The history of the street pigeon is revealed in Courtney Humphries new book Superdove. (Credit: Vizero.com)
— Story by Roxanne Palmer
Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No- actually, it is a bird.
Street pigeons- also known as Columbia livia, rock doves, or, to quote Woody Allen, “flying rats”- are a common sight on the streets of Boston. Most city-dwellers ignore them, many revile them, and a few feed them. In the portrait of the urban landscape, they are mere background objects, neither endangered nor exotic enough to inspire our interest, let alone lavish PBS documentaries. Pigeons, it seems, just don’t seem natural.
Courtney Humphries, a graduate of the science writing program at MIT, brings these birds into the foreground in her book, Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan… and the World. The author recently gave a talk at the Harvard Natural History Museum, where she gave a brief overview of the historical relationship between people and pigeons. Though they’ve gotten a bad rap as disease-carriers (untrue) and annoying pests (somewhat true), the pigeon is an amazing evolutionary success story.
Humphries pointed out that the first chapter of The Origin of Species focuses on the variation observed in domestic pigeons. Darwin himself owned specimens from several breeds of fancy pigeon, from the peacock-like Fantail to the Jacobin, which sports a large, feathery frill around its head. By breeding his pets and extensively questioning pigeon enthusiasts (of which there were many in Victorian England), he was able to fully flesh out his ideas on descent from a common ancestor. While even the most casual of science hobbyists has heard of Darwin’s finches, it is really Darwin’s pigeons that we should thank for the theory of evolution.
From its beginnings, the history of the pigeon was heavily influenced by mankind. After being domesticated in ancient Egypt, some of the birds naturally escaped their owners. However, unlike other feral animals, they never actually left. Buildings erected by men provided a habitat as equally suited to them as the rocky cliffs where their wild cousins nested. Food was plentiful and there were few natural predators. Thanks to the efforts of people, feral pigeons flourished in the cities.
“These birds are very successful because of us, and what we’ve done… we created them,” Humphries said.
While pigeons are not the subject of many scientific studies, people still find them to be useful creatures. Pigeon are still a food source across the world, especially in Asia. Homing pigeons have carried messages as recently as World War I. Superdove even relates the account of how the behaviorist B.F. Skinner developed a prototype for a pigeon-guided missile.
During the question and answer session, an audience member asked if Humphries had ever thought of eating the subject of her research. She laughed, and confirmed that she had ordered pigeon at a French restaurant, where it is euphemistically listed on the menu as “squab”. She called it “a richly flavored bird- not fatty like duck, and not bland like chicken.”
Yes, she recommends the pigeon- in more ways than one.
(For the more adventurous readers of Science Metropolis, Clio Restaurant in Back Bay offers pigeon accompanied by black truffles, spaghetti squash, pistachio croquant and baby leeks, for a cool $38.)