The Natural Georgia Series: Atlanta's Urban Wildlife

Design by Lenz Design, Decatur, Georgia.

Due to their gregarious nature and acidic droppings, pigeons have caused structural damage to city structures in some areas. Their droppings have also spread harmful diseases. Some have called pigeons "Rats with wings." Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.com.Pigeons: The Ultimate Urban Survivors

by Michelle Stripling

They are clearly the most visible form of urban wildlife. Take a visit to any city in North America, and you're almost guaranteed to see them. Adorning statues, fountains, parks, buildings, bridges, and other structures, pigeons have become a permanent fixture of urban landscapes. In Atlanta, they can be found on the front steps of Central Library. They're waiting beside park benches in Piedmont Park for handouts from visitors, young and old alike. They're perched atop telephone wires overlooking our highways. They're taking advantage of shelter under our bridges.

Pigeons are nothing new. In fact, their presence is often overlooked or even taken for granted. For some Americans, however, pigeons are not welcome residents. In fact, many Americans consider them dirty, disease-infested animals and even refer to them as "rats with wings" in some cases. The accusation is not totally without warrant. Due to their gregarious nature and acidic droppings, pigeons have caused structural damage to city structures in some areas. Their droppings have also spread some harmful diseases.

On the other hand, some regard the birds with undying fascination because of their unique characteristics and intriguing history. With keen eyesight, an incredible sense of hearing and smell, and outstanding homing instincts, pigeons have and still are making history delivering "flying telegrams." In fact, pigeons served as message carriers as far back as 5000 b.c. For thousands of years, they were the fastest way to send a message.

Because of their colorful history and flying talents, pigeons have been revered as holy by some civilizations. The pigeon's close relative—so close that there is virtually no distinction between the two species—known as the dove is a universal symbol of peace because of its gentle ways and soft cooing.

Both pigeon supporters and dissenters will agree, however, that pigeons have been remarkably successful in adapting to urban environments. They thrive in the most unlikely of habitats, a concrete jungle that naturally supports very little life. Yet, pigeons have found a way to coexist in close proximity with man in these areas and, remarkably, to rely on man's structures and garbage for food, water, and shelter.

They have adapted so well that they almost seem tame. No other bird found in the wild regularly hangs around people like pigeons will, with seemingly little if any fear.

Why are pigeons so comfortable around man? The answer is hard to pinpoint, though records show a long history of cohabitation between man and the bird. As early as biblical times, pigeons, or doves, were regarded as messengers. In one well-known biblical account, Noah sends a dove that returns to the ark with an olive leaf. The use of pigeons to carry messages is as old as Solomon and the ancient Greeks. The names of victorious Greek Olympians were announced to their various cities via pigeon carriers.

Today, instincts are probably the cause for the behavior of wild pigeons, says Terry Cockrum who is a past president of the National Pigeon Association and who has been involved in the sport of flying and showing pigeons for decades.

"Instinct outweighs intelligence in birds, and instincts tell them that if they can attach to man or follow them around long enough, they'll find food," said Cockrum. "You won't find many pigeons that live away from people. They are always visible. They go where water and feed is closest to man."

Pigeons feed in flocks on grains, grass seeds and grasses, tender roots, some berries, bread crumbs, and garbage. They rely mostly on spillage at food premises or "scraps" including bread crumbs and bird seed handed out by the public. Pigeons require a lot of water both for drinking and bathing, especially in hot weather. In cities, they often frequent fountains and park ponds for this reason.

There are two different groups of pigeons in North America. The feral pigeons make up the wild population, and the domestic pigeons are those owned and bred by individuals who keep them as pets. Both groups are descendants of the Rock Dove that has existed for more than 30 million years, longer than humans.

"Ferals are cousins of domestic pigeons that have been cultivated for hundreds even thousands of years," said Associate Professor Jim Armstrong of Auburn University's Department of Zoology and Wildlife, who is also a district director of the National Pigeon Association. "Ferals occur in the same family as the racing pigeons or homing pigeons."

The wild pigeon population took flight when escapees from domestic pigeon lofts and racing pigeons began breeding. The population exploded from there to where it is today.

A European species, Rock Doves (Columba livia) were so named because of their tendency to nest on rocky cliffs. Skyscrapers and other tall structures in today's cities provide a similar habitat for pigeons, much like they do for Peregrine Falcons that have been released in big cities to help restore their endangered populations. The ledges of tall buildings simulate the sides of cliffs for the birds.

Not all pigeon species have adapted so well to mankind. The Passenger Pigeon is one sad example of a bird that didn't survive. Passenger Pigeons were, ironically, the most abundant wild bird in the world in the early 1800s. An estimated 3 to 5 billion birds were found in North America alone at that time. Passenger Pigeons were extremely gregarious, and compact rookeries spanning several square miles were not uncommon. They also migrated in unbelievably large numbers. In one account from 1832, a flock of 2.25 billion Passenger Pigeons was estimated to have flown over an area in a single afternoon.

Pigeons survey the urban landscape from a comfortable rooftop perch. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.com.Unfortunately, Passenger Pigeons were valued game birds because of their delicate flavor, and their gregarious nature further facilitated the hunting of these birds. By 1880, the population had dwindled to a point beyond recovery. The last wild Passenger Pigeon was shot in 1900. The last living captive bird, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

Feral pigeons have remained remarkably resilient though. They have survived along with several other related species. Doves are the closest relative of these survivors. Pigeons and doves are so similar that it is almost impossible to tell them apart. In fact, there is no true ornithological difference between the two birds. They are virtually identical except in size. Pigeons are often the larger of the two, although even this is not always the case. The two species are so closely related that it is unclear in ancient recordings whether the recorder was referring to a pigeon or a dove.

In the animal kingdom, both pigeons and doves belong to the family Columbidae which includes 310 species worldwide. Pigeons and doves have different genera, however.

There are several different species of doves. The dove that is most commonly confused with the pigeon is the White Dove, also known as the Turtle Dove or Ring-necked Dove. White Doves are often bred by fanciers for showing and occur in a variety of genera, depending on the breed.

Another species of dove found in Georgia is the Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura). Unlike the feral and domestic pigeons, Mourning Doves are native to North America and are a popular game species among sportsmen. Unlike the White Dove, Mourning Doves can be distinguished from their feral pigeon cousins by a few visible characteristics. Mourning Doves are more solid in color than pigeons and are grayish-brown with dark spots on their wings, as opposed to the bluish-gray pigeon. They have a long, pointed tail edged in white. They also occur in urban environments, though not as often as pigeons. They occupy wooded and brushy areas as well.

Pigeons, on the other hand, are noted for their vast color variations. Although they typically are bluish-gray, they range from all white to a rusty hue to all black. They may also be identified by the pair of narrow black bands that occur on each wing as well as the broad black band on the tail. These band patterns may also vary.

Pigeons are generally plump in appearance with short, stocky legs, a small head, a short neck, and a short, rounded tail. They average 13.5 inches in length and weigh between 13 and 17 ounces. There is no visible difference between males and females.

Although the preferred habitat of feral pigeons is urban, open areas, they also like farm lands, though this is more common in the Midwest. As a child, Cockrum, who grew up in the Midwest, remembers catching 75 to 100 birds roosting on rafters in the barn in just one night. The majority of pigeons living in the Southeast, however, are urban dwellers.

Pigeons possess a number of unique characteristics that set them apart from other birds. One is their call, a soft, guttural sound or cooing, similar to coo-crooo or coo-took-coo. Pigeons are also excellent flyers, capable of speeds greater than 50 mph. They can outmaneuver a hawk if they see it coming.

Pigeons are also unusual in that they can drink without raising their heads between each sip. They can actually take long drinks, swallowing more like a horse than a bird. In addition, pigeons will perform a wing-clapping display flight, different from displays of other bird species. The noisy takeoff may follow courtship behavior or may be a signal for other pigeons to fly off as well.

The courtship rituals of pigeons belong in a class of their own. Pigeons are an excellent example of good family practices and shared parenting tasks. "Both male and female go through a prolonged courtship behavior. Both birds help build the nest. Both birds incubate the eggs. Both birds feed the young," said Armstrong. A long courtship display that is begun by the male culminates in a kiss—beak to beak. From that first kiss on, the pair will be mates for life.

Despite their good parenting habits, pigeons are notoriously bad nest builders.

"They basically just throw a few sticks or feathers up there anywhere," said Armstrong.

The crude structures of sticks, grasses, and other pieces of debris such as plastic or wire scavenged off the city streets may be built inside or on building ledges or hollows, often under eaves. The flimsy nests may be reused for subsequent broods and can become more solid and secure over time. Though pigeons roost together, they are very territorial over nesting sites and will actively defend their nests in what can become gruesome battles.

A total of two eggs are generally laid and incubated for a period of 17 to 19 days by the mother and father. The male incubates from early morning to midday, allowing the female to forage for food. The eggs are usually laid a day or two apart, but parents will not begin incubating them until both are laid. By waiting, one pigeon will not hatch earlier than the other and overpower its younger sibling. Both male and female produce a substance known as pigeon milk to feed the young. A gland in the crop (part of the digestive system) of both sexes produces the milk that is used specifically for this purpose. The young will fledge (or fly from) the nest 35 to 37 days after hatching. Several broods may be laid by each hen each year, and a second clutch may be laid when the current brood is just 20 days old, allowing up to nine broods each year. Eggs may be laid any time during the year; however, they are most commonly laid from March to July.

Homing Heroes

The pigeon's homing ability is by far its most amazing trait. The birds have the ability to "home" or come back to the loft where they were raised, even if they have to travel 500 miles to get there. Some enthusiastic owners claim their birds will come home even if they have to walk. For one bird named Clarence, that actually happened. Clarence was on a routine training flight in Maryland with other pigeons, but on one occasion he didn't return with the other birds. The next day he was found marching down the road, his feathers plastered in oil. Somehow he had fallen into a pool of oil, and when he couldn't fly, he simply walked.

Pigeons' homing ability is an unexplained phenomenon; however, instinct, intelligence, good eyesight, and good hearing certainly play a role in helping them find their way home.

"Pigeons can hear very low frequencies; they may even sense shock waves from the tides of various oceans," said Armstrong. He said pigeons may use the geomagnetic field of the earth and sun to assist them in their travels.

Pigeons use their excellent eyesight to see and magnify very small movements. Armstrong provided the following analogy.

"If you took a clock and removed the large hand, a pigeon would still be able to see it tick and tell you what time it was to the second—that is, if a pigeon could tell time," said Armstrong.

Because of their unique homing ability, pigeons have been used for hundreds of thousands of years as message carriers. Their ability to fly quickly and unnoticed over rivers, mountains, and enemies made them ideal to include in military operations. In fact, pigeons were used in both world wars to deliver important top secret information. The U.S. Navy has used pigeons in research for spotting downed aircraft and pilots in the ocean.

There are literally thousands of wartime achievements by pigeons recorded from World War I and II. One pigeon company alone delivered 6,000 messages in just one month. At the close of World War II, the Signal Corps Army Pigeon Service had trained more than 3,000 enlisted men and 150 officers on the schooling and handling of these birds. The birds offered a secretive way to send important strategic messages and played a role in numerous military battles.

There are amazing stories of pigeons fighting to return home no matter what the cost. During the wars, many pigeons were mortally wounded carrying life-saving messages across Asian jungles, vast deserts, and the frozen arctic. There are stories of pigeons that were caught in the crossfire, losing eyes, feet, and other body parts but continuing their missions nonetheless.

According to one World War II story, a signalman on Guadalcanal received a message that needed to be relayed back to headquarters. The delivery was entrusted to a member of a special brigade within the Army of the United States, a homing pigeon named Blackie Halligan. The journey to headquarters should have taken just 20 minutes, but Blackie was shot down in the Japanese fire. Five hours later the maimed and bloody bird managed to complete its trip bearing the important message.

Another famous feathered war hero, G. I. Joe, is credited with saving the lives of 1,000 British soldiers in World War II. Air support had been requested for the German-held town of Colvi Vecchia in Italy. Shortly before the scheduled bombing, the British were able to take the town. The bombing had to be stopped or the soldiers would be killed. G. I. Joe was sent on a life or death mission to alert headquarters to halt the air squad departure. Flying 20 miles in just 20 minutes, G. I. Joe delivered the message just minutes before the bombers left the ground. In honor of his heroic deed, G.I. Joe, who was bred and trained in the U.S., is the only animal to have received the prestigious Dickin Medal from Great Britain.

The Business Of Fanciers

Pigeons are no longer used in the U.S. Army; only the Swiss Army continues to use them for military purposes. Yet, raising pigeons has become an avid sport and hobby throughout the world. Though far more widespread in Europe, the sport has caught on in America and is continuing to grow.

"There is a big following of racing pigeons in Europe," said Cockrum. "In Belgium people own pigeons just like we have dogs here. They even give weather reports for daily pigeon races."

The majority of fanciers, or people who keep pigeons, have racing pigeons; however, there are many who show birds in competition, similar to competitions for dogs, cats, and horses. Show birds and racing pigeons represent different genera and have some very obvious differences.

"Racing pigeons are bred for stamina, performance, and durability. Show birds are bred for color, configuration of feathers, and success in the show pen," said Cockrum.

Some of the best breeds of pigeons come from Belgium, and individuals may pay as much as $1,000 for a thoroughbred pair.

Cockrum has been fascinated with pigeons since he was eight years old. Wild pigeons were a common sight on the Midwest farm where he was born and raised. The grains and farm animal feed attracted the birds. Cockrum now breeds pigeons of his own and has made a business out of the sport.

"I have 35 to 40 racing pigeons, but I'm really into white ones now that I use for wedding releases, funerals, or other ceremonial events," he said.

The white pigeons closely resemble doves, which have traditionally represented peace. Cockrum also has doves which he doesn't fly because they are used solely for showing. These birds are displayed at weddings and other events.

Cockrum belongs to a racing club, but he doesn't race his birds. It is actually quite expensive to participate in the sport because of equipment purchases and entry fees.

To race pigeons, the entrant must have a special clock that has a unique time stamp. All entrants meet at a racing clubhouse and calibrate their clocks to the same time. A counter mark, which resembles a heavy rubberband, is placed on the legs of the birds. Then, the birds are driven to a designated spot 200 to 400 miles away and released at first light. Clubs in Georgia usually release the birds in Lake City, Florida, or near Richmond, North Carolina. The pigeons immediately head for home, a journey that may take them an entire day. Upon arrival, they enter the loft, where the counter mark is removed from their leg, put into the clock, and stamped with the time. Using the exact distance covered and the amount of time taken, contestants determine how many yards per second each pigeon traveled. The pigeon that accumulated the greatest number of yards per second is the winner.

Fanciers take great care in protecting and maintaining their pigeons. Lofts must be kept extremely clean to prevent the birds from becoming infected with mites and bacteria. Cleanliness is also important so that the lofts won't be a cause for complaints from neighbors.

Racing pigeons may also be susceptible to predation from hawks. The birds of prey have been known to wait for releases of the birds and then make their attack. Don Oliver who owns Snow Storm Loft in Alpharetta has problems with hawks, losing as many as 25 pigeons a year to them.

According to Cockrum, Sharp-shinned, Red-tailed, and Cooper hawks are the big predators. Although pigeons can often outmaneuver a hawk, encounters are still dangerous. Cockrum reported a recent incident where a Cooper was chasing one of his pigeons. The pigeon was flying so fast to escape that it didn't see a large picture window. The impact with the window killed the pigeon. By constantly breeding the birds, however, fanciers are able to replenish those lost to nature.

Some pigeons are bred to be slaughtered for their meat. Pigeon is considered a delicacy in select restaurants in the U.S. Known as squab on the menu, the entree is actually young pigeon. The meat is very tender because the birds are killed before they ever even fledge the nest. One of the largest squab farms in the country is located in Sumter, South Carolina. The farm is one of Delta Airlines's biggest customers for air cargo, flying squab all over the country.

Living With Pigeons

Despite all of the pigeon's wonderful talents and uses, the bird is an exotic species that has proven to be a nuisance animal for many cities. Damage caused by pigeons to buildings, statues, and other structures can be of great magnitude. Pigeons can infest a building. They may eat or contaminate food stored in warehouses and processing plants.

Most of the damage occurs in areas where the birds nest or roost. The acid in their droppings can erode the surface of stonework, resulting in costly repairs in some instances. Gutters and drainpipes can become blocked. Areas can become slippery and hazardous due to the droppings, making pavement, ladders, and fire escapes unsafe. In addition, roosting areas are simply unsightly, especially when they are on monuments, statues, and other visible structures.

The most legitimate concern about these birds involves the transmission of diseases. Diseases associated with pigeons that are a threat to humans are directly linked to their droppings.

"Pigeons can pose a health hazard, but in many instances, that is blown out of proportion. Most of the risk of disease is from the accumulation of droppings in soil that provides a good media for the bacteria to grow in," said Armstrong.

Two diseases in particular may manifest in pigeon droppings. They include histoplasmosis, which occurs in droppings on the soil under roost sites, and cryptococcosis, which is found in droppings at elevated roost sites. In both cases, the amount of droppings plays a role. For instance, histoplasmosis usually doesn't flourish until droppings have accumulated for three or more years. There must also be a large flock of birds in one roosting site. "If there are 75 birds roosting in a vacant building then you have a problem," said Cockrum.

Feral pigeons may also transmit diseases that are of no harm to humans but are fatal to domestic pigeons if the two come in contact with each other. As a result, bird owners take great steps to prevent ferals from entering their lofts and infecting their pigeons.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services Division assists in solving problems created when wildlife damages agricultural, urban, or natural resources. They may also become involved when wildlife poses a threat to human safety. According to the USDA Wildlife Services State Director Doug Hall, pigeons are classified as nuisance animals.

"They have become nuisances at airports, apartment complexes, large industrial sites, cities, and towns, causing millions of dollars worth of damage," said Hall.

The USDA serves to reduce conflicts between pigeons and humans and takes four approaches in dealing with problem pigeons. The first approach is habitat modification. Roosting areas are identified, and ledges are modified so that pigeons can't land there. Materials such as porcupine wires, which consist of spikes that prevent pigeons from landing, are installed on ledges. An angled board or piece of tin may also be used.

One successful example of habitat modification can be found on the renowned Big Chicken in Marietta. Built by Kentucky Fried Chicken, the structure was destroyed several years ago by a tornado, but it was believed to have been weakened by pigeon droppings. When it was built the second go-round, spikes were added on the top to prevent pigeons from landing there and roosting. The modification has worked on the Big Chicken as well as on other sites.

Exclusion is another method utilized. Preventing the birds from entering an abandoned building by covering up the window is one example of exclusion. Repellents may also be used, although they have limited success with pigeons. Substances such as sticky foot or tangled foot may deter them for a little while. Plastic owls may also offer limited success, but pigeons often catch on.

"We don't usually recommend repellents because they don't normally work. Plastic owls often become snowy owls," said Hall.

The last option available is lethal control. Pigeons may be lured into a baited trap and held, where they will serve as a decoy to lure in others. The birds are euthanized once captured. It is effective in catching a large number of pigeons, but it won't catch all of them. The birds may also be shot with a pellet rifle at night when they are roosting. Toxicants known as avicides (pesticides for birds) may also be used, but caution must be exercised so that other native birds are not harmed.

Hall noted that an integrated management approach is necessary to be as successful as possible. Generally, one technique used alone will not alleviate the problem.

Unfortunately, exotic species are always detrimental to the environment they invade. Exotics generally do not have any natural predators. As a result, their population can loom out of control, causing havoc on the native species, or in this case on humans. There is some predation on pigeons from hawks, owls, and Peregrine Falcons if there are any in the area. Rodents may steal eggs, and roaming cats may also kill a few birds. Yet, because of the vast number of prey and fairly limited number of predators, the effect of predation on the pigeon population is very limited.

Once an exotic species has been introduced, it is nearly impossible to remove it completely. Such is the case with pigeons, so it appears humans must learn to coexist as best as possible with the birds.

Many people blame fanciers for the problems with wild populations, viewing the domestic pigeons in the same light as the feral populations.

Armstrong likens this comparison to a show dog as opposed to a free-ranging wild dog. Of course, the differences are monumental.

"I realize pigeons can be a nuisance from time to time and certainly advocate taking steps to reduce or eliminate the problems they cause," said Armstrong. "But I take a more positive outlook on pigeons, and believe that by educating the public about their interesting life history, the myriad of show pigeons and so forth, we can share our fascination with others and learn to live with them."

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