We venerate doves at Easter and despise pigeons the rest of the year.
They are the same birds - Columbae - of which there are almost 300 species. Some species have lived with humans since the beginning of history, serve as food or as messengers and are represented in art and religion as symbols of peace and love. In Greek mythology, the dove was sacred to Aphrodite. To Christians, it represents the Holy Spirit. "And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold the heavens were opened and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him . . ."(Matthew 3:16).
Columbae are part of the cityscape of all civilizations, anifating the lifeless stones, strutting about as though the urban stage were built for them, cooling their lovesick lamentations humbling proud buildings and monuments, thrilling children, exciting dogs, delighting lovers and old folks who feed them. Health officers curse them.
The D.C. Bureau of Community Hygiene is trying to control the pigeon over-population but cannot get the moderate funds - about $20,000 - to try a new, humane method.
There is no scientific distinction whatever separating doves from pigeons, except that the only species to which the name "pigeon" was exclusively applied, the famous "passenger pigeon," is extinct. These pigeons used to nest in countless multitudes in the backwoods of Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. The last of the species died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
The Germans do not even make an unscientific distinction between doves and pigeons. They call both "Tauben." In Spanish both are called "paloma." In English the unscientific distinction is roughly that a dove is small with a big tail and a pigeon is big with a small tail. Both come in all colors.
What distinguishes Columbae from other birds, aside from appearance, of course, is that they suck liquids, rather than taking them in tiny sips, and that both parent feed "pigeon's milk" to their young. The "milk" is produced by the hormone "prolactin" and collected in a sort of pouch of crop in the throat of the birds. The little ones get at it by poking their bills down daddy's or mommy's throat.
Pigeons like to roost on rocky ravines, sea cliffs and building facades. They are rather casual and sloppy about their arhcitecture and are inept builders.
With all their cooing and flippety-flappety, pigeons are quire emotional about their love life. They don't insist that their marriage partner is of the exact same variety. And the male is very tender with his dovey, stroking her gently on the forehead for long periods of time. He also according to C.A. Naeht's "The Book of the Pigeon," tends to be jealous - following her around, hardly giving her time to eat or drink and at times, driving her to exhaustion until she finally lays the first egg. She in turn, tends to be coy and girlish during courtship and suffers his behavior. Pigeons ar enonogamous. City pigeons live up to 35 years.
The pigeon also seems to be the first bird tamed by humans, largely because squab is good to eat. The first reference to pigeons appears 4,500 years ago in Mesopotamia. But historians are not quite sure which came first, the chicken or the dove. Today there are few commercial squab breeders. It is hardly worth it, what with the price of grain and the competition of game hen.
Noah must have been the first human to make use of the pigeons' famous homing instinct. A raven having failed him, he sent doves from his ark on a series of reconnaissance flights. One finally reported that the flood had subsided and brought an olive leaf as evidence.
In 1150 A.D. the sultan of Baghdad established a pigeon postal service. News of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo was first brought to England by carrier pigeon. Pigeon mail carriers were extensively used in the French revolution of 1848, and homing pigeons were still in service in World War II on a stanby basis in case of electronic communications failure.
Roger Clapp, an ornithologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says that other birds have better homing instincts. But other scientists keep trying to discover the secret of their navigational ability. A trained pigeon can find its loft from as far as 600 miles away and the best of them fly as fast as 90 miles per hour to get there.
Pigeon racing therefore is still a popular sport, although not as fashionable as it was with tous le monde early in the 19th century in Belgium and England.
There are three pigeon racing clubs in this country with a combined membership of around 20,000, says Paul Johnson, who is a member of the American Racing Pigeon Union. Johnson races 50 birds from as far as Olney, Ill., to their lofts in Wheaton, Md. One of his pigeons made the 600-mile trip in a day, he said proudly.
There are also some rural Americans left who raise a particularly beautiful species of pigeons just for the pleasure of it. At one time, in England, according to a magazine article Published in 1858, "a Pigeon fancier' was associated in all men's minds with Costermongers, Pugilists, Ratcatchers and Dogstealers, for no other reason that we can discern than that the majority of 'pigeon fanciers' were artisans - men who lived in the courts, alleys and other by-places of the metropolis."
Today it is the pigeons, not their fanciers, which live in the courts, alleys and other by-places of the metropolis. Their fanciers - and I confess to being one of them - cannot deny that for all the beauty of the country Colombae, city pigeons pose a problem:
There are too many of them.
Starlings, which also like to live in cities and which also often appear in excessive concerntration, have the good sense to commute out-of-town for their living. Pigeons stay downtown all day and leave a mess when there are too many of them. They are also disease carriers.
Incidents of psittacosis, or "parrots" disease," have been traced back to sick' pigeons. The disease causes high temperatures similar to pneumonia. Outbreaks of "parrot' disease," which can be combatted with antibiotics, have also been traced to other wild and domestic birds, such as canaries, chickens, ducks, turkeys and pheasants.
Another disease, histoplasmosis, has been found to have been transmitted by excessive amounts of pigeon excrement. The virus causes a respiratory ailment, much like the common cold, but may lead to lung lesions similar to tuberculosis.
Pigeons and their droppings also at times are infested by lice and nasty viruses, as are all animals, particularly animals which are sickly because they live in crowded conditions.
The remedy, in the past, has been as cruel as it has been ineffective. A so-called "pigeon massacre" in Philadelphia in 1945 - after an outbreak of "parrots" disease" - killed only 10,000 birds and resulted in 7,000 letters of protest. In Washington, some time ago, a chemical called "Roost-No-More" was applied to the ledges of public buildings. It burns away the webbing of the birds' feet. There was much outrage and its use was discontinued.
Recently, Bangor, Maine, New York and other cities have tried birth control to cope with the mess and health hazard. A pigeon pill - a product named Ornitrol - inhibits egg production and temporarily sterilizes the birds without harming them. The Ornitrol-treated kernels are too big to be eaten by song birds.
D.C. Community Hygiene officer William Childress says it would cost about $20,000 to treat the Capital pigeons for one mating season to see how the method works. The Audubon Society and other bird lovers whole-heartedly approve of the method to reduce the pigeon population for the good of the birds, a balanced ecology, monuments and people. So far, however, this city has not found the money.
That seems silly, because humane control would please both pigeon foes and pigeon friends. And pigeons are an essential part of the urban experience.