The domestic pigeon lives both in the relative luxury of the queen of Englands racing lofts and feeds off discarded pizza crusts and doughnuts on the streets of New York City. They are both descendants of Columba livia, the rock dove. Very loosely translated, the Latin name means a leaden-colored bird that bobs its head. The rock dove (the name rock pigeon is becoming increasingly popular among ornithologists) is a member of the family Columbidae. Other members of this family include the mourning dove, the turtle dove, the wood pigeon, and the ill-fated passenger pigeon. If you trace your finger a little further back along this family tree, youll see that the rock dove is even related to the extinct dodo bird.
All members of Columbidae share several distinct attributes. They generally have plump bodies, small (often bobbing) heads, and stubby legs, as well as short slender bills with a fleshy covering, or cere. All of these birds make distinctive cooing sounds, live in loosely constructed nests, and lay two white eggs at a time that are incubated by both parents. Both sexes also produce a milk-like substance in their throat, or crop, which they feed to their newborns. While all other birds collect water in their beaks and tip their heads back to drink, pigeons suck their water like a horse at a trough.
Although a pigeon and a dove are the same bird, the more delicate members of the family are called doves, while the seemingly less graceful members of Columbidae are also called pigeons, hence the old adage that all pigeons are doves but not all doves are pigeons. Dove has come to mean petite and pure. Colloquial usage of the word pigeon, on the other hand, emphasizes the birds docile nature and places it in a negative light. Stool pigeon is synonymous with stooge, and to be pigeonholed is to be arbitrarily stereotyped in a disparaging manner. Pigeons themselves, it would seem, have been pigeonholed as dimwitted. Such is the linguistic discrimination that a large pigeon will nevertheless be called a dove simply because it is white. This lack of pigment is often confused for virtuousness - a characteristic that few are willing to link with an ordinary pigeon. Perhaps we can pin the linguistic confusion on William the Conqueror, whose Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings ensured that the English language would be peppered with French synonyms.
Despite this linguistic bias, the unassuming pigeon is truly special. It doesnt live in trees but prefers nesting on rocky ledges (although a window ledge will do just fine). And unlike its distant relations, it will never abandon its nest, developing a keen sense of homing to ensure its return. It breeds enthusiastically in captivity and is naturally gregarious, enjoying the company of its own kind, even in close quarters. In the wild, a pigeon lives only about three or four years. But in the relative safety of captivity, a pigeon can live over twenty years.
With hollow bones containing reservoirs of oxygen, a tapered fuselage, giant breast muscles that account for one third of its body mass, and an ability to function indefinitely without sleep, the rock dove is a feathered rocket built for speed and endurance. If an average up-and-down of the wing takes a bird three feet, then a racer is making roughly 900,000 of those motions during a long-distance race, while maintaining 600 heartbeats per minute - triple its resting heart rate. The rock dove can reach peak velocity in seconds and maintain it for hours on end. One pigeon was recorded flying for several hours at 110 mph - an Olympian feat by any measure. Clearly these birds arent designed to jump around branches or glide on warm air currents; theyre designed for rapid yet sustained flight. Their fuel? Richly oxygenated blood, just one ounce of birdseed a day, and a hardwired need to return home.
Excerpted from Pigeons © 2006 by Andrew Blechman, and reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press.
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