Archive for the 'Doves & Chickens' Category

Dec 10 2008

Pigeons in the Nation’s Service

Published by under Doves & Chickens

Rock Pigeon (photo by Chuck Tague)Until quite recently, pigeons had a noble reputation.  Their homing instincts made them critical message carriers especially in times of war.

Pigeons changed the course of history from the time of the ancient Greeks until the mid 20th century.  Armies on the move carried cages full of pigeons ready to send news to headquarters.  To deliver a message they tied a capsule to a pigeon and released the bird.  The pigeon immediately flew home.  Ta dah!

This was a great advantage for the first army to use pigeons, but it didn’t take long for both sides to figure out they could kill the birds and intercept the messages.

Pigeons were critical in the Franco-Prussian War and the seige of Paris when microphotography allowed one bird to carry up to 30,000 messages.  The birds were used extensively in World War I.  A pigeon even saved an American battalion that was trapped behind enemy lines and bombarded by friendly fire.  The soldiers released several birds but all were killed except Cher Ami.  Though seriously wounded, Cher Ami continued his 25-mile mission, delivered the message and stopped the shelling.  After he recovered, though missing an eye, he was awarded the French “Croix de Guerre.”

Pigeons continued to carry messages during World War II, especially for spying and situations that required radio silence.  They even carried cameras that took pictures behind enemy lines, a pre-satellite form of aerial surveillance.  Pigeons were considered so important that both the British and the Germans used peregrines to kill the enemy’s messengers.  This wasn’t totally successful because the peregrines didn’t ask whose side the pigeon was on before killing it.

The age of electronic communication put pigeons out of a job.  The last military use(*) of pigeons was in the 1970s when the U.S. Coast Guard discovered the birds recognize shapes and are much better than humans at finding people and equipment lost at sea.  This program never made it beyond the testing phase, though.  It ended during budget cuts.

Since then the pigeon’s reputation has gone sour.  Few people remember the glory days (I don’t) and most have little respect when they see large flocks pecking seed on the sidewalk.

But there’s a glimmer in this dark cloud.  Pigeons continue to help people through scientific research – from bird navigation to power napping.  If a pigeon helps find the cure for cancer, we’ll all be grateful.  Maybe then the glory days will return.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

(*) p.s. I take that back!  The U.S. military used pigeons as gas detectors in the early days of the Iraq War.

p.s. #2.   Just found a Dec 27th blog on this subject with additional information on the pigeons of war.

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Nov 27 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Wild Turkey tom in full display (photo courtesy of PA Game Commission Public Photo Gallery)This wild turkey is glad to be strutting his stuff while you’re eating domestically raised turkey today.  Even if you’re eating a wild bird he’s grateful that people like to hunt turkeys.

As you can imagine, this makes for a complicated story.

When Europeans came to America, hunting was unregulated and turkeys were very popular food.  By the late 1800s, hunting and deforestation had taken its toll.  Only a few thousand turkeys remained in all of Pennsylvania.

At that point the newly formed PA Game Commission began studying the turkey population and regulating the hunting season.  There were so few turkeys that hunting was banned for a few years.  The Game Commission even stocked turkeys bought from Mexico.  Then in 1929 they acquired land and began to raise turkeys for release into the wild.

Propagation programs, habitat restoration and hunting regulations turned the tide.  Today Pennsylvania’s wild turkey population is thriving.  They are easy to find just about everywhere, even in Pittsburgh’s city parks: Frick, Schenley, Riverview and Highland.  My favorite flock of turkeys used to hang out at the “French fry sculpture” on Bigelow Boulevard.

So on Thanksgiving Day, Tom Turkey is grateful to the PA Game Commission for making his comeback possible.  He is also thankful that Americans prefer to eat domestic turkeys.

(PGC photo of a male Wild Turkey in full display, courtesy of the PA Game Commission’s Photo Gallery)

3 responses so far

Aug 03 2008

Talking Turkey


More baby pictures!

Tim Vechter sent me this one of a wild turkey chick he found with mother and siblings in a field near Latrobe.

As you can see, this baby bird is well camouflaged.  Wild turkeys lay 10-14 eggs in a nest on the ground.  As soon as the chicks hatch they’re ready to go.  Their mother calls and they walk off the nest and disappear in the tall grass.

The last time I saw wild turkey chicks I literally stumbled on them.  I was at Ohiopyle State Park when I saw the weeds move and a baby turkey darted across the trail.  Then another.  Mom called and they all ran back.  If I hadn’t had my wits about me I would have stepped on one.

Fortunately I knew not to mess with baby turkeys.  They may look cute and defenseless but their mother is formidable, willing to march right up to danger and attack it.

Dad, on the other hand, has a hands off attitude toward family life.  Turkeys are polygamous so he has a territory and up to five hens to maintain.  He spends breeding season cruising around making sure he’s in charge.  To him, everything takes care of itself.  His wives raise the kids and the kids find food on their own.

What more could he want?

(photo by Tim Vechter)

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Jul 31 2008

What to my wondering eyes should appear…

Published by under Doves & Chickens

…but two pigeons in the Pitt peregrines’ nest box!

Based on the time stamp on this photo, the pigeons showed up in Dorothy and E2′s nest only 20 minutes after I posted my blog about pigeon overpopulation yesterday.

Do they have ESP?  Did they read my blog and decide to make a point?  Did they get the feeling they ought to put in a defiant appearance?

Obviously the peregrines weren’t paying attention.  They’ve been napping a lot because they’re molting.

Yesterday at lunch my friend Karen and I saw Dorothy and E2 perched in nooks on the edge of the 32nd floor, facing the wall, their backs to the world.  I guess if you’re at the top of the food chain you can turn your back to the world with confidence.

No need to worry the peregrines will go hungry.  They can have breakfast in bed if they want!

(photo from the National Aviary falconcam at University of Pittsburgh)

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Jul 30 2008

Too much of a good thing

Rock pigeon flock (photo by Chuck Tague)

Being a peregrine fanatic I’m kind of fond of pigeons – at least from the prey point of view – so when I was in downtown Pittsburgh on Sunday I stopped by Mellon Square to check out the scene.

Even for a peregrine falcon the number of pigeons at Mellon Square is way too much of a good thing.  I counted more than 150 and I couldn’t see all of them.  The pigeons outnumbered people more than 30 to 1.

This explains why peregrines hang out on the Oliver Building window sills.  It’s like visiting an all-you-can-eat restaurant.  The food may not be that great but there’s so much of it!

This kind of pigeon over-population repulses most people and they want a quick fix, the quickest being poison.  But if you poison a pigeon, you’ll poison a peregrine.  After a culling episode pigeons reproduce fast to fill the void – in fact lethal control actually increases the flock - but the peregrines take years to recover.  And peregrines are endangered in Pennsylvania.  It’s bad, bad, bad to poison an endangered species.

So what to do?

Pigeons need two things to reach the numbers found at Mellon Square:  lots of food and places to nest.  They reproduce in direct proportion to their food supply.  If food is scarce some won’t nest at all.  If food is plentiful they lay the next clutch of eggs before the first set has hatched, producing more than 12 chicks per year.

The food problem is obvious.  Sidewalks at Mellon Square are coated with bird seed.  Control the food source (the people who feed them) and you’ve got most of the problem licked.   To make a really dramatic difference, control the nest sites as well.

City pigeons nest on buildings and bridges.  They also nest in buildings.   Find the buildings involved and spend the time and money to block the access holes.  Last summer the University of Pittsburgh cleaned the Cathedral of Learning and blocked off the pigeon nest holes as part of the cleaning job.  One year later there are far fewer pigeons at Schenley Plaza.

And finally, there’s a foolproof solution that makes both the pigeon-feeders and the pigeon-haters happy.  Many European cities have solved their pigeon problem permanently by building dovecotes and pigeon lofts.  Yes, they built nest sites.  They control the population at the dovecotes by substituting dummy eggs and they control the food level by giving pigeon lovers an approved place to feed and interact with the birds.

This keeps the pigeons and the birdseed off the street.  An elegant solution.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

5 responses so far

Mar 19 2008

Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner

Rock Pigeon examining the webcam at the Pitt peregrine nest!Pigeons are the peregrines’ favorite food so this snapshot from the Pitt peregrine webcam made me laugh out loud.  What the heck is this pigeon doing in the nest of his mortal enemies?

Pigeons nest on cliffs just like peregrines so they’re used to having predators nearby but this is way too close.  I’ve never seen a live pigeon in the peregrines’ nest, so what’s up?  

I have a theory.

Last year the University of Pittsburgh cleaned the Cathedral of Learning and found pigeon nests in every nook and cranny.  When the cleaning was finished they pigeon-proofed the building with netting and spikes.  This spring the pigeons have far fewer places to nest so this pair is desperate enough to try the beautiful nest ledge provided for the peregrines. 

If you click on the pigeon picture you’ll see a slideshow of the pigeon and his lady checking out the area.  They leave abruptly when…    Well, you just have to see the slideshow.

5 responses so far

Feb 25 2008

The Pigeon Book

Cover of the Pigeon bookAnother book!

For birders, pigeons are on the borderline between wild and tame, pests and pets.  They willingly live off our food scraps yet we vaguely feel there’s something wrong with this even though we feed backyard birds. 

Now there’s a book that tells us how pigeons got to where they are today and what special traits this has given them.  Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird, by Andrew D. Blechman.

The saga began when humans domesticated the rock pigeon over 5,000 years ago.  Since then we have widely divergent relationships with these birds: from pigeon fanciers to pigeon shooters, protectors to poisoners, pigeon racers to compulsive pigeon feeders.  Blechman’s book delves into it all.

He also describes how:
•  Pigeons are naturally even tempered.  They do not bite or attack.  This made them easy to domesticate and it’s why them seem tame.
•  Racing pigeons fly non-stop more than 500 miles at more than 60 miles per hour.  This is even more amazing when you consider they are trucked to the starting point – a place they have never seen – and within minutes they figure out where they are and where home is.  Then they fly home immediately without stopping for food or water.
•  Pigeon hating is a relatively new sentiment, promoted by “bird control companies.”  For instance, if you use Google to search for this book online, the advertising links are all pigeon control companies.
•  A 100% guaranteed, permanent pigeon control method was invented in Europe and, amazingly, involves providing them with nests.  

After you read this book you won’t think the same old way about pigeons any more.

2 responses so far

Dec 05 2007

Cold and snowy

Rock Pigeon (photo by Chuck Tague)It snowed here all day until sunset.  By lunchtime there was more than an inch of snow.  Over at Pitt the only birds I saw were pigeons and they were doing something unusual.  They were foraging on the sidewalk instead of on the grass.

I pay attention to pigeons because they are the peregrines’ favorite food.  A scared flock of pigeons often alerts me to the presence of the peregrines.  Today it was apparently too snowy for the falcons to hunt so the pigeons were safe out in the open.

But why were they on the sidewalk?  It finally dawned on me. The sidewalk was the only snow-free area where they could see potential food.  Perhaps they were eating the de-icing salt. 

The snow was beautiful, but it’s a pretty quiet birding day when the best bird is a pigeon eating rock salt.

One response so far

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