The Current

How the pigeon's reputation turned from the Ferrari of birds to 'rats with wings'

Rosemary Mosco wants people to remember the not-so-distant past when the birds were valued and looked at as upper-class companions, resources and even pets.

Pigeons were once thought of as upper-class pets and companions, says author Rosemary Mosco

Pigeons stand in front of closed Christmas market booths next to Saint Stephen's cathedral, a place that is normally packed with crowds of people, in Vienna, Austria on Nov. 22, 2021. (Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images)

These days, pigeons are often and derogatorily referred to as "rats with wings." But author Rosemary Mosco wants people to remember the not-so-distant past when the birds were valued and looked at as upper-class companions, resources and even pets.

"I understand [the concern] if people are hearing from most people around them that they're dirty or that they're dangerous, or people are watching their beloved statues get pooped on," Mosco, author of A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching: Getting to Know the World's Most Misunderstood Bird, told The Current's guest host Margaret Evans.

"My hope with this book was to dispel some of that worry."

Mosco grew up in cities such as Montreal and Toronto where she could find many pigeons, and had a love for birds. At first, she was more excited to see rare birds, but the more she learned about pigeons, the more excited she was to watch them.

Dawn of the pigeon

Human history with the pigeon goes back thousands of years to the dawn of recorded writing, according to Mosco. She said the pigeon was first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, a region in the Middle East that includes modern-day Egypt, Israel, Iraq and Syria.

Back then, people considered the bird both a pet and a resource.

"[They would] build little structures for them to live in and raise them for meat and raise them so that their poop could be used as valuable fertilizer for desert fields," said Mosco.

"They just became really, really essential."

Rosemary Mosco is the author of A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching: Getting to Know the World's Most Misunderstood Bird. (Adrianne Mathiowetz)

Pigeons even became a status symbol. In France, prior to the French revolution in the late 18th century, only the rich were allowed to own pigeons. And the rich that owned the pigeons would try to outdo each other with elaborately decorated cages for their pigeons. 

"They really were considered kind of like a Ferrari. It was a status symbol all over the world," said Mosco.

Pigeons even played the hero at times. In the First and Second World Wars, soldiers used carrier pigeons to deliver messages back to base. Some, including a pigeon named Cher Ami used by the U.S. Army during the First World War, actually won medals and were household names. 

During a battle on the Western Front in 1918, Cher Ami delivered a message from an encircled battalion despite being shot down once before taking flight again. He made it back to camp, and the message he relayed ultimately ended up saving nearly 200 soldiers.

"Everyone knew Cher Ami as this heroic pigeon," said Moco.

Pigeons take flight against the faint buildings in Columbus Circle during a snowstorm in New York on Feb. 1, 2021. (Wong Maye-E/The Associated Press)

Bad PR

Some bad media coverage in New York City in the 1960s spelled the beginning of the end of the pigeon's reign. A few people came down with meningitis in the Big Apple, and city officials blamed the birds for its spread.

A city parks commissioner coined the term "rats with wings'' for the pigeons, according to Audobon. Unable to defend themselves from this attack on the pigeons' character, and the damage was done.

"They became unfairly blamed for disease. And around that time as well, they were no longer useful," said Mosco.

"We weren't eating as much pigeon. We weren't using their poop for fertilizer; we were using factory-created fertilizer. And so they sort of became like a fax machine, in a way."

But Mosco doesn't want the pigeon's story to end there. She says people might better appreciate these birds once they learn about their history.

"They also tell us a lot about human movement, and they tell us about our capacity to forget our very recent history and how important it is to look at the context of all of the creatures that you see around you," said Mosco.

"I think that will wind up making you a lot more of an empathic person. And also they're just funny to watch, so that's an added bonus."

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Alison Maseman.

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