Pigeons frighten me. They are the stuff of nightmares. They don’t come in the dead of night, pecking, cooing and fluttering, bobbing their heads; waking me. The spectre of the pigeon comes by day in Hobart, strutting in the shopping mall, in alleyways and lanes.
I’ve been a bird-watcher all my life but the feral pigeon is one bird I can’t get to grips with. When I see pigeons in the city, I wonder why I am a bird lover at all, they make me recoil in horror. Perhaps it’s the notion of human and pigeon parallel lives that disturbs me. In them I see myself, or a side of myself I don’t want to see. Vulnerable and ill-at-ease in the city, in an environment I can’t call my own, in a foreign country at that.
I should be sympathetic, and acknowledge that the pigeon’s fate in the city is not of its own making. These aerial bag people, or rats with wings, as they are sometimes called, do not have a choice when it comes to inhabiting this urban world of concrete and glass, to live at its sometimes squalid heart. Their destiny was to be fashioned as a tool of man. Humans, on the other hand, must take responsibility for the world they have created. How can one species, supposedly superior to the “brute creation’’, have succeeded in largely destroying its own environment and taken others down with it? Not even creatures considered at the other extreme of the intelligence spectrum, white ants spring to mind, have done that.
The human species seems to have conspired against its environment, and the creatures within it. A pigeon relative, the dodo, was hunted to extinction on the island of Mauritius and is now an icon for species lost from the time Homo sapiens rose to become the most dominant creature in the history of the planet.
The feral pigeon is an icon of something else – a creature fashioned to live in a world, man’s world, at odds with its own. The pigeon forces humans who love the world of nature to ask the question: what have we done to this bird and what have we done to ourselves?
I see in pigeons a metaphor for the human condition, and I see a metaphor for my own urban existence. In my case it’s compounded by my adopting a foreign land as my own. Like the pigeon far from home, perhaps I can be considered a feral myself, especially as an Anglo-Saxon from Britain I represent not just one race of my own species, but a mixture of many others originating in Northern Europe.
The feral pigeon is descended from the rock pigeon of Europe and when I have my pigeon paranoia out on the city streets I try to think of the pigeon’s ancestral homeland, of cliffs washed by ocean spray or misty moorland, in my nativeBritain. Lie back and think of England, I say to myself, but the spectre of the pigeon, the ghost of what was once beautiful and serene, will not go away.
I have seen the real pigeon, the original one, in the flesh. Its plumage is mainly grey-blue, the colour of slate. To me the pigeon’s feathers carry the hue of the North Sea that swirls below their fastness. The plumage is the changing colour of wild seas under blue and then grey skies, infused with a faint sheen that in certain lights can be the green ocean in its darkest moments in winter, or a rainbow in spring.
The rock pigeon, as its name suggests, is a bird of cliff and rock faces, it doesn’t belong in man’s creation, the reshaped environment, particularly the environment of the city, even if the city high-rises might resemble canyons and cliffs. It also doesn’t deserve to have been selectively bred to produce a range of colours and shapes so at odds with its original self; the Jacobin breed with a hood of feathers one extreme, the little white dove the other.
Serendipity and coincidence have conspired, however, to give pigeons a role in man’s world and a habitat far from their home. From an original base in northernEurasiathey now roam the world, or the urban cities of the world, for that is their lot. The same can be said for the ancestors of those who first trained them.
Those who say pigeons are a friend of man labour under a misapprehension. The friendship in the pigeon’s case is not mutual. I don’t think the pigeon elected to be embraced by people. I detect a resentment there when I view pigeons in the city, and see them in my nightmares. And I see resentment in pigeon lofts and the dove cotes, and even when white doves are released at weddings and events commemorating peace.
“Whose peace?” I ask myself and hear the doves coo for once in response.
“Friend” is definitely a misnomer, although over hundreds, possibly thousands of years, they certainly have become friends to many people. A companion animal of sorts, one that flies free to return when it is summoned with a handful of oats tossed into the air.
The pigeon has remarkable, mystical powers of navigation, and has entered human folklore for this, especially in times of war when its mastery of flight has been harnessed as part of man’s war machine.
We must look beyond folklore, however, to discover how the pigeon snuck into mankind’s consciousness. Pigeons, plump and fat, make good eating and I suppose it was for this reason they first attracted attention. From the earliest times in northernEurope, every barn had a pigeon loft where pigeons were killed and plucked for eating, much in the same way the chicken was discovered as a food source in Asian pre-history.
Later, discovery of the pigeon’s dexterity in flight, its navigational skills and its ability to fight adverse weather and return home against all the odds, gave it another kind of status. Other birds to be tamed and domesticated, the chicken and the duck, did not have great powers of flight, or at least powers that could be utilised, and so their fate was to became purely a source of food. The pigeon charted and followed a different route, but the outcome was not always to its benefit. Although it escaped the chicken farm, and imprisonment in dark and cruel places, the pigeon ended up on the streets.
This is where I encounter them, and feel disquiet in their presence. Out of necessity, I’ve always lived and worked in cities but it is an environment I have resisted all the same, an environment I struggle to come to terms with. The city, all cities, unnerve me because they do not take into account the needs of nature, and paradoxically, the needs of people.
ven in the relatively small city ofHobart trees and green open space is hard to find in the central business district. Why do concrete tower blocks have to come right down to the pavement, often without even shops to blunt their hard edges? Why does the motor car have to be master, given wide and open boulevards when mere people are forced into the straitjacket of narrow pavement? Why is it that more often than not pedestrians have to stop for cars, not the other way round?
If the pigeons I see in the streets, resentful and sometimes menacing, could talk they would no doubt ask the same questions. Then again they probably wouldn’t. Pigeons, like all urban-dwellers, accept what they are given and make the most of it. The pigeons I see on the streets have made use of the concrete towers of a vertical environment that is not so very different to their ancestral one, the familiar one buried in the core of their ancient memory.
I didn’t give pigeons a second glance for years. That was before I became fascinated not by their comings and goings at the fringe of my own existence, their place at the corner of my eye along with all the other peripheral movement in the city, but by a tramp who fed them daily. I saw the bag lady most days and learned her name was Gracie, although I never learned of the circumstances that saw her spending her days, and sometimes her nights, on the streets with the pigeons.
Gracie had an affinity with what she described as her pigeons, not in an ownership sense, but in one of friendship borne of circumstance.
There was a symmetry between the lives of Gracie and her pigeons, and I saw in Gracie and the bag-lady pigeons something that was perhaps the root of my disquiet when pigeons were about. We humans live fast-paced, frenetic and tense lives in the city, lives far removed from whence we came. In our evolution from tree and cave, community sustained us but community is something that we seem to have left behind in the cities we have created for ourselves, and in that thing that is the city’s extension, the suburb.
In this dog-eat-dog tense world, how easy it is to fail, to not keep up with the pace of the flock; physically, emotionally, mentally. How easy it is to fall off the perch.
It’s far-fetched, I know, to equate the state of the town pigeon with the fate of a fallen human being but I can’t escape from it. Like the pigeon transported far from the loft on racing days, I return to it.
The people of the streets, bagmen and bag ladies and the homeless, inspire the same sort of mixed reaction in onlookers as the pigeon. They either feel a revulsion or are sympathetic and caring. The sympathetic will ask how the destitute and adrift and bereft could ever have reached that state; what event – or condition of the mind – drove them that away.
Pigeons also inspire conflicting emotions, as evidenced by a tale of two cities,New YorkandHobart, and a tale of two birds, the pigeon and the peregrine falcon.
They have both been used by man in different ways and seen their world change forever, as the human race has striven to reshape it. Like the rock pigeon, the peregrine’s power of flight was recognised in pre-history and the falcon was used not as a messenger but as a hunter in man’s service.
The hunting prowess of the peregrine was seen as an ideal solution when feral pigeon populations in cities spun out of control.
In the New York of the 1980s, Mayor Ed Koch declared war on the pigeon after pigeons and their droppings were blamed for corroding cables on the city’s Brooklyn Bridge. A cable snapped, killing a Japanese tourist who happened to be crossing the bridge at the time.
The mayor looked to the peregrine falcon, a relentless hunter of pigeons, to help rid the city of what he described as Public Enemy Number One. The peregrine had been making a comeback after declining in the 1950s as a result of poisoning by chemical pesticides in New York State. The peregrine – the fastest creature on earth whose swoop, or stoop, has been timed at 300 kilometres an hour – was a worthy symbol for the war on pigeons although no one believed it would be effective. Peregrine numbers were put at a handful and the pigeon in possibly the hundreds of thousands, but the falcon proved its value in propaganda terms and spurred other pigeon eradication measures.
InHobart, there is a different scenario. Although the peregrine is a delight to watch streaking across the Hobart skyline there are those who plot its death. A group of pigeon fanciers illegally persecute the peregrine and destroy birds, eggs and young when they can find nests.
The wildlife authorities keep the location of peregrine nests – about 12 in the Hobart area – secret but the pigeon fanciers use other means. Rangers investigated a report some years back of an air-conditioning engineer spreading poisoned chicken carcasses on the roofs of office blocks known to be peregrine roosts. The engineer owned a pigeon loft and blamed peregrines for killing his pedigreed racers.
It is not so much on the city streets but in the war zone that mankind’s relationship with two extreme birds touches on the improbable, and the bizarre.
The pigeon’s remarkable navigational abilities have seen it used as a messenger in war over the ages. In the First and Second World Wars, where propaganda became an important weapon, the propagandists of the time homed in on the humble pigeon to sell a message of courage and bravery, and stoicism, under fire.
Pigeons may have for centuries been used to carry messages but now their exploits were recorded and broadcast. Pigeons were not only brave in the face of flak and shellfire, they displayed remarkable intelligence by being taught to fly at night, something they did not do normally.
At a time when the pigeon was being hailed as a hero, the peregrine was painted as an enemy. It attacked pigeons carrying messages although a programme to kill peregrines around the British coast in WWII backfired. It was discovered the peregrines were killing more German pigeons than allied ones.
After the war, in Hobart, the pigeon fanciers declared a propaganda war of their own, a war that continues to this day. They spread the word that the peregrines were actually released from Japanese submarines to disrupt communication and subsequently established a breeding population. It is a fact that flies in the face of carbon dating of peregrine nest locations in Tasmania, usually cliff ledges, that gives some nesting sites a 12,000-year history.
When I escape the city on bird-watching forays I’m grateful I do not see pigeons in open countryside and forest, at least not in sufficient number to bring them up close. In paddock and wood and forest I feel at ease, and reaffirm once more why I decided to make a new life inAustralia. A big factor, if not the biggest, was the wildlife, especially the birds. I longed to see sulphur-crested cockatoos flying free instead of being caged in pet shops, and I was not disappointed.
Britain’s rock pigeon, wood pigeon and turtle dove might have a subtle beauty, but to my eye their plumage does not match the shimmering hues of the brush bronze-wing that I sometimes see in my garden just a few kilometres from theHobarttown clock.
Forget the rock pigeon’s rainbow sheen. When I view my garden visitors I see them cast in bronze, brass and copper, buffed by sunshine, polished by rain. The brush bronze-wings always appear to come after showers and I see them in dappled glades between the wattles. Sometimes the rays of the sun catch raindrops still hugging the leaves, and shower the shadows with droplets of white light. And from the leaf litter on the ground, bronze feathers inlaid on a carpet of brown put on a light show of their own.
It is in my garden at such times that I can finally be free of the town pigeon. Bird of peace, bird of propaganda, bird of war; the rock pigeon flies in psychedelic skies, schizophrenic, the colours of the rainbow painting it different shades of truth. No wonder if disturbs me, troubles me, gives me sleepless nights.