Book Pays Tribute to the Much Maligned Pigeon A new book tells the story of the most common urban bird: pigeons. Author Andrew Blechman talks about Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird.
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Book Pays Tribute to the Much Maligned Pigeon

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Book Pays Tribute to the Much Maligned Pigeon

Book Pays Tribute to the Much Maligned Pigeon

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about birds. And how can you talk about birds in any big city without talking about the most reviled bird in the world? And if you live in a big city, you know what I'm talking about; it's the pigeon. No bird gets insulted more often than the pigeon. It's a rat with wings, is the most common one you hear around New York City here.

But my next guest says that pigeons have gotten a lot of bad press. They are a lot smarter and more noble than you think. They have died in times of war, and they grace our dinner tables when we call them by more elegant name, squab. Yes. That squab you're eating, that you may have eaten for dinner this holiday, is a pigeon.

Andrew Blechman is the author of “Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird,” published this year by Grove Atlantic. He lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. ANDREW BLECHMAN (Author): Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: Is a squab basically the same as a pigeon?

Mr. BLECHMAN: It is exactly a pigeon. In fact, it's just a baby pigeon, a pigeon that hasn't flown. But the bird's reputation has been such a spiraling nosedive for the last five or six decades that no one wants to associate squab or a baby pigeon, or something they eat with the pigeon. Although in colonial times, pigeon pot pie was one of the most popular foods out there.

FLATOW: Pigeon pot pie?

Mr. BLECHMAN: Oh, yeah.

FLATOW: Is there any -

Mr. BLECHMAN: Tasty stuff.

Flatow: Is there anything wrong with you scooping up a pigeon off the street and having it for dinner?

Mr. BLECHMAN: Well, you've got to be careful with wildlife. You've always got to be careful with wildlife. The ones that they have in the - the ones that they serve in restaurants are from squab farms.

FLATOW: And we have the - we actually have the recipe for pigeon pot pie on our Web site. So if you surf over to SCIENCE FRIDAY, we'll get you that recipe if you so care.

What is, by definition, a pigeon?

Mr. BLECHMAN: You know, it's interesting. A lot of people of don't know what a pigeon is. In fact, didn't when I started this project. A pigeon is a dove - it's a rock dove, in fact. People love doves but they seem to hate pigeons. But you know, a pigeon is just a dove.

Rock doves come from the cliffs of Eurasia. They are used to rocky ledges, which is why you find them in cities on ledges and windowsills, on the cornices of buildings. You'll never see them nesting in a tree. In fact, most people don't even realize that when they go to a wedding and they release those beautiful white birds, the beautiful white doves, and they circle around above and they head off into the distance, those are just white pigeon.

In fact, what they're doing is they're circling around, they're orienting themselves, and then they're heading right back to their home loft, where their owner scoops them up and takes them to another wedding.

FLATOW: And how do they know how to get back there?

Mr. BLECHMAN: Well, you know, it's interesting. I talked to like the top people in the field, and they've dedicated their lives to this. And no one's exactly sure, and the research does change a lot. But what they'll tell you is this. It has - the pigeon has several different senses that it uses, including like internal compasses.

First of all, a pigeon uses its sight, and it could follow roads and other landmarks that it's used to. It can also, but - and it uses the sun and the placement of the sun in the sky to go back. But interestingly enough, a blindfolded pigeon will find its way home. A blindfolded pigeon will find its way home.

And that means it must have another internal compass, so what they're also using is able to sense the Earth's magnetic field through an area on the top of their nose where - and they actually can sense where the bands curve and where they are according to the magnetic field. Interestingly enough, they also have tremendous ultrasound, and they're able to hear wind coming across the Rockies from about 2,000 miles away.

FLATOW: Boy, how did you learn all this stuff? I mean, you're not a bird expert. I mean, you must have - the more you learned about this from research, you must be just as fascinated as we are when we reed your book.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Yeah, I'm not even a bird person. Honestly, I'm really not.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. BLECHMAN: I like dogs.

FLATOW: Well, you know -

Mr. BLECHMAN: (Unintelligible) cats.

FLATOW: Well, you know, the cover of the book - the cover of the book “Pigeons” shows a remarkable - I mean this is not your New York City, one-legged pigeon. This is a sleek-looking, alert-looking bird. Tell me about this particular pigeon, and how - why is it looking so magnificent?

Mr. BLECHMAN: Well, that's what you would you call a thoroughbred of pigeons. It actually - I went to a pigeon beauty contest -

FLATOW: They have a pigeon beauty contest.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Yeah. You should see the talent show. Yeah, they do actually have pigeon beauty contests, a lot like the Westminster Dog Show.

FLATOW: Really?

Mr. BLECHMAN: Yeah, they'll spend their lives breeding different breeds of the rock dove, and they come in just a tremendous different array. In fact, that's how Darwin used his - that's how he actually proved his theory of evolution in “The Origin of the Species.” The entire first chapter is about pigeons.

FLATOW: So we normally think of those finches, but he's talking about pigeons in the beginning.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Yeah. In fact, you know, when he handed in his manuscript, his publisher said, you know, I really like that first chapter on pigeons. What do you say we just drop that evolution stuff and let's expand on the pigeons?

FLATOW: Is that right?

Mr. BLECHMAN: Pigeons were very, very popular at that time in London. In fact, the royalty have always been into pigeons. The Queen of England is a pigeon fan here. She raises them actually.

FLATOW: So what happened? How did it get, you know, lose its reputation?

Mr. BLECHMAN: It's a really unusual story. I mean pigeons were domesticated about 10,000 years ago, right after our other best friend, the dog. I mean they were worshipped as fertility goddesses. Noah's dove was a pigeon. They brought news of the first Olympics to the villages in Greece in 1776 B.C. One million pigeons served the World War I and the World War II, saving literally thousands of lives by delivering critical messages.

And yet, in just the last decades, I think it - what it is, it's become - we've become utterly, I guess, obsessed with hygiene. And on top of it, you have the pigeon control companies or the pest control industry that's really capitalized on that and they've just barraged this bird with just outrageous bad propaganda, and a lot of it's just flat-out false.

FLATOW: But they do drop things on us, so to speak, you know, from the sky.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Yeah, but, Ira, I mean, but you know, wildlife's inconvenient but that doesn't mean we have to poison it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, I wasn't talking about poisoning it. I was talking about why people don't like the bird so much. A lot of people don't like them but they don't go out killing pigeons in the park either, you know.

Mr. BLECHMAN: You know, look, I mean, the fact is this: pigeons like us and they are everywhere we are on every continent in the world, except for Antarctica. They just like being around us. And they're not any dirtier than we are. In fact, they don't carry any more diseases than we do. In fact, they seem to be, if not immune, at least highly resistant to West Nile virus and Avian flu. I guess we associate them with filth because, you know, our cities are filthy and we live in filth and they live with us.

FLATOW: Right. Right. Is there a best way then to control pigeons in cities?

Mr. BLECHMAN: Oh, yeah, there is and it's being used very successfully throughout Europe. In fact, my wife's German. We were there not long ago with our toddler daughter. And they do it so well there. My daughter is having a hard time finding pigeons to chase. What they do is this. I mean, first of all, poisons don't work. Caustic gels that burn through their feet are just - not just inhumane and brutal, but they also don't work. Yeah, it's just horrible what happens. You know, first of all, the poisons also hit other non-target birds and songbirds and that sort of thing.

But what they do use over there is a humane form that actually does work because if you just kill them, more will replace them. You know, nature abhors a vacuum, as they say.

So what they do is they basically create dove coves, which are basically hen houses, like lots of cubbyholes for pigeons. And they encouraged people to feed them there and only there. They put these up around the cities, often around the outskirts and inside the parks. And they encourage people to feed them there because people will always try to feed the pigeons, and that's often part of problem; overfeeding leads to over breeding.

But what they do is, the pigeons like there. It's a safe place. And then, you know, a city worker, a park's employee or something, calls or takes away the eggs every week. And within like a year or two, you can decrease the population by about 50 percent. And once you've done that, basically all the biases just kind of go away. I mean too much of anything, even something good, gives you a stomachache, even chocolate.

FLATOW: So you create like a petting zoo where you can go and see the pigeons and feed them and everybody is happy.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Yeah, you know -

FLATOW: Wow, what an idea.

Mr. BLECHMAN: It becomes a tourist destination, almost. I mean if New York City were to do it, it would be amazing. Not just that but, you know, it's humane, it works, and children would love to go there probably with school classes to, you know, learn more about the birds. It would be bringing a little bit of the wildlife right into the city but in a responsible way.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get some of our rural folks. Eric(ph) in Cleveland, not too rural. Eric, hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ERIC (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I just have one comment. I know as a child, Cincinnati Zoo would have on display, I believe it was one of the last homing pigeons or carrier pigeons or messenger pigeons, something like that -

Mr. BLECHMAN: Martha.

ERIC: On display there.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Yeah -

ERIC: I'm sorry. And the other comment I had was, where does the term stool pigeon come from? And I can take my comments off the air, if you like.

FLATOW: OK.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Yeah, sure, I can answer both. Great questions. First of all, stool pigeon just comes from the bias against pigeons. You know, anything that's related to a dove is beautiful: soap, chocolate, world peace. In fact, you know, what's interesting -

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It's true.

Mr. BLECHMAN: You know, when Picasso was painting doves, all those beautiful doves, you know, he was painting pigeons. In fact, he named his daughter Paloma, which is just Spanish for pigeon, and pigeon is just French for dove.

Now, the gentleman was talking about in the Cincinnati Zoo, that's actually - it's just a horrible history. The most numerous bird on the planet was the passenger pigeon, which is related to but not the same bird by any stretch.

Passenger pigeon is just passage for, you know, in French for journey or migration. They were a migrating dove and they were wiped out by us in about 100 years. And the last one died in captivity. That's the only time in history that we know of when a species became extinct.

Her name was Martha. She died on the eve of World War I, September 1st, 1914, and just before, the zoo put out a huge reward, you know, by those days' standards - several thousand dollars - for anybody who can find a mate, you know, to mate and breed with Martha, and the ad went unanswered.

FLATOW: Wow. Talking with Andrew Blechman, author of “Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird.” Very, very interesting book, Andrew.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Thank you.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's see if we can get some more phone calls. Let's go to Paul in St. Louis. Hi, Paul.

PAUL (Caller): Hey there, how are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

PAUL: Thanks for taking my call. I don't care much for pigeons but I have a lot of respect for them because when I was in San Francisco, every time there were pigeons or a pigeon in the street and no matter how close I got to them, they always, always managed to fly out from underneath the car.

I mean they would disappear underneath the bumper and I thought, oh my God, I run over that one for sure. And they're very agile and I've never seen - in San Francisco anyway - dead pigeons on the street from being hit by cars. In St. Louis they seem to be a little bit slower. But I just - I was just always amazed about how these birds could get out of the way of the car at the very, very, very last minute.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Well, they're very, very adaptive - as well as agile. But they really are nature's success story. I mean these birds can really adapt to just about anything, let alone traffic. I mean these birds do not migrate. You'll see them in Phoenix in the summer in triple digit temperature. You know, I did. And you'll see them in Alaska in the middle of the winter. I mean they're very, very adaptive, which is partly the reason I think why Darwin is so fascinated by them.

FLATOW: Talking about pigeons this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News with Andrew Blechman, author of “Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird.”

1-800-989-8255.

Andrew, what was the most - I'm sure the most - two most asked questions you must get as a pigeon expert now is, why don't we see baby pigeons and where do the pigeons go to die?

Mr. BLECHMAN: Well, we don't see -

FLATOW: I knew the first one. It's because the baby pigeons grow up very quickly, right? They don't spend much time in the nest. So you don't see - is that right?

Mr. BLECHMAN: Well, basically, you rarely see baby birds and baby - you know, don't forget pigeons often are in rooftops and places like that where you don't see them where they nest. Secondly, the birds don't leave the nest until they're basically ready to fly and they look like adults.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Which is, you know, just when they leave squabhood, I guess. And where they go to die is just like lot of animals. They go somewhere quiet, hopefully, to die.

FLATOW: Because you know, there are so many thousands in New York, you would think that they, you know, they're dying naturally. There should be carcasses all over the place.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Well, you know, my cat run away this summer and I still can't find him, and I live in the small neighborhood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: All right. I'll buy that one. Let's go to Maureen(ph) in Middleberry Heights, Ohio. Hi, Maureen.

MAUREEN (Caller): Good afternoon, gentlemen. I have a pigeon. As we speak, he's sitting in a kitty carrier. Actually, no, I changed him from that to a big cage. He's wonderful, though. I rescued him from the streets of Cleveland. He had blown into a building and I thought I'd bring him home and he would die but he did not pass away - she, I'm sorry. And she's very interactive. She's particularly bright and very much likes human contact. When she hears my voice she speaks to me, you know, from another room and she's a great bird. And tell them the story about the one pigeon that walked home on a broken leg.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Oh, my goodness, yeah. Yup.

MAUREEN: And how long do they live? I think in this case, she's going to be in my will because she's going to outlive me. But those two things would be fun to hear.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling.

Mr. BLECHMAN: First of all, pigeons can live about - they can live about three or so years in the wilds. It's a rough life out there. But in captivity, they can live up to 20 or more years. Now, the story of Marty is interesting.

A character in my book - now, this book basically jumps all over the world. It took - I couldn't believe where pigeons took me. It's like who'd have thunk? You know, it took me to the Queen of England's palace. It took me to Mike Tyson and a strip club in Phoenix. It took me all over.

One of the most interesting people it took me to - as well as a beauty pageant - was Orlando. He's a character in my book and he's a pigeon raiser. And pigeon raisers all have stories, miraculous stories about how their birds get home. Because - they're in awe of it, even though they've been doing it for decades, these guys. And one - Orlando has this one bird, Marty. It was his best bird. And Marty was sent off on a 300-mile race. Marty didn't come back that day. He was surprised and he assumed that she had been eaten by a hawk. Now, two weeks later, Orlando goes downstairs to leave his house, opens the front door, and there is Marty with a broken wing.

FLATOW: Wow.

Mr. BLECHMAN: She walked home.

FLATOW: Wow, walked home. Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. BLECHMAN: If these bird - I mean let me just tell you a few things about these -

FLATOW: They made a story about a dog coming home, but they wouldn't make one about a pigeon.

Mr. BLECHMAN: I know. If it were a dove, they might have, right? (Unintelligible) as one. You know let me just tell you -

FLATOW: Maybe a pigeon named Lassie,

Mr. BLECHMAN: A pigeon named Lassie. Well, you know, actually, you know, there's some amazing bird stories out there. I mean Cher Ami(ph) was a bird that saved like 500 soldiers, what was left of the lost battalion in World War I.

They were basically stuck behind enemy lines, German enemy lines. These were our boys in World War I. And they were being barraged by American artillery on top of everything else. And so the soldiers, you know, all they had were pigeons to send messages back to headquarters. The first two were shot down.

They wrapped the message around Cher Ami. It was the last bird, and Cher Ami was also shot down, but before he hit the ground, he somehow started flapping his wings again through pluck or valor or whatever and he was able to get out of gunshot. And he got back to headquarters about 20 minutes later, about 30 miles away.

And when he landed, a soldier found him with one eye missing, his cranium cracked and his breastbone ripped open, and the message was there dangling from what was left of his leg. It was dangling from tendons. And the message was then run to the commanding officer and the battalion was saved. They stopped the artillery and he went out to rescue them.

FLATOW: Wow.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Now, Cher Ami was greeted at the French Harbor by Pershing. Pershing then gave Cher Ami his own private berth for the ride home on the troop carrier across in North Atlantic. And you know, this bird was decorated by the French and by the Americans and by the British.

FLATOW: It's a great story.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Andrew, we've run out of time. If you want to hear more of these great stories Andrew Blechman has in his book, “Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird.” Thanks, Andrew, for taking time to be with us.

Mr. BLECHMAN: It's a pleasure.

FLATOW: And have a Happy New Year.

Mr. BLECHMAN: Thank you very much. You too.

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