A Guide to Understanding the Misunderstood Pigeon

Author says the city birds are 'surprisingly charming and interesting.'

pigeons in the spotlight

Rosemary Mosco / A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching

Hummingbirds and cardinals get all the love. But few people get starry-eyed over pigeons.

Sometimes called "rats with wings," pigeons are one of the most common city birds. They're in parks, on sidewalks, and on window ledges.

Science writer and artist Rosemary Mosco finds the urban birds fascinating. In her new book, "A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching: Getting to Know the World's Most Misunderstood Bird," Mosco explores the history, science, and habits of these quirky birds.

Mosco talked to Treehugger about pigeons and why these quirky birds are so captivating.

Treehugger: Where did your interest in pigeons come from? Do you have any defining encounters that cemented your love of the species?

Rosemary Mosco: I've always loved watching birds, and I've always lived in cities, so I pay extra attention to my local pigeons. A few years ago I noticed one white bird in my neighborhood that looked different from the rest - it was bigger, with a stubbier body and pure white feathers, and it seemed a little too familiar with people. I did some research and realized that it was a fancy purebred pigeon: a King Pigeon. It didn't belong outside!

I spent a week trying to catch this pigeon and take it to an animal rescue (I was eventually successful, with a little help from my neighbors). This led me to learn about the long history of pigeons and people, and I realized that pigeons are deeply misunderstood.

What are the key qualities that fascinate you about these birds? What did you discover about them that makes them special?

City pigeons are domesticated animals! Like dogs, cats, horses, and other familiar critters, they were domesticated thousands of years ago and transported to settlements around the world. Some individuals escaped to become strays, and those are our city birds. While most people know the origins of stray cats and dogs, they've forgotten why pigeons live close to them, and resent them for it. That's a shame, because pigeons are surprisingly charming and interesting!

pigeon and ice cream cone

Rosemary Mosco / A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching

Not everyone loves pigeons like you do. Why do you think they aren’t universally adored and what’s your argument when you meet a pigeon non-fan?

The downfall of pigeon PR began when folks stopped finding these birds useful. Farmers used pigeon poop as fertilizer, but commercial fertilizer replaced it. People used to eat pigeons, but factory-farmed chickens are easier to raise. Pigeons even carried important messages, saving lives in WWI, WWII, and other wars, but the telegraph replaced the pigeonternet. Then, officials in NYC unfairly blamed pigeons for diseases. People started to see these birds as dirty, mean, useless, and gross. But they're gentle and pretty clean, and they mate for life.

In your research, what were some of the more interesting nuggets you uncovered about pigeons in history?

Pigeons should star in "Les Miserables"! In France before the revolution, commoners weren't allowed to keep pigeons. Only the very rich could raise fancy birds and eat pigeon meat. When the revolution came, the commoners destroyed the elites' pigeon houses. From then on, anyone was allowed to raise pigeons. That's an amazing level of drama for such a gentle bird!

What quirky facts have you learned?

Pigeons are similar to us in one very weird way: They feed milk to their babies. Both male and female pigeons produce milk in a part of their esophagus called the crop. They basically puke this milk into their chicks' mouths. This milk is a lot like human breast milk - it has fats, proteins, and immune-strengthening components, and it's stimulated by the hormone prolactin. I wouldn't recommend that you put it in your coffee, though. It's a bit cheesy.

pigeon cooing

Rosemary Mosco / A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching

What are the tricks to drawing pigeons?

They're adorably round, with looooong necks and wild orange-yellow eyes (though their eye color can vary, from pale to grey to dark brown). The shiny bit at the neck is the most fun part to draw. And don't forget to include the swollen bit at the nostrils, called the cere. We don't know why pigeons have puffy ceres, but it might have something to do with showing off to a potential mate.

What is your background, pre- and post-pigeon?

I was trained as a naturalist and science writer, and I also make cartoons about nature (at birdandmoon.com). I speak at birding festivals. In my free time, I tromp around the woods or keep an eye on my local pigeons. I pretty much live birds. I'm thrilled to have the chance to help people understand the birds around them.

View Article Sources
  1. Soniak, Matt. "The Origins of Our Misguided Hatred for Pigeons." Audubon, 2016.