Athletic prowess aside, Columba livia is also an inexplicably obliging bird and incredibly easy to domesticate.
If you hold one in your hands, it wont struggle or bite. And if you let one go, it will always return home. It is these qualities that have led to the rock doves unique and unrivaled relationship with humans, making it the worlds first domesticated bird.
Cultural reminders of this connection are abundant. The birds holographic form graces many of our credit cards. Its outline is used to sell soap, chocolate, greeting cards, and world peace. Rock doves have graced films: Marlon Brando found solace caring for them in On the Waterfront, and Mr. Smith even brought his pigeons with him to Washington. For years, dramatically circling pigeons were a celebrated attraction at Walt Disney World. Picasso painted them frequently and named his daughter Paloma - Spanish for pigeon.
The rock dove has been our companion for thousands of years. Like most birds, the pigeon is basically a feathered reptilian dinosaur and has roamed the earth in one form or another for over 30 million years. By comparison, weve been walking about for a mere 130,000 years.
As a particularly successful species, the rock dove has come to populate every continent on earth, with the exception of Antarctica. In the early 1600s, French settlers imported the rock dove to the New World for meat.
Now they populate nearly every city in the Western Hemisphere, from the arid deserts of Arizona to the frigid climes of Alaska. The pigeon does not migrate but rather adapts to its chosen location year-round.
Fossil evidence suggests that the pigeon originated in southern Asia and made its way across northern Africa and Europe, much like the Muslim conquerors and the Mongol hordes of yore. Skeletal remains found in Israel confirm the rock doves existence there for at least three hundred thousand years.
When did human fascination with the pigeon arise? Most likely with our earliest days as cavemen. Although the rock dove generally prefers sea cliffs with protective ledges, it probably made itself at home in the outer nooks and crannies of our shallow caves and then scavenged for our crumbs. Its also quite likely that humans ate the tasty little bird whenever possible.
This somewhat symbiotic relationship progressed along with human civilization. As we learned to domesticate grains and cereals, we inadvertently domesticated the pigeon as well. As any farmer knows, a small portion of every crop never makes it to the granary. Rather, bits and pieces of it spill to the ground during harvest. These leftovers make for easy pigeon pickings. Crevices in our mud and stone farmhouses also made for good nesting places. It could be said that the pigeon domesticated itself and humans merely met it halfway, often with a healthy appetite. Research suggests that the pigeon was domesticated perhaps as early as ten thousand years ago, not long after we tamed our other best friend, the dog. While the bird remains somewhat cautious, it is inherently unafraid of humans. As anyone who has befriended a pigeon will tell you, it doesnt take much effort to train the bird to eat out of your hand. In fact, a pigeon will happily walk through your front door if it knows there is birdseed inside. Conversely, given that pigeons can be bred all year long and are naturally docile, they were ideally suited to become a domesticated food source.
Eventually, early humans built homes for their pigeons, called dovecotes, and harvested the bird for food on a regular basis. They were crude structures at first, but by the late Middle Ages, dovecotes were built with great architectural flourish. Thousands of these spectacular dovecotes still dot the European countryside, often attached to country manor houses and estates.
Excerpted from Pigeons © 2006 by Andrew Blechman, and reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press.
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