In praise of pigeons: Enthusiast chirps the praises of 'troublesome' bird

Their bodies are amazingly malleable for breeders. They can abandon toes at a hint of infection. And more than 30 of them were awarded medals for their service in the world wars. Pigeon enthusiast Katherine Ziff says there's more to the creature than meets the eye. 

Dozens of pigeons were awarded medals for their service following WWI and WWII

Pigeons are one of the most common birds in the world, which is probably why many consider them a nuisance. (Nick Agro/Orange County Register/Associated Press)

The City of Calgary's online list of local pests describes includes pigeons as a "troublesome bird," but pigeon enthusiast Katherine Ziff says there's more to the creature than meets the eye. 

Ziff is an amateur researcher with the Faculty of Lesser Known Arts and Sciences — a tongue-firmly-in-check group that hosts public talks in Calgary cryptozoology, time travel and more — and studies the birds.

She says that when she looks at a statue littered with pigeons, she understands why some people consider them to be a pest — but she says they actually have many redeeming qualities. 

"One is that they are one of those animals where breeders can just have a field day. You know, dogs are similar, cats not so much," she told the Calgary Eyeopener on Monday. 

"When you breed pigeons, you can really change the shapes of their bodies, the kind of feathers they have. You can have ones that have curly feathers or a giant breast that puffs out way beyond the edge of their beak. They're amazingly malleable."

Ziff says it's that malleability that caught the eye of Charles Darwin. 

Darwin bred pigeons, and it's said the birds contributed to his thinking that led to his theories of natural selection.

"So pigeons have had a big impact on our thinking," she said. 

Pigeons have also had many jobs throughout history. 

During the Second World War, one variety of pigeon — the homing pigeon — was used by British forces for spying purposes. 

The homing pigeon was chosen because it has the ability to find its way home from extremely far away places — and from across enemy lines in wartimes.

"So when flying across enemy lines, they would literally pack an extra crate or two of pigeons with a parachute [drop] in say Belgium or France," said Ziff. 

"And if a friendly person found the pigeon, they could write down whatever intelligence they had, roll it up really tight and fit it into a tiny canister on the pigeons's leg, release the pigeon and just a couple of hours later British intelligence would have the latest information."

In fact, Ziff said more than 30 pigeons were awarded medals for their service in World War I and World War II.

According to Ziff, pigeons were also used by Reuters news service to deliver information in its early days, and at one time were trained by the U.S. Coast Guard to spot people in distress. 

For others, pigeons are prized athletes.

Racing pigeons imported from places like Belgium, England and Germany can cost thousands of dollars. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

"I met someone a couple of years ago at Stampede who was showing her racing pigeon and was very proud that it had competed against the Queen's pigeons and had beaten some of them," said Ziff.

But, Ziff says, she's fascinated by all pigeons — even those referred to as the "rats of the sky" — not just the ones with special skills. 

"They're survivors. They live off of what we ignore and they're hardy," she said.

Ziff says some people may have noticed that pigeons are often missing toes on their feet. She says that's because if they get an infection in the toe, their body can just abandon the toe instead of letting the infection spread and kill the pigeon.

 "And I think that's amazing," she said.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener


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