Homing in on the hate: are pigeons pals or pests?
We didn’t always abhor pigeons. So when and why did we start calling them sky rats?Updated: Sep 27, 2020, 10:52 IST
I’m ambivalent about pigeons. Growing up, I ignored them while neighbours fed hundreds on the pavement. I figured as an adult I’d ignore them as they flew past (and often into) the glass walls of my workplace too. What I didn’t anticipate was how much hate I’d see around me for the bird, how quickly and casually they’d be dismissed as stupid, and how gleefully people would refer to them as ‘sky rats’.
Was it always like this? In cave paintings dating from 4500 BCE Iraq, humans seem quite at peace with pigeons. At the Olympics, they still release doves to honour the trained pigeons that once carried race results across Ancient Greece.
In 1850, when the news service Reuters was launched, they had on their staff 45 pigeons trained to transmit headlines and stock updates. Britain had a National Pigeon Service during WWII. Before satellites, pigeons flew into enemy zones with tiny cameras. In 2016, American performance artist Duke Riley trained 2,000 of them to fly, their legs fitted with tiny LEDs, in choreographed formation over Brooklyn, for 30 minutes.
In 1966, a New York City parks commissioner called pigeons “rats with wings” and the term stuck. Pigeons are no worse than other birds, just the most visible ‘enemy’
Scientists are fascinated by them. Pigeons mate for life, co-parent equally and recognise expressions and remember faces for years. They have been trained to play table-tennis, understand space and time (though they’ll still fly into glass windows), and distinguish Monet’s style from Picasso’s.
A decade ago, they proved they could be faster than broadband. In one experiment, USB-strapped pigeons flew 100 km to a destination, quicker than data files could be transmitted across the same path.
The hate is relatively recent. Combing through a century of news reports, sociologist Colin Jerolmack found that as our cities rose upwards, so did our intolerance for anything that threatened the dream of orderly sanitised urbanisation. In 1966, a New York City parks commissioner called pigeons “rats with wings” and the term stuck. Pigeons are no worse than other birds, just the most visible ‘enemy’.
The truth is, they have more to fear from us. Over the last century, North Americans hunted the fleshy passenger pigeon, which once numbered 3 to 5 billion, to extinction.
There is a conspiracy theory that we drove all birds extinct. Since 2017, Peter McIndoe’s cult website BirdsArentReal.com has claimed that the CIA eradicated all birds in 2001. What we see now, he claims, are feathered surveillance bots. It doesn’t explain all the poop, but McIndoe has 276k followers on Instagram. A related meme, that the lockdown was a global ruse to get people to stay home so the pigeons’ batteries could be changed, went viral in March. Ours in now a world in which it’s easier to argue that the birds are drones than to get office-goers to stop hating the real thing. What a coo.