October 16, 2008

Rats With Wings

Have you ever been at a birthday party filled with hyper, giddy children, and then focused on one hyper, giddy child in particular, and thought to yourself: “You’d be sort of cute if there weren’t so many of you”?


Well, then, you may not understand my feelings about Your Bird of the Week, the Rock Pigeon.

The rock pigeon is that feral urban bird you see mobbing lonely old people in parks across North America. If you’re like me, you’ve probably quoted Woody Allen at some point in your life, referring to pigeons as “rats with wings.” But I wonder if we saw these birds alone, rather than perched in huddled masses on freeway overpasses, if we’d feel a little differently about them. Take the time to focus on just one and you might realize, they really are kinda pretty.

I thought about that during my whirlwind trip to New York City this past week, where I saw plenty o’ pigeons. And, I figured it was time for us to learn more about them.

Fact: This is usually where I describe the bird’s distinguishing characteristics. Rock pigeons are pretty cool, though, because they don’t all look the same. Some are bluish gray, some are bluish black, a few are rusty red, and a tiny fraction are a grizzled white. Want to know more? Check out this chart on color morphs at PigeonWatch!
Fact: Whatever their color, you can generally count on a dark gray bill, a white rump, a rounded tail, and broad wings with somewhat pointed tips. Most rock pigeons also sport beautiful, iridescent neck feathers.
Fact: The rock pigeon is actually not native to the United States. It was introduced to this continent in the early 1600s by European settlers. Today, rock pigeons are considered “feral,” which basically means that they have reverted to their natural, wild state.
Fact: The overpasses and building ledges that feral rock pigeons generally use for roosting sites mimic the rocky cliffs used by wild pigeons in their native habitat.
Fact: The rock pigeon is found in cities and towns throughout the United States. And if you need me to tell you where to find them, well, you’re grossly unobservant.
Fact: (Sigh.) Fine, take the southbound 3300 South off-ramp on I-15 in Salt Lake City. At the light, look up.
Fact: Wild pigeons eat things like seeds and fruits. Feral pigeons in cities largely subsist on the crap that humans eat—popcorn, bread, peanuts, French fries, and Twinkie crumbs.
Fact: Ah, rock pigeons are romantics. They mate for life.
Fact: The rock pigeon bonds with his mate through an extensive display that starts with bowing and cooing, in which the male stands tall, inflates his crop (or throat area), fans his tail, struts in a circle, and bows his head and neck while cooing. You can see why the female might be impressed.
Fact: What comes after bowing and cooing? Why nibbling of course. First the male nibbles the female. Once an appropriate amount of time has passed and she doesn’t feel too trampy about it, the female will nibble the male.

This may not be the best video ever made of pigeon courting, but I thought it was pretty funny with the Al Green backup. You can just watch for a minute and get the picture.

Fact: I’ve been accused of getting a little too obsessed with the bird sex on this site, so we’ll pass by that part of the story today. (It wasn’t all that kinky anyway.)
Fact: Once the not-so-kinky mating has happened, pigeons must have a nest for their eggs. To build one, the female picks out an appropriate site and makes a specific nesting call. The male will then search for a single twig, stem, or pine needle and bring it back to the female, who will place it around her breast or flanks. This is repeated again and again and again for four or five days until a decent nest is built.
Fact: Rock pigeons are equal opportunity incubators. Dad sits on the eggs from mid-morning to late afternoon. Mom sits from late afternoon to mid-morning. They take a similar schedule for raising/feeding the chicks after they’ve hatched.
Fact: Though they are modern parents, rock pigeons do not put a high price on sanitary conditions at home. Because they do not remove the feces of their nestlings, the nest turns into a sturdy, potlike mound that gets larger month by month. Unhatched eggs and mummies of dead nestlings may also get cemented into the nest, but the parents will usually use it the next go round.
Fact: Rock pigeons may seem pretty comfy in the local park, but they do have a few predators to worry about. Cooper's hawks, peregrine falcons, merlins, and cats will all make a nice meal of them. And, apparently, there is at least one pelican in the world willing to eat pigeons as well (not even sure if it's a rock pigeon, but still). Note: this video is pretty gross. You'll see why pelicans should stick with fish.

Fact: Rock pigeons are known for their “homing” skills, basically being able to navigate home from a distant place. This is sort of an odd skill for these birds to have, as they don’t really migrate. But, wild rock pigeons would frequently travel from their nest sites on cliffs to distant fields to eat. They would then use the sun and the earth’s magnetic fields to get back home. The birds we usually see in the U.S. don’t necessarily need those skills anymore, but they’ve got ‘em!

This has been Your Bird of the Week…er, month…sorry.


mean amy said...

I think I'm going to make my next mate bow and coo a lot more next time before I nibble anything!

Patrick said...

Holy crap, you gotta give that pigeon some credit, it did not go easily with that pelican! I've decided that's how I want to go now, down the gullet of a pelican!

doug said...

As next in line for USANA's editor position (you know, after Patrick, Camille, Mullen, and possibly Tim and Sarah, that is), I'd like to point out the parenthetical text just after the Al Green video.

doug said...

Rock pigeons ARE pretty amazing, though. Like on Home Alone:2, when they attack Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knNsBJcF8Ys
The military should think about training pigeons for special forces stuff.

Tim said...

I don't know how I've survived this far without seeing a pelican gulp a pigeon. Nice work.

I didn't know there were so many facts about pigeons. That's some great research.

As for their homing skills, here's a story about people who may take pigeon racing a bit too seriously.


Tim said...

Here's a quick excerpt from the article:

On the taxi ride to the hotel I tell my driver, a guy in his 20s with dreadlocks, why I am in town.

"They race pigeons? For real?"

"For real."

"Man, everybody knows pigeons are just rats with wings. Who wants to race them?"

"Same people who will pay 200 grand for a top breeding bird."

"Two hundred grand? Damn." The cabbie pauses, thinks for a moment. "Why not just jack one off the side of the street and sell it then?"

If only it were that simple.

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