"The often rejected, sometimes reviled street pigeon deserves his own biographer," says British ornithologist Eric Simms, who has taken this task upon himself in "The Public Life of the Street Pigeon," which Hutchinson recently published here.
We are all too familiar with what pigeons do in public and a lot of us wish they would stop, but Simms says they do other things as well and it's about time we gave them serious attention.
"We've used this bird for our convenience for 6,000 years. The very least we could do is pay tribute to it and explain how it came to our cities, Simms says. He wears a neat goatee and a turquoise necktie showing an osprey in flight. Fifty years ago there were no ospreys left in England. Now there are 12 pairs and Simms had sighted one bird a fortnight earlier flying over Kings Cross station.
"The pigeon may well have shared the first cave of man. We depended very much on him for meat. Nero got his racing results by pigeon. When I was flying over Berlin in 1943 we carried two pigeons in our Lancaster so if our radio went out we could send out a fix."
The pigeon is ubiquitous -- only the Arctic and Antarctic regions and certain oceanic islands are apparently free of them -- but they are rarely given professional attention. "It's a bird that has been neglected in the past. Ornithologists don't plot them. They look past them to listen to a warbler in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. A lot of my ornithologist friends looked askance when I took on this book, but I always felt the pigeon qualified for a biographer," Simms says.
"If you keep your eyes open you can see every part of its life. The rock dove, which is its ancestor, lives on remote cliffs, while the city pigeon -- there's nothing it doesn't do in the public gaze."
The common street pigeon varies in color, but dark-feathered birds are most frequent. They can survive brutal changes of temperature and are amazingly adaptable -- one New York pigeon even contributed to the city's soaring ring -- although they find glassy modern buildings slippery for nesting.
The city pigeon breeds enthusiastically at any month of the year and can build a nest from copper wire or polystyrene as well as more conventional twigs, and it eats almost anything it can find, from sausage, rice pudding, bread and potato chips to bananas and ice cream. Like people, pigeons tend to become addicted to peanuts once they have eaten one and, says Simms, they are tidier than they seem.
"They do bathe. They look scruffy but they do bathe."
Street pigeons have a limited voice range but that maddening, moaning "oooh" sound they make is, says Simms, knows as the advertising coo: the declaration of a male holding a territory or an announcement of the bird's breeding condition.
"The display coo," says Simms, "is 'oo-roo-ooo-oo' or 'oo-roo-ooo-tooo,' which is accompanied by a special bowing display and is given at about one second intervals and with increasing passion." The bowing display is primarily sexual and consists of a sort of preening movement with the neck stretched and swelling and fanning of the tail. Sexually aroused males will often walk in a rapid goose-step, while two mates may indulge in friendly head-nodding and two enemies will nod their heads at a faster rate in a manner some observers call spiteful.
Pigeons also caress each other in public, sometimes to pick out foreign objects or parasites from each other's features, and there is a defensive-threat display and something called driving, in which the male follows the female so closely as to walk almost on her tail.
"To be able to watch all this only a few feet away." Simms says. "In some ways a pigeon's display is as fascinating as a large lyre bird or a bird of paradise. It's a fascinating example of natural life."
Eric Simms brought home a blue tit at the age of 3 1/2 and is now a well-known ornithologist and broadcaster. His model is the sympathetic 18th-century naturalist, Gilbert White of Selborne: "He said if a man looked at a small area he is much more likely to advance human knowledge than one who has grasped too much."
Simms has become famous for investigating the astonishing prolific birdlife in the part of northwest London where he lives, Dollis Hill ("It was called Dolly in the 18th century. My theory is that Dolly was the local milkmaid"). The rarest bird he has sighted is the greenish warbler, only the second to be recorded in the London area, which he saw a quarter of a mile from his home.
These days, bird study is part of socio-economics, he says -- "the change that making walls from concrete had had on hedge sparrows, for example." Birds on the Continent fare less well than in England. "There are French national parks, but I'm afraid in France it's toujours la chasse. We have conservation methods to protect our birds, then they fly across the Channel and get netted or limed. The Council of Europe has made protective rulings, but they exempted one of my favorites, the skylark. In Spain they say if it's large enough to eat, shoot it. If it's too small to eat, ignore it."
Street pigeons, on the other hand, thrive everywhere despite disease, getting their legs hurt by leon lights and gardeners twine, and laws against feeding them.
Sometimes the common pigeon is even of great use. They carried letters to besieged Paris during the Franco-Prussian war and more recently cameras have been strapped to their bellies for aerial photographs. In the U.S. they are being trained to spot persons lost at sea, and in England it has been found that it is faster to deliver blood samples between hospitals and laboratories by pigeons than by motorcycle.
The pigeon is widely prolific -- it is unreliably reported that there are 500 million of them in the world -- and has no natural predators. "In 17th-century London there were peregrines and sparrow hawks and even goshawks." Simms says. "In a protected environment this doesn't exist." They can theoretically live to the age of 30 and there is no proven way of getting rid of them.
"Pigeons are dependent upon man, and as long as man is around the pigeon will be, too.
"While man continues to live in old decaying houses and retains his very wasteful and idle habits there will be an attraction in our towns and cities for the pigeon. The only way to control the pigeon is to live in a clearner and tidier way.
"Knowing my fellow men, I'd say that's not very likely," Simms says. "And I cannot as yet look upon the street pigeon as an endangered species."