Lots of love for doves but not so much for “rats with wings”

The dove, an international symbol of peace, represents the Holy Spirit in Christian iconography. Andrew Blechman in Pigeons: the fascinating saga of the world’s most revered and reviled bird said that they themselves were worshiped as fertility goddesses. Carrier pigeons have served every superpower from ancient Egypt to modern times. News of the result at Waterloo in 1815 came courtesy of an avian courier. Pigeons that ran the gauntlet of enemy fire during “the Great War” were awarded Croix-de-Guerre type medals.

Doves don’t just benefit humans. Small “street” pigeons are a constant source of food for large raptors, allowing peregrine falcons, which came close to extinction here in the 1960s, to breed in our cities.

Pigeon fouling outside the Attorney General’s office

But not everyone likes pigeons. We call those we love ‘doves’. Those whom we despise, we call them “pigeons”. “These ‘winged rats’ soil listed buildings with their corrosive droppings and can be a public nuisance. During the 1950s, the US Fish and Wildlife Service fed them cyanide-coated peanuts in Boston, inspiring Tom Lehrer’s ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’. Apparently, the pianist hired for the studio recording fell off his stool when he discovered the theme and the title of the song.

Fossil remains suggest that the Rock Dove was domesticated in the Middle East around 10,000 years ago. Bred to serve as postmen, runners, or to be eaten, many domestic varieties have emerged over the millennia. Escapees are no longer beholden to people; feral pigeons do their own thing.

The genome of the European wildcat was contaminated by crossing with its domestic cousin, whose ancestors belonged to a North African variant. Similarly, the feral pigeon has introduced foreign genes into the wild rock pigeon population. Birdwatchers know this and regard white-rumped gray doves as virtual backyard fowl, unworthy of being on the watcher’s list.

Pigeons flying over and walking over a section of Lough, Cork when it froze over during winter.  Photo: Denis Minihane
Pigeons flying over and walking over a section of Lough, Cork when it froze over during winter. Photo: Denis Minihane

This story raises an intriguing question. With wild domestic doves so ubiquitous, has breed mixing caused the “pure” rock pigeon strain to disappear?

Researchers at the University of Oxford have looked into this problem. Feral rock pigeons live along the cliffs, breeding in holes and on ledges in caves. Although wild domestic pigeons may occasionally visit these remote locations, interbreeding between the two varieties appears to be limited. Pigeon expert Derek Goodwin claimed that liaisons do occur between feral and feral doves, but they are rare.

Pigeons fly as Muslim pilgrims pray atop the rocky hill known as the Mountain of Mercy on the plain of Arafat during the annual hajj pilgrimage near the holy city of Mecca, Arabia Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 8, 2022. Photo: AP Photo/Amr Nabil
Pigeons fly as Muslim pilgrims pray atop the rocky hill known as the Mountain of Mercy on the plain of Arafat during the annual hajj pilgrimage near the holy city of Mecca, Arabia Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 8, 2022. Photo: AP Photo/Amr Nabil

William Smith, lead author of a paper just published, obtained feathers from rock doves captured by bird banders in the Hebrides, Orkneys and Cape Clair, places where encounters between savages and domestics were considered unlikely. Feather DNA was analyzed and the extent of genetic contamination was measured.

The result showed that Scottish and Irish doves exhibited “levels of introgressive hybridization with feral pigeons, but to different degrees”. There was significant variation between sites; “This analysis revealed negligible admixture in the Outer Hebrides, some in the Inner Hebrides and Arran group, and a higher level in all individuals in the Cape Clear and Highlands & Orkney group.”

Research confirms that the ancestral form of the Rock Dove has been compromised. The species, however, has a worldwide distribution. Maybe the pure ancient form survives somewhere?

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