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Learning to appreciate the city pigeon

So what? I’m a little obsessed with pigeons. I’m not sure when it started exactly, but at some point I realized I couldn’t keep my eyes off of them.

I take photos of them whenever I get the chance: making patterns in the sky as they play in the wind; huddling on telephone lines; bathing in the dirty water that pools on the side of the road. I think it’s fascinating to see how they survive alongside us, in all of our filthy urban glory.

Thing is – I don’t know that much about pigeons. And when I asked my colleagues, they didn’t know much either. Many called them rats with wings. One questioned whether they’re even real birds. Many think they’re dirty or diseased. One thought they might be edible. One thought they were smart.

With those ideas in mind, I went to find somebody who really knows about pigeons. And I found Elizabeth Young, the founding director of MickaCoo for Pigeons & Doves.

She started the rescue center back in 2007. She was volunteering with San Francisco’s city animal shelter at the time, and she saw that pigeons were dropped off, but never adopted, meaning they were often euthanized. So she set out to find people to take the birds in.

Young brought one of these rescues as a surprise guest to our meeting in San Francisco’s Dolores Park: Mr. Margaret. The bird looked like an elegant, portly version of a white dove, but technically he is a king pigeon.

“Bred for meat,” said Young. “Sold as squab.”

Mr. Margaret somehow escaped the butcher and was found wandering around Golden Gate Park.

Over the years, Young developed a network of volunteers to help her find foster homes for the birds she rescues or to get them permanently adopted. And I should point out, the adoptable pigeons are ones like Mr. Margaret: totally domesticated. The ones we see out in the street? Those are called feral pigeons.

“So there are 300 wild species of pigeons and doves all over the world,” said Young. “The feral pigeons are descendants from rock pigeons that were brought over in the 1600s from Europe and the Middle East and North Africa where they're native.”

Over time, some of these got away or were released, resulting in the breed that we now know as our city pigeon. And city pigeons are pretty much the same no matter what city you’re in, whether it’s Chicago, New York, San Francisco or elsewhere.

“They are all here because of us,” said Young.

Our fault. And in her mind, our responsibility. So that’s why Young is pretty frustrated by all the negative myths out there about them. Like the one about them being dirty.

“Pigeons love to be clean,” she said. “Pigeons are crazy about bathing. They are very meticulous about their hygiene. So if you see a dirty pigeon, it's because they are living in a dirty environment.”

Then there’s the idea that they spread disease.

“That’s a big myth,” she said. “Pigeons have amazing immune systems. They’re actually really resistant to avian flu. They are also resistant to West Nile virus. So they’re not a health risk. We are much more of a danger to their health then they are to ours.”

I asked her about why many have missing feet.

“We call it string foot,” she said. “So when pigeons make nests in the wild, they do it with twigs. In cities, they don’t have twigs, so they use what they find, which is string, wire, human hair, all kinds of things. So what you are seeing is not a disease at all. Thats constriction.”

But she says the idea that pigeons are smart? That one’s true.

“They are very smart,” she said. “Pigeons have been rated up at the top for animal intelligence. They self-recognize in mirrors, which is something children can’t do until a certain age. They recognize human faces and remember them. They can abstract those human faces from a photo to an actual person, which is a concept most animals can’t process.”

And then she told me something I had never heard before.

They mate for life, and they are totally devoted to their mate and their young,” she said. “If you want to brag on family values, pigeons have unbelieveable family values. They are very deliberate, and they choose a mate, and they stick together through thick and thin. I’ve worked now directly with almost 600 pigeons or doves. And in these past six years, I’ve seen, I think, two divorces.”

They’re monogamous too? The more I heard about the pigeon, the more I fell in love with this humble little bird!

Young handed over Mr. Margaret. She told me to cradle him in one arm and hold him tight up against my chest. Pigeons like the security. He cooed and eventually settled in.

“I think if our world was nice to a creature as common and humble as a pigeon,” said Young, “I think it would trickle up compassion.”

In that way, the city pigeon isn’t so different from the city person.

Maybe if we take the time to appreciate it – to recognize its struggle and its beauty – we'll find something more in ourselves.

To learn more about the MickaCoo Pigeon and Dove Rescue, click here.  

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