to follow their homing instinct and fly to the base. But the Germans gunned down each pigeon who was sent into the air. Only Cher Ami was left. The little bird flew up, but he, too, was shot and fell to the ground.

The soldiers gave up all hope. They believed they would all die. Then, remarkably, Cher Ami soared again. He was shot in a leg, eye, and chest, but he somehow made it to headquarters, which sent troops to the rescue.

For his bravery, the French government awarded Cher Ami the Croix de Guerre. His body is on display in the Smithsonian museum.

Many people dislike pigeons because they have heard that they transmit diseases to humans. But the New York City health department and other public agencies have found that these risks are small.

We humans are quick to form negative opinions of many nonhuman animals. But as we learn more about them, and observe them with open minds, our views can change. I hope this will happen in the case of the ordinary pigeon.

Bill Crain is a retired psychology professor at the City College of New York and cofounder of Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in Poughquag, NY. He is the author of Animal Stories: Lives at a Farm Sanctuary.

Posted on All-Creatures.org: June 11, 2024
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