Brooklyn Birdwatching: May 16

Today Brooklyn Bird Watch features a Heather Wolf photo of the Rock Pigeon. Rock Pigeon is the most common pigeon. In New York, it is probably this species of Pigeon that you see in parks and throughout the city. It was formerly called the Rock Dove.

The basic color scheme of most Rock Pigeons is gray-blue plumage with two black bands on the wing and a black tip on the tail with some iridescence along the neck. Sometimes you can see variations in plumage, speckled individuals and reddish plumage, although it is the same type of pigeon.

There are 250 species of pigeons and they are abundant throughout North America. Pigeons are present all over the world except in the coldest regions and the most remote islands.

In fact, their distribution map with the purple color representing “All Year Round” completely covers North and South America.
Pigeons usually mate for life. A pair will raise up to five broods per year. Both male and female take care of the young and it takes about a month before they can leave the nest.

Both parents feed their young “pigeon milk”. That’s right, pigeon milk. All pigeons do that. It is a substance secreted in the throat of the adult pigeon. It comes from a special cell in the crop of the bird which is a section of the lower esophagus used to store food for digestion. The young pigeon reaches its beak inside the adult’s throat and obtains the milk.

In many cities, the Pigeon has become a very unpopular bird, for example, and the obvious reason, they seem to defecate wherever they are, and when they congregate, it can get messy and give part of the facade of a building or the area around a park bench a mean look. It also doesn’t help that they aren’t, in comparison, the most attractive bird to look at.

Yet, with all the negative feelings, especially in cityscapes, and the bad reputation the Pigeon carries, it actually had some very notable and somewhat noble ties to humanity.

So when you’re sitting on a park bench one afternoon enjoying the weather, see a few pigeons in your neighborhood and think to yourself…it’s just some of those filthy pigeons…and while the information below certainly won’t change your mind about pigeons, you might at least consider giving the bird some slack, because you’re looking at the oldest domesticated bird in history of humanity, and a bird that has a very unique skill.

As Wikipedia reminds us, “pigeons have made a contribution of enormous importance to mankind, especially in times of war”. The domestication of Pigeons is recorded in Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphs over 5,000 years ago. They were introduced to the Americas just 400 years ago.

Some Rock Pigeons, known as “Carrier Pigeons”, have very special and complex navigational skills. They were used to carry important messages during World War I and World War II. The paraphrase below is Wikipedia explaining this unique carrier pigeon navigational skill.

Trained domestic pigeons can return to their original loft if released in a location they have never visited before which can be up to 620 miles away. This ability of a pigeon to return home from a foreign location requires two types of information. The first, called “map sense”, is their geographical location. The second, “compass direction” is the bearing they need to fly from their new location to reach home. These two senses, however, respond to a number of different cues in different situations. The most popular conception of how pigeons are able to do this is that they are able to sense the earth’s magnetic field with tiny magnetic tissues in their heads. Another theory is that pigeons have compass sense, which uses the position of the sun, along with an internal clock, to determine direction. However, studies have shown that if magnetic disturbances or clock changes disrupt these senses, the pigeon can still successfully return home. The variability in the effects of manipulations on these pigeon senses indicates that there is more than one cue on which navigation is based, and that map meaning appears to be based on a comparison of the available cues.

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