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The Verge Review of Animals: the pigeon

Poop machines and god-dammed war heroes


As a young boy in Trinidad, my father raised — and raced — pigeons. He loved his birds so much that when a favorite pigeon died, he cut off one its legs and hid it in his dresser as a keepsake. "Within a matter of hours, my clothes were covered ants," he told me earlier this week, laughing. I like imagining these moments of his boyhood — "I used to take them to school in a box, release them, and they would fly back home," he says — but let's face it: my experience of pigeons is vastly different from his. Living first in Canada and then in the US means that on most days, my greatest hope for pigeons is that they'll shit on literally anything other than myself.

Most people prefer not to be shat on by pigeons

In fact, most people prefer not to be shat on by pigeons. A couple in Seattle got slapped with a lawsuit in August because their habit of feeding crows had attracted pigeons to their home; the noise and the large volume of feces were too much for the couple's neighbors. The city of Venice experiences a similar problem, but on a much larger scale; in 2008, city officials got so tired of pigeons defecating on monuments that they banned the sale and distribution of grain to feed the birds. Their frustration is understandable; pigeon droppings contribute to the degradation of buildings by leaching into tiny cracks in concrete and weakening the material. To avoid the negative structural (and visual effects) of bird droppings, Venetians have to perform regular maintenance, which doesn't come cheap. Cleaning up after pigeons in Venice costs each of the city's taxpayers 275 euros a year.


But pigeons aren't just flying poop machines or "rats with wings"— they're also amazing athletes, armed with surprisingly precise navigational systems. And if that's not enough to convince you of their awesomeness, consider this: pigeons are god-dammed war heroes.

During the First World War, a homing pigeon by the name of "Cher Ami"1 helped save over 190 US soldiers caught behind enemy lines in France. The soldiers were stranded without ammunition and had started receiving friendly fire. But Cher Ami saved them. Unlike the pigeons who flew before it, the bird survived and delivered a message to the allied troops. It read, in part, "for Heaven's sake, stop it."

This is French for "dear friend."

Cher Ami lost a leg that day. After the ordeal, army medics outfitted the wounded bird with a small wooden leg to help it walk. The pigeon became the hero of the 77th Infantry Division. Upon its return to the US, Cher Ami was awarded the French "Croix de Guerre" Medal. The bird died in 1919 in New Jersey, and was inducted in the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame 12 years later. Cher Ami's body — now stuffed — resides at the National Museum of American History.

Cher Ami saved over 190 American soldiers

(National Museum of American History)

These birds are tenacious little buggers.

They also have great visual acuity. Just a few weeks ago, researchers announced that pigeons are pretty good at recognizing signs of breast cancer from magnified biopsy images. That doesn't mean that pigeons can diagnose breast cancer, however. The images that the researchers showed the birds were blown up and showed small surface areas, so they weren't the same kinds of images that radiologists usually check for signs of cancer. Still, the study serves an important purpose. Like others before it, the experiment demonstrated the pigeon's remarkable ability to detect and respond to complex visual cues.


Despite this, pigeons in the Western world rarely get the recognition they deserve. The most interest some of us can muster is to wonder "where are all the baby pigeons?"2 And in many US cities, the tradition of pigeon racing is a dying hobby.3 And then there's the whole dove issue.

Pigeons nest in areas that are protected and hidden from sight — areas like caves, roof tops and under bridges. Babies stay in those nests for up to six weeks. By the time they leave, they aren't nearly as baby-like (meaning naked and transparent) as they once were. That's why we don't notice juvenile pigeons as much.

That's not true elsewhere. In China, for example, some people still pay over 100,000 euros for a good racing pigeon.

Doves aren't special

Contrary to what some will have us believe, doves aren't special. In fact, there's no clear division between doves and pigeons. They belong to the same bird family — Columbidae — and in many instances, the terms are used interchangeably. That's why the turtle dove is also referred to as the Carolina pigeon. Yet, some humans seem to think that white doves are more worthy of attending their weddings and their funerals than their dark-feathered counterparts. So let me be clear: this animal review is a review of the entire Columbidae family, including white doves. Honestly, I don't want them to shit on me either.


Anyway, pigeons are pretty cool. I've never raised my own, but I imagine that they'd make good companions. As for the ones that sit on power lines, fly into subway tunnels, and sleep on statues — I just hope they can read. Maybe this review will help me get a couple of pigeon-shit-free years.

The Pigeon

Verge Score: 7.9


Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • War heroes

  • Stealthy offspring

  • Can fly

  • Detects signs of cancer, sort of

Bad Stuff

  • Will poop on you

  • Destroys monuments

  • Causes neighborly feuds