Stop Pigeon Hate

Why is the pigeon so hated? Is it due to his availability as a target? After all, he is a common sight in our towns and cities, so common he can seem like an omnipresent nuisance.

Maybe it’s his appearance? Admittedly, he is less stunning than other birds; his generally grey countenance is far less pleasing than the radiant scheme of a kingfisher or the sparkled wings of a starling.

Perhaps it’s his stature? Small and stout, he’s certainly an easier target than any bird of prey, lacking the brawn of an eagle or the sleekness of a falcon.

Whatever the case, the pigeon does not have a good reputation. Recently, he has faced criticism for a variety of reasons, from trying to liberate mankind from its self-imposed enslavement to mass media, to taking over a house after the landlord made the avoidable mistake of leaving the windows open for four weeks.

In my view, the public’s attitude towards pigeons can be best summarised with a well-known, albeit not entirely original, comment from Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London: “pigeons are rats with wings.”

Now this is simply not true. Given the opportunity, the pigeon shows himself to be a considerate and upstanding member of our society, which is certainly more than can be said for many of its human participants.

Naturally, some nuance is required. After all, there are many different types of pigeon and there is no strict distinction between a pigeon and a dove, the latter of which has marginally better connotations, such as being a symbol of peace and salvation.

The largest and most common pigeon in the UK is the woodpigeon. Shy and tame, they are mostly grey with white patches on its neck and wings. Although primarily found in rural areas, they can also be found in more urban areas.

Due to their sizeable presence, you’ve definitely heard their call, especially if you live in suburban England. The soundtrack to a gloomy Sunday evening, their gentle cooing stirs a sense of melancholy in the local children, reminding them they have got school tomorrow.

Secondly, there is the collared dove, which gets its name from the black mark which stretches around the back of its neck. Pale brown, with reddish eyes and feet, unless there’s a buffet on offer, they’re almost exclusively seen on their own or in pairs.

Indeed, the collared dove’s unwavering monogamy is arguably more defining than the mark to which it owes its name. Wrapping only half-way around it’s neck, hence it’s comparison to a collar, when united with another collared dove, it becomes a full matrimonial ring. How’s that for nature’s poetry?

Then, there are rock doves. Also known as the feral pigeon, they are ancestors of domesticated pigeon. Coming in a diverse range of colours, from dark blue to black, from pale grey to white, from a rustic brownish orange to a brick-red.

These are the urban sprawl of pigeons. Whilst all creatures are innocent until proven guilty, should you find a stray blob of poop on an inner-city pavement, he’s going to be your prime suspect. When people speak of rats with wings, they think of the cooing greaseball known as the rock dove.

Similar to rock doves, stock doves have darker feathers, especially on their rump and wings, a distinct green neck patch, and a pink chest. Concentrated in the English midlands and southwest, becoming rarer in northern Scotland and Ireland, the UK is home to over half their European population.

However, unlike the rock dove, the stock dove is less likely to be seen in urban and suburban areas, preferring farm life to big city living. This is because he is generally shyer and more averse to humans than his cosmopolitan cousin.

Finally, the turtledove is the runt of the flock, being only slightly bigger than a blackbird. Arriving in the UK in spring and leaving for Africa in winter, its feathers are a distinctive mottled mix of a black and golden brown, with a white-rimmed black tail.

Unlike his relatives, the turtledove is a picky eater, choosing to indulge on cereal grains, oilseed rape, and chickweed. Unfortunately, due to his refined tastes, the turtledove has been in decline since the mid-90s, largely due to a lack of his favourite delicacies.

Given this, we can see that the pigeon is not merely a rat with wings. All at once, the pigeon is a sensible everyman, a young lover, a boisterous yuppie, a country bumpkin, and a persecuted aristocrat. They are diverse and endearing creatures with varying personalities and habits, reputations and interests, but much of the public want to exterminate him over a few measly droppings.

Every bird defecates, but the pigeon is solely hated for doing so. It’s for this reason I militantly oppose anti-pigeon architecture. Every public building in Britain is glazed with spikes, ruining their appearance in the name of protecting it.

On several occasions, I have sat in York station, waiting for my train home, with a quiet emotional investment in pigeons looking for somewhere to perch, watching them steer clear of the spikes, mentally cursing the communist station master who had them installed.

I’d prefer railway staff clean up bird droppings than behave like members of the Cheka, indulging their pathetic power fantasies by shouting at people for standing less than a country mile behind the yellow line. Mate, mate, mate. Health and Safety, yeah?

Following the riots of Oxford Street, which included looting and violent clashes with the police, one left-wing academic suggested the chaos could’ve been avoided if the rioters had access to public swimming pools.

As most people realised at the time, this suggestion is ridiculous on a number of levels. For one, unlike animals, humans have an innate tendency towards evil. It is easy to imagine machete brawls between illiterate migrants and fake bomb threats by TikTok pranksters overrunning such places.

However, it raises an important, if only loosely related question: why are there so few public birdbaths?

Despite his reputation as a feathered hobo, the pigeon is quite a cleanly creature, taking every chance he gets to fastidiously groom himself.

We have a birdbath in our garden, and we have many regulars, our most well-known being an especially rotund and fluffy woodpigeon, whom my mother affectionately refers to as Fat Wilbur.

I do not see this ‘winged rat’ Livingstone speaks of. Wilbur makes his stop, does what he needs to do, takes in the atmosphere, before moving on his way, not wanting to overstay his welcome. Should other pigeons accompany him, he makes room, as they do for him, and all is well.

The idea that such tranquillity could emerge in a society as presently low trust as ours is simply absurd. Of course, being a pigeon, it’s unlikely he does this for any pretentious, perception-based reason. Indeed, his fixation must be rooted purely in the value of cleanliness itself!

However, contrary to pervasive anti-pigeon sentiment, the pigeon is not only a cleanly creature, but a clever one too.

It can be hard to accept that pigeons, creatures known for flying into windows and pecking at cigarette butts, can distinguish between Picasso and Monet, but they can. In fact, according to the scientific research we have, pigeons are amongst the most intelligent birds in the world, showing a variety of relatively complex cognitive abilities.

Of course, whilst it is undeniable that humans are much smarter than pigeons, we do not use our superior faculties particularly well.

Whilst humanity may be threatened by the whims of idiots or a lack of imagination, hindering our ability to innovate and develop, our kind is similarly threatened by overthinking.

As a result, we deny ourselves the ability to be authentic, we shun risks in the name of avoiding embarrassment and pain when such risks could just as easily bring us laughter and joy. In the words of Paglia: “consciousness has made cowards of us all.”

As such, we should not be surprised when pigeons manage to be funnier than us. Just by being what they are, pigeons are funnier than basically every living comedian. Every wannabe BrewDog-sipping funny man, with his safe-edgy humour and hashed-out irony, fails to be more amusing than a random birb going about its business.

Walking around in circles, sporadically pecking the pavement, stopping occasionally to exhibit his dumbfounded ‘the lights are on, but nobody’s home’ expression, bobbing its head like its listening to a really good song, it is a grave fault in our being that a character as innocently absurd as this is considered less amusing than James Acaster.

Even the mere idea of a pigeon is funnier than most human attempts at humour. Go ahead, in your mind, visualise a pigeon (don’t worry, the cops can’t do anything… yet). You see that? Now that’s comedy. If you deny this, you Just Don’t Get It. Not much I can do about that.

Looking at these odd creatures, has nobody once thought: what are they up to? What’s their game? Why did they peck there and not there? Why did he take flight for seemingly no reason? Is there some secret pigeon meeting he needs to get to? What’s his schedule? Does he have time for an interview?

Yet, despite his apparent gormlessness, it is clear pigeons are far more sensitive than the average human.

If you’ve ever commuted anywhere via public transport, you’re no doubt familiar with the hectic nature of it all. From the loud noises to the chaotic stampedes, from the excruciating delays to the dodginess of certain folk, commuting isn’t exactly what most people would call an enjoyable experience.

Of course, whilst we might find certain aspects of commuting more annoying than others, we all agree on one thing: the worst part of commuting is other people.

Compare this to the pigeon, who shows consideration for personal space, does not play loud music, doesn’t try to con you out of your money, and generally minds its own business, preferring to get out of your way, rather than get into it.

If what Sartre says is true, that hell is other people, perhaps heaven is to be in the company of animals. More to the point, who is better company on a long commute than a pigeon?

Undoubtedly, the pigeon is not a faultless creature, and the shortcomings of us and other beings cannot excuse or undo this fact. That said, any fault which can be found with the pigeon can easily be remedied by human custodianship. We must spare him from the misguided disdain of busy adults and the clumsy tyranny of misbehaved children.

Pigeons are not flying rats, nor are they government spies. They are our friends and we should treat them as such. Stop Pigeon Hate!

Photo Credit.

Audubon’s Legacy of Birds and Tomfoolery

For someone who has anger issues, entering the Audubon’s The Birds of America exhibition was like entering a whole new world. Upon the entry, I saw giant screens showing details from Audubon’s work and I could hear quiet bird noises in the background. It was an incredibly calming experience, as much as one can consider stuffed birds and plates depicting birds massacring another bird calming. Naturally, this wasn’t the centre of the exhibition – it truly celebrated the skill and the creativity of the bird illustrator with a passion for nature.

The exhibition is running in the National Scottish Museum in Edinburgh from the 12th of February to the 8th of May of this year. It displays over 40 plates, each measuring almost one metre in height. Most of them have never actually been shown to the public before. It is split into 4 sections, each of them with its own theme – the first one, ‘Meet the Birds of America’ introduces the ‘world’s most expensive book’ and Audubon, in general.

John James Audubon was a 19th-century ornithologist and naturalist. He made a point of studying and cataloguing the birds he encountered in their natural habitats. A son of a sugarcane plantation owner and a chambermaid, he must have had a conflicted childhood. Audubon moved to the US to avoid participation in the Napoleonic Wars – and focused on birds instead. 

The second section of the exhibition titled ‘An Art and a Science’ examines the influence of other illustrators on Audubon as well as the scientific, or sometimes quasi-scientific context. With the Industrial Revolution clashing with the Romantic movement, the transcendental search for nature was at its peak. The illustrations at the time were generally quite dull due to drawing from taxidermy and lifeless study skins.

Audubon, however, made a point of painting directly from wildlife, by personally hunting the birds and sometimes getting others to hunt for him. He would then paint the birds he gathered by pinning them into lifelike poses observed in the wild. This resulted in his art being vivid and life-like. He didn’t want to paint the taxidermied birds as he felt this would take away their lively spark from them. He was known for sometimes romanticising the birds he saw in the wild, for example when painting the Mocking Bird, in which a rattlesnake attacks birds in a bush, where it would be impossible for a rattlesnake to do so. Audubon would also sometimes add more human behaviours to the birds to allow the audience to relate to the birds. He was sometimes accused of not exactly presenting the truth.

The third part of the exhibition called ‘Audubon in Edinburgh’ explores the role of Scottish intelligentsia in ensuring that Audubon was embraced by the art society, after his rejection by the scientific community in Philadelphia. He befriended William Home Lizars and started engraving. Edinburgh was central to Audubon’s beginnings as a bird illustrator, making it extremely relatable to the Scottish audience, and it became somewhat a privilege to live in the same city where Audubon once found inspiration and was embraced by the art world.

The fourth section called ‘The Great Work: The Making of a Masterpiece’ deals with technical and artistic achievements. There are short films available for those whose attention span is longer than mine. However, this section also shows the bound edition of Birds of America which is extremely large (100 x 130 cm when open). Audubon insisted that the illustrations would show the birds life-size. Only two paper mills in the UK were capable of printing these, as he used a double elephant folio which is 96 x 66 cm. For those who are capable to rotate shapes in their head, this number will probably mean a lot.

The fifth section ‘Naturalist or Showman’ focuses on his contribution to discovering new species. Audubon identified 25 new species. This part of the exhibition explores some of the ‘controversies’, for example, Audubon was known for his strong belief in phrenology, the science which is now deemed ‘pseudoscience’ by some. Phrenology suggests that one can find details about someone’s personality from their skull shape. Seeing what kind of person he was, he probably used phrenology to mock his rivals. He was often accused of plagiarism and scientific fraud due to misidentifying some species and fabricating scientific data. Sometimes he invented new species to impress people who might then buy his work. Reportedly, he even stole the specimen of Harris’s hawk from his subscriber to then pretend he never knew him. He also lied in his own autobiography.

The sixth and final section of the exhibition ‘Birds of the World’ considers the impact of the modern era on the preservation and extinction of many birds. Some, such as the Carolina parakeet is entirely extinct – they used to always flock in large groups which made it easier for the hunters to kill them. They’ve also been considered a pest by farmers, which contributed to their demise. The exhibition ends on a thoughtful note, advising us to consider the repercussions of human behaviour on the natural world.

This prompted many conversations, such as the possibility to clone the extinct animals using their DNA tissue, however, so far, this was only tried with Pyrenean Ibex in 2003, but this one died not long after from lung defects. It might be a way forward in the future though.

The exhibition was a visual feast for the eyes and the birds are engraved and painted beautifully. The sheer skill of Audubon’s art is undeniable, and it trumps any accusations he received. He may not have been rigidly adhering to the scientific advice, but he created something that’s still worth looking at. Audubon inspired George Bird Grinnell to create the National Audubon Society in 1905 (although the idea goes back as far as 1895 when the first Audubon Society was created). The organisation protects the birds and their habitats in the Americas. If you like birds, you can donate here.

Audubon’s exhibition included a wealth of important items, including some study skins of birds and many taxidermized birds as well as his diaries, plates, and his hunting double-barrelled rifle. The exhibition is beautiful, thoughtful and certainly fascinating. For anyone who craves the return to transcendentalism and ancient values – it’s a feast for their eyes. If you fancy a trip to Edinburgh before the end of the exhibition on the 8th of May – make a point of stopping by at the National Scottish Museum to look at some birds, I strongly recommend it.

Photo Credit.

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