Excerpt from Pigeons by Andrew D. Blechman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird

by Andrew D. Blechman

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  • First Published:
    Oct 2006, 256 pages
    Oct 2007, 256 pages

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Print Excerpt

These were my first steps into the pigeon universe and its shaggy patchwork of obsessive subcultures. As I’ve journeyed through the world of pigeons, I’ve found that this seemingly unremarkable bird routinely evokes remarkably strong reactions. While most animals trigger universally similar emotions - puppies are “cute and cuddly”; cockroaches are “disgusting” - the pigeon somehow spans both extremes.

No animal, I discovered, has developed as unique and continuous a relationship with humans as the common pigeon. Nor is there any animal that possesses such an unusual array of innate abilities seemingly designed for our utilization.

The fanatical hatred of pigeons is actually a relatively new phenomenon. Far from being reviled, pigeons have been revered for thousands of years. After all, whom do we celebrate as Noah’s most loyal passenger if not the white dove bearing an olive branch and bringing hope? (“Pigeon” is merely a French translation of the English “dove.”) Although now scorned, those so-called filthy and annoying pigeons in your local park have an unparalleled history and an unmatched intelligence.

Consider this:
They’ve been worshipped as fertility goddesses, representations of the Christian Holy Ghost, and symbols of peace;
They’ve been domesticated since the dawn of man and utilized by every major historical superpower from ancient Egypt to the United States of America;
It was a pigeon that delivered the results of the first Olympics in 776 B.C. and a pigeon that first brought news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo over twenty-five hundred years later;
Nearly a million pigeons served in both world wars and are credited with saving thousands of soldiers’ lives;
And although it is often overlooked, it was upon the backs of pigeons that Darwin heavily relied to support his theory of evolution.

Pigeons are athletes of the highest caliber. While racehorses receive all the glory, with their 35 mph sprints around a one-mile racetrack, homing pigeons - a mere pound of flesh and feathers - routinely fly over five hundred miles in a single day at speeds exceeding 60 mph, finding their way home from a place they’ve never been before, and without stopping for food or water. Pigeon racing is an internationally popular sport that counts the queen of England among its enthusiasts. Winning birds can bring home millions of dollars in prize money and fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auction. Then there’s the bird’s culinary reputation as one of the world’s finest meats - the milk-fed veal of the sky -  treasured by chefs the world over and served nice and rare at many of the finest restaurants.

Although we all share a universal bond with this ubiquitous bird, there are some of us whose lives revolve around the pigeon in more profound - and often humorous -  ways. I met trainers who ran around their backyards with whistles in tow, barking orders at their racing pigeons as if conditioning a team of professional soccer players; militant members of a New York City pigeon underground who prowl city streets in search of pigeon poachers; and backyard geneticists who toyed with the cellular composition of pigeons, in their quest to create a bird more akin to a Dresden figurine than a child of nature. I was fascinated by their obsession with what I believed to be a scruffy looking bird with a brain the size of a lima bean.

For better or worse, the lives of man and pigeon are inexorably intertwined. Like dogs and cats, they are a product of our own domestication and follow us wherever we go. From a farmer’s fertile fields to an urbanite’s concrete cities, the pigeon is our constant and inescapable companion. Wherever humans go, they’re likely to find a flock of pigeons loafing nearby.

Frankly, I didn’t know chicken scratch about pigeons when I started this book - I mistook the call of a mourning dove for an owl because it went “who, who, who.” My quest for all things pigeon was surprisingly peripatetic and landed me in a variety of unusual situations. I found myself hesitantly scaling the dung-riddled walls of a medieval English dovecote; eating tacos outside a Phoenix “titty bar” in the hopes of scoring an interview with pigeon enthusiast Mike Tyson; and blasting away at live pigeons with a hefty shotgun in a Pennsylvania sportsmen’s club. And yet, until I accidentally stumbled into the passionate world of pigeons, I barely noticed them. Like many urban dwellers, I viewed pigeons as just another fact of city life - so common, so ubiquitous - that I often looked right past them.

Excerpted from Pigeons © 2006 by Andrew Blechman, and reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press.

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