6 Surprising Facts about "Rats with Wings"

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superdove.pngThis week we're lucky to have guest blogger Courtney Humphries blogging with us. Courtney is the author of Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan...And the World and she's got 5 great posts on pigeons. We'll let her take it from here:
Pigeons are ubiquitous, so common we hardly even see them. When they're noticed, they're castigated as flying rats, or turned into punchlines for New Yorker cartoons. But when I began researching pigeons a few years ago, I discovered a fascinating history and a trove of  information about the birds that I never knew before. Eventually I decided to turn their story into a book, Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan...And the World. Here are just a few facts about birds that surprised me.

  • Pigeons have walnut-sized brains and aren't known for their intelligence. But they are often used as research subjects in psychology labs; researchers have found that pigeons can be trained to remember over 1,000 images, and can distinguish letters of the alphabet and expressions of human faces. They excel at finding visual objects because they're natural foragers.
  • These days we don't think much about pigeons as food, but they may be the oldest domesticated bird; they were first domesticated in the Middle East and Egypt a few thousand years ago and have featured in traditional cuisines of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. In fact, the street pigeons we see in the U.S. were first brought from Europe in the 1600s for food.
  • fancy.jpgThere are hundreds of unusual breeds of domestic pigeons, called fancy pigeons. They're the same species as our familiar street pigeons, but you wouldn't know it from the looks of some. Fancy pigeons come in all colors, shapes, and sizes, weighing from four ounces to four pounds.
  • Charles Darwin kept and bred fancy pigeons in the few years leading up to the publication of the Origin of Species. He was so taken with the diversity of these birds that he began the Origin with a long description of fancy pigeons.

  • All pigeons have a keen ability to find their way home. Humans have exploited this ability with homing pigeons, which are specially bred and trained to be able to race back home from unfamiliar drop-off points hundreds of miles away. But before it became a sport, pigeon homing was used in large-scale pigeon posts as early as the fifth century BC, and pigeons were routinely recruited to carry messages in war for centuries.

Click here to purchase Courtney's wonderful book Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan...And the World (it has one of the best covers I've ever seen). And come back tomorrow for more stories about pigeons.

February 10, 2009 - 4:31am
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