Happy Valentine’s Day, pigeons

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Nothing better demonstrates the axiom “familiarity breeds contempt” than the pigeon. Pigeons have remarkable navigation skills and are extremely powerful fliers. They perform courtship dances and mate for life (as much as any bird does, anyway). Both parents care for the chicks. They have an adaptation—”crop milk,” a substance that they produce and feed to their chicks, similar in concept (if not physiology) to how we mammals produce milk for our babies—that allows them to breed in habitats most birds could never hope to raise a family in. They thrive in urban environments, making them probably the first and most-often seen wild animal of many city-dwellers. They recognize each other as individuals. They are smarter than you think.

Concerning their usefulness to humans, pigeons are easily raised in captivity and edible. They have been bred into many domestic varieties with strange attributes, such as the propensity to roll over in mid-air. Charles Darwin studied domestic pigeons extensively, and they contributed to the formation of his theory of evolution by natural selection. They have been important message carriers in wartime; pigeons have received the Dickin Medal—like the Medal of Honor, but for animals—32 times, more than any other species (dogs are closing in with 31 medals).

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And they come in sparkly colors with crazy eyes.

“Rats with wings,” people say—patently untrue: you can’t get plague from pigeons. “Dirty,” people call them; as if it isn’t our dirt they are wearing, and yet thriving anyhow.

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A pigeon walks into an art museum…

Consider the pigeon. Among birds, they are distinguished by their abilities to drink water through their nostrils and to raise their babies on a diet of human trash. It might surprise you, then, to learn that a number of scientific studies have focused on pigeons’ taste in art.

This abstract work, in feces and found lamppost, really captures the satisfaction of finding a good place to perch.

This abstract work, in feces and found lamppost, really captures the satisfaction of finding a good place to perch.

To be fair, these studies aren’t aimed at divining pigeons’ preferences so that museums can better appeal to the aesthetics of critical tastemaker pigeons; the goal is to understand how animals perceive images. Pigeons are easily raised and trained, so they are a good model to look at visual processing in birds. And why use art? “Discrimination of visual arts is an extreme example of higher visual cognition” (Watanabe 2011). So there is logic to this. But it still produces papers with titles like “Van Gogh, Chagall and pigeons.”

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Why do pigeons court all the time?

Most of our familiar birds court potential mates only at specific times of year. This is why spring is such a melodious season in many places: the male songbirds are all singing for their mates. Male pigeons, however, seem to court all the time. It’s below freezing and snowing? Why, what a great time to puff up and bow and coo at the ladies!

Well... yeah. What's your point?

Well… yeah. What’s your point?

This seems strange because we expect courting birds to breed soon after a successful courtship. Yet pigeons court in weather that seems like it would be terrible for breeding. What are these pigeons up to? Are the males really trying to convince the females to lay eggs in mid-winter?

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Why birds don’t need GPS

Imagine you’re an albatross, a large seabird that spends months aloft over the open ocean. Now it’s the breeding season: time to head back to your favorite island, do some amusing courtship dances, and lay an egg. But you’re in the middle of the vast, featureless open ocean. How do you find your way back?

Homing pigeons, taken from their roosts and driven up to 800 km away, can fly home. (Several pigeons have received the animal version of the medal of honor for doing this while carrying messages in wartime.) Arctic shorebirds like the Red Knot will fly from the Arctic to southern South America, over 13,000 km, twice a year. Birds are very good at navigation. How do they do it?

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