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Bird of Paradox

Rock Pigeons may be more helpful than we realize

Darren Kelly,

The pigeon was the first exotic bird brought to America, on ships with European settlers between 1603 and 1608. Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphics suggest that pigeons were domesticated more than 5,000 years ago. Genuinely wild Rock Pigeons were restricted in range to western and southern Europe, North Africa, and part of South Asia, but feral pigeons, now found virtually everywhere, genetically swamped out their wild counterparts over most of their natural range.

People selectively breed pigeons for interesting plumage, strength and speed in flight, homing ability, and meat. These doves carried messages for the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I and II, saving lives and providing vital strategic information. France and Austria maintained military pigeon companies into the 1990s, and the New York Times reports that Iraqi militia may be using pigeons to carry messages in 2008.

Charles Walcott, recently retired dean of the university faculty at Cornell University and former director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, calls racing pigeons the athletes of the bird world. “They have about twice the muscle mass that your common street pigeon does,” Walcott says. “If you grab a regular pigeon off the street and take it a few blocks away, it will find its way back to the general area because they’re quite territorial. But it may stop and linger at the nearest statue or the local McDonalds.”

Walcott and others established that the earth’s magnetic field is one of several cues homing pigeons use to orient when released in unfamiliar areas. They also use the angle of the sun, polarized light, star patterns, and olfaction. Individual pigeons prioritize their cues differently, based on where they were first trained. They also have individual quirks. Walcott mentioned one pigeon that was trained near a mountain. When released, it always flew to the nearest mountain regardless of the direction of the home loft, and found its way from there. Another “was very good at navigating but terrible at finding the loft. He’d come down and find somebody gardening, then land and look helpless. He had a label on his back to please call collect and we’d get a phone call and go out in the car and bring him home.”

Research on other species supports what Walcott learned about pigeons: many birds share the same navigational cues while setting different priorities for how they use them. And individual quirks continue to perplex scientists even as they delight birders looking for out-of-place rarities. Walcott said the complexities of pigeon orientation and navigation were enough to keep him gainfully employed for years.

Pigeons have provided food, sport, and messenger services for people since prehistoric times, research subjects for ornithologists and psychologists, a pivotal plot point in the movie Mary Poppins, and a hilarious April Fools’ Day joke for Google, which claimed that the heart of its search engine is PigeonRank™ ( Recent research indicates that pigeons may have some cognitive abilities comparable to three-year-old children. Pigeons depend on humans for food and nest sites, resulting in little competition with native birds. Where they aren’t poisoned, they supply nourishing food for urban raptors. In the biblical story, a pigeon carried an olive branch to Noah. Perhaps it’s time we returned the favor.

—Laura Erickson

Interested in learning more about Rock Pigeons and participating in a citizen science activity to observe them? Check out Project PigeonWatch .


For permission to reprint all or part of this article, please contact Laura Erickson, editor, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca, NY, 14850. Phone: (607) 254-1114. email:

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