Friday, July 30, 2010

The Real Rock Pigeons

Paris and Pigeon, photo by Fabio Venni

Much has been made of the critical remarks by pigeons, dropped on the band Kings of Leon during their recent concert in St. Louis. Sharon Stiteler, The Birdchick™ speculated that the birds disapproved of the lyrics of the Kings’ hits, “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody.” Well, I could see it if this were a Tom Lehrer concert. After all, one of his hits was “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.” But why would these birds hate on Kings of Leon?

Rock Pigeons, as they’re officially called, are capable of spreading disease to humans. Bob Dylan had to cancel a European tour in 1997 when he contracted histoplasmosis, probably from pigeons. They can carry other nasty diseases too, but for the most part, people with healthy immune systems have little to fear from pigeon-borne diseases. That being said, I helped some friends repair a porch where neighborhood pigeons had roosted for years, and it was pretty unpleasant.

Pigeons are not native the western hemisphere and are pretty much the Rodney Dangerfield of birds. They gather in big, messy flocks, they don’t have a beautiful song—to human ears. In fact it’s hard to believe that European settlers brought them here in the 1600s. Perhaps they were homesick for the whitewashed buildings of home. More likely they raised them for food. 

photo by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid
The US Army Signal Corps used pigeons to deliver messages during World War I. The most famous of these, Cher Ami, carried a message through heavy fire, saving 194 American lives. Cher Ami was awarded a silver medal from the US and the Croix de Guerre by the French. Poor Cher Ami died of wounds he received on his last mission. He is now a mounted display at the Smithsonian. During peace times, carrier pigeons have been trained to carry medications. And lest you think that carrier pigeons are so 5-minutes-ago, note that the carrier pigeon is Twitter’s mascot.

If you give pigeons a chance, they do have some good qualities. I remember a friend telling me, “I saw the most beautiful birds flying around the hospital.” When I informed her that they were pigeons, she insisted, “Oh no, they weren’t pigeons. These birds were beautiful!” And they are. 

Photo by Tony Roberts/Pickersgill Reef

Where would I be without my Flickr friends? Thanks Fabio Venni, Scott Beale, and Tony Roberts for licensing your photos through Creative Commons!

PS: I spoke with a young friend who works at the outdoor theatre where Kings of Leon cringed. She told me that the consensus among employees is that there were 3 pigeons or less above the stage. Does it seem likely that large numbers of birds would choose a well-lit, noisy stage as a roost for the night? It may be that our feathered friends are not to blame after all.

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