City pigeons

The London PigeonA pigeon is sitting in the yard of our London flat. I don’t think it can fly very well: it’s been mostly walking for the past few days, though it will flap away if alarmed. It has two mangled feet and doesn’t walk all that tidily either.

We took pity on it and gave it some mixed seeds and peanuts, which it seemed to like, except the pumpkin seeds, which it’s scrupulous about leaving. Then it started coming up to the door, including appearing in the morning waiting hopefully for breakfast.

As it was our guest I decided I should learn something of its ways, so I went on an internet hunt for city pigeon facts. I found myself pretty impressed.

  • Feral pigeons are found in cities across the world, and they’re the same kind everywhere (Columba livia). They’re apparently all descended from domesticated rock pigeons that got away. Presumably they do well in cities because the building habitat resembles the rocky cliffs they originally grew up around, back in the day.
  • They mate for life. Our pigeon (I don’t know its sex, apparently it’s hard to tell) has a much fitter-looking mate, which will come down and join it in the yard but then hangs back to let the weaker bird have the food.
  • They can in theory live for 15 years, though in the wild they usually expire before their time. Their predators include other birds like hawks (which are sometimes brought in to our local train station to frighten the pigeons away) or even seagulls, as well as larger mammals like cats and people.
  • Pigeons are pretty clever, being good at classification tasks as well as famously good navigators.
  • The reason why pigeons (and some other birds) bob their heads when walking has to do with their sight, and specifically the way their eyes point in different directions so they lack stereoscopic vision. Either the head-bob stabilises eye motion to reduce parallax effects while walking, or else it intentionally introduces parallax in order to provide depth cues.
  • Pigeons are resistant to bird flu and you’re unlikely to catch anything nasty from one. Less likely than from a cat or dog anyway.
  • Although the rock pigeon seems successful in cities, across the UK it’s vastly outnumbered by the wood pigeon, which has apparently around 5 million pairs, compared to just over half a million rock pigeon pairs (including feral ones).
  • Rock pigeons are also outnumbered by many far less visible birds, even in cities. This study in 2008 reckoned there were about 12,000 feral pigeons in Sheffield, a city of half a million people: fewer than there were of wood pigeons, swifts, house martins, wrens, dunnocks, robins, blackbirds, blue tits, great tits, magpies, starlings, greenfinches, or (most numerous by far) sparrows. This seems hard to believe to me, but there it is.
  • The dodo may have been a kind of pigeon.Mean bird sorting out a pigeon

Although I’d like to think this pigeon is safe in our yard, I doubt if it is. I’ve seen bigger birds munching on pigeon out there before (see photo—this is from several years ago, and is not yet the fate of our friend). I do worry that a lone pigeon motionless in the middle of the yard might almost as well be sitting on a serving dish.