In Defense of Pigeons

Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan … and the World
By Courtney Humphries
Smithsonian, 196 pages, $24.95

Writing teachers always say that a crucial element of the craft is to know your audience. Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan … And the World is a cultural, historical and biological study of the timeless human-pigeon relationship, but its raison d’être is a thinly veiled—though well-supported—argument: Courtney Humphries cajoles us into agreeing, after 184 pages of anecdotal and scientific evidence, that there’s much more to the invisibly ubiquitous pigeon than the "rats with wings" tag affixed by Woody Allen. Though Ms. Humphries’ pitch is plenty persuasive, her challenge is to find an audience willing to pick up a book about an animal widely regarded as a filthy nuisance.

Her hook is the pigeon’s uncanny ability to go with the evolutionary flow: "The pigeon is not the smartest bird," Ms. Humphries writes, "nor the fastest, nor the prettiest, and it is certainly not the rarest. But it is capable of so much. More specialized birds might illustrate the limits of evolution, but pigeons show us its breadth." Which is what led Charles Darwin to devote the first chapter of On the Origin of Species to the pigeon. (His own nine pigeon varieties he dreamily called "the greatest treat, in my opinion, which can be offered to a human being.")

For those of us today who would politely decline that offer, Ms. Humphries announces that we have no one to thank but our ancestors. (Funny how environmental problems get handed down.) Pigeons were probably the first domesticated bird, starting when humans took them under their wing some 5,000 years ago. Pigeon breeders from Egypt to England built dovecotes—open homes that provided shelter and a place to sleep for pigeons who would ultimately end up on someone’s plate. For the bird formerly known as Rock Dove (and renamed "Rock Pigeon" in 2003 by the American Ornithologist’s Union), the setup was a princely abode, akin to the cliff dwellings of antiquity—and not so different from building facades of today.

Pigeons, despite their "rich," "delicious" taste—as attested to by Ms. Humphries—were pushed out of the barnyard by the exponentially randier chicken. But the damage had already been done. "By staying close to people," Ms. Humphries writes, "pigeons ensured themselves a healthy food supply. … Wherever people were, pigeons found fields of grains nearby, a nicer situation than picking up berries and seeds from scrub bushes on windswept cliffs."

 

SO WHY ARE THESE evolutionary phenoms so well adapted to Manhattan? When it comes to food, the birds take advantage of our parallel affinity for grain by finding our droppings of it at ports, silos and grain elevators, or in crumb form in trash cans, on the street, or littered around by old ladies in the park. (Ms. Humphries devotes more than one chapter to "pigeon people" and "pigeon mothers.") And when it comes to shelter, pigeons are perfectly comfortable settling down in any nook or cranny. A pigeon census (yes, really) conducted in Baltimore found a direct correlation between the number of buildings per block and the size of the pigeon population.

In case you thought (as I did) that the term "superdove" was just overzealous pidgin-speak, Ms. Humphries explains, "We can call pigeons superdoves because of their outstanding success. … A superhero is simply a person who acquires special powers through some transformative event; domestication gave pigeons the ability to become the superpower they are today." Because we domesticated pigeons in an unconventional way—sheltering them but making them find their own food—they became both comfortable with humans and adept at scavenging.

There are lulls in Superdove, moments when self-consciousness creeps up on you: I’m reading a book about pigeons! But you’re eventually drawn back in, happy to follow Courtney Humphries to "fancy pigeon" competitions (think Best in Show with over 700 pigeon breeds, including the somersaulting Parlor Roller), curious to hear about the history of "wartime pigeon heroes," or about the debate raging among self-proclaimed "pigeon people" over how to manage burgeoning populations of an animal neither wild nor domesticated.

Though not quite a page-turner, Superdove achieves its goal of giving meaning to a species you once saw as dirty and dull—if you saw it at all.

Sam Jewler studies politics at Oberlin College. He can be reached at books@observer.com.

In Defense of Pigeons