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The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird
by Andrew D. Blechman
Grove Press, 239 pp., $24


It's fair to say that pigeons have slumped to an all-time low in their long and storied history with the human race. Woody Allen dubbed them "rats with wings" in his 1980 movie, Stardust Memories, and most city dwellers view them with disdain, if not abject disgust. The birds are best known for leaving slime on ledges everywhere, and their numbers only seem to grow. Nearly everyone has been smacked ingloriously on the shirtfront by pigeon droppings, or knows someone who has. Considered a pest, the common rock dove is not afforded any protection under state or federal migratory bird or wildlife statutes.

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But once upon a forgotten time, we accorded the bird the lofty status it earned as our evolutionary companion. As Andrew Blechman recounts in his engaging journey into pigeondom, we inadvertently domesticated the pigeon when we domesticated crops and grains. It was a symbiotic relationship: We fed the birds, and then we ate them. We discovered not only that they were delicious, but that they had an uncanny ability to return to their roost. Soon they were relaying critical messages to the four corners of the Egyptian empire; later, they announced the winners of the Olympics. Genghis Khan created a pigeon network that spanned one-sixth of the world. Pigeons were even worshipped as fertility goddesses by the Babylonians.

What happened in the intervening millenium, but mostly in the last two centuries, of course, was industrialization, and with it the growth of cities. After we hunted the tasty passenger pigeon to extinction, we largely dismissed its congregational cousin, the rock dove, as a nuisance. "The fanatical hatred of pigeons is actually a relatively new phenomenon," writes Blechman. It's a sorry trajectory for this plumaged creature, and it doesn't reflect well on us, he suggests. "For better or worse," he writes, "the lives of pigeon and man are inexorably intertwined."

Blechman, a former newspaper reporter, explores both the sadistic realm of exterminators, hunters, and birdnappers and the equally baffling underworld of pigeon sentimentalists, the obsessives who rescue and dote on them. Both extremes serve to remind us just how far removed we are from a practical relationship with nature.

While pigeons have been intensively crossbred for speed and style by hobbyists and emperors alike for thousands of years, today's enthusiasts employ everything from performance enhancing drugs to "barking orders at their racing pigeons as if conditioning a team of professional soccer players," writes Blechman. In his breezy style, the author introduces us to one Englishman who apparently thinks about his pigeons 24 hours a day, despite the protests of his neglected wife. "If Frank wasn't busy brewing herbal tea (with fresh lavender) for the pigeons," Blechman writes, "he was administering eyedrops and giving them vitamin supplements." But the weirdest character of all may be a self-styled pigeon rights activist in Phoenix, whose tract home is literally covered with the droppings of rescued birds. "I hurt when they hurt," the loner tells Blechman. "What can I say? I suffer from terminal empathy."

Modern man's relationship with pigeons can be pretty dark. Blechman describes the poisons used by exterminators, the secretive live-target shoots in rural Pennsylvania (and the net-wielding bird-snatchers who provision them), and the Sumter, South Carolina, slaughterhouse that renders the delicacy "squab," also known as baby pigeon.

In the nineteenth century, Darwin's observations of pigeons -- particularly how various traits were passed down over the course of generations -- informed his theory on the origin of species. Yet another reason to appreciate the lowly pigeon, although most of us couldn't be bothered. If the pigeon these days attracts the attention of people with extreme passions, in Blechman it has found a voice of moderation, one determined to remind us that the modern creature is largely a bird of our own making.
-- Florence Williams

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OnEarth. Winter 2007
Copyright 2007 by the Natural Resources Defense Council