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Pigeon power: In appreciation of our feathered friends

In awe of our winged workers.

The rats of the sky. Useless vectors of disease. That dieting friend that guiltily stares at you for hours while you eat your sandwich, desperate for a morsel. Fee-skippers ‘unknowingly’ waddling onto City Circle trains maskless. We sneer as their grey bodies glide gracefully over us. Pigeon persecution is societally encouraged as we aggressively shoo them away. If dog is man’s best friend, then the pigeon is his sworn enemy. But this is a complete dismissal of this bird’s loyal service to man for many millennia. 

Pigeons are far from bird-brained. From identifying cancers in imaging, to categorising children’s artworks as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ with a simple peck, to possessing the capacity to comprehend space and time itself, it is evident that they are the Stephen Hawkings of the bird family. Pigeon slander of alleged ‘unintelligence’ can only stem from ignorance or insecurity. Studies suggest they may even be superior to us; that they are faster at multitasking thanks to the density of nerve cells in their avian brain. Most famously, pigeons possess a paranormal homing ability attributed to strong magnetoreception skills.

Better the bird you know

The first depiction of the domesticated pigeon is carved lovingly into Mesopotamian stone, displaying their loyal homing skills and iconic nature. A timeless friend to Pharaohs, pigeon images have been found on numerous Egyptian tombs and may even have travelled with dynastic leaders into the afterlife, their bones scattered on tomb floors. The pigeon served an important role in many religions, their sacrifice to various Gods demonstrative of their beatitude. Pigeons flock around temples and mosques in a hungry throng, and are fed readily due to the strong historical associations with pigeons in Islam and Hinduism. 1st century Roman philosopher Caius noted that ‘many people have quite a mania for pigeons;’ this ancient fanaticism was not restricted to zealots in one country. As far as the pigeon flies, people were intrigued by this modest bird’s many talents and pious grace. 

A pigeon a day keeps the plague away

It appears that I have humbly stumbled upon the cure for COVID-19, recalling the (dubiously) successful methods employed in the Tudor era to steer clear of the bubonic plague. When aristocrats fell ill, doctors artfully strapped a pigeon to each foot, such as those belonging to none other than Queen Catherine. It was believed that the disease would pass via transference to the pigeon, thus curing the patient. Irrespective of its success rate, it is important to recognise the bravery of such loyal pigeons who sacrificed their lives.

Send in the culver-y

It is widely known that pigeons were used to relay messages during the World Wars, often surviving targeted shootings and transmitting significant updates to the frontlines. Pigeons saved lives, often communicating the exact location of sinking ships at the lightning speed of 125 kilometres per hour. Carrier pigeon service can be quicker than the internet, evident in 2009 when a single pigeon Winston delivered a USB stick twice faster than the same amount of data streamed from the internet provider Telkon in South Africa. They actively served in the Indian Police Pigeon Service until the 1970s, crucially communicating messages during adverse weather conditions. For their efforts, veteran pigeons in the limelight have been rewarded with medals for valour. Major General Fowler, Chief of Communications in the British army, claimed, “It is the pigeon on which we must and do depend when every other method fails … I am glad to say they have never failed us.” Notably, in 1918, one pigeon solely saved 200 U.S. troops by delivering a note containing the location of the ‘Lost Battalion’ in the Argonna Forest, despite being shot and wounded. Pigeons were also employed to spread news of victory and defeat in other wars, seen in the aftermath of the Normans’ successful battle against the Saracens in the eleventh century where King Roger fastened parchment dipped in the blood of the defeated to his legion of homing pigeons, disseminating the news with dramatic flair.  

Stool pigeons

Most intriguingly, pigeons have been historically accused of undercover investigations due to their plain outward nature. The use of pigeons for aerial photographic purposes was developed in depth by German apothecary Julius Neubronner, but later abandoned until the CIA invested in a battery-powered camera for pigeon espionage purposes; the details of its use are currently classified, but it is enough to make you suspicious of any flying creature. In 2015, an Urdu-stamped pigeon found in India was indicted as a spy, the Indian government claiming it infiltrated borders to covertly spy on the contested region of Kashmir. A year later, 150 more alleged criminals were seized at the border — one of whom carried an abusive note directed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

The feather forecast

Forget canaries in a coal mine, in early 2020, ten pigeons served the niche role of air-quality surveyors! A London company fitted fashionable backpacks with air monitors on their trusty backs and sent them to measure levels of pollution in different regions. As they tweeted around the city, findings were also literally published on twitter, alerting citizens to conditions thanks to the feathered meteorologists. 

Pigeon pocket-rockets

Despite our under-appreciation of these speckled doves in Australia, pigeon-keeping is an honourable pastime in Turkey, China, and the Netherlands. Fanatics label themselves as pigeon collectors, racers, or even fanciers, where they artificially select certain traits such as  a large pout, frilly coat or fan-like feathers. Pigeon enthusiast 2Tone from Brooklyn trains his league of pigeons in aerial acrobatics to compete against a fleet of 300 flying at the other end of the borough. He allows them to fly and see if they return, “And if they do,” he says in a documentary, “then you know they’ll never break your heart.”

No pigeon left behind

Some sub-species of pigeons, known as ‘rollers’ and ‘tumblers,’ have the genetic inclination to curl into a ball and somersault rather than reach the aerial heights of their fellow peers. Such pigeons are used, without incurring any pain to them, in sports where they are rolled like lawn bowls — there is even a World Cup for this niche. Spectators often note that these gymnastic aficionados appear to enjoy somersaulting, frequently arching their back and clapping their wings before performing their impressive tricks. Scientists have not currently determined the cause of this behaviour, but suggest it may be linked to differences in neurophysiology, creating their proclivity to roll their heads backwards rather than fly upwards.

Costs a wing and a foot

In prominent pigeon markets, birds are sold for upwards of $100, and are adorned with silver on feather and foot. In Beijing, the racing pigeon capital of China, feathered athletes have been sold for up to $1.4m. A far cry from pigeon hatred, enthusiastic Turkish auctioneer Mam Dildas proudly proclaims, “This is a passion, a hobby you cannot quit. I’ve been known to sell the fridge and my wife’s gold bracelets to pay for pigeons.” While auctioneers intensely pigeon-trade at night, they let their pigeons stretch their wings calmly at sunset; pigeon-keeping allegedly instils a sense of deep peace. 

The values of the pigeon are limitless, if only more humans coo-d see it. For thousands of years they have gracefully served and supported us, only to be denigrated and scorned at our feet. Justice must be served for this loyal, loving creature.

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