In early May, I found myself adopted by a pigeon! Not just any pigeon, but a fancy one who has a sort of Elizabethan ruff and little bracelets on his ankles. When I say I was adopted by him, I mean that after I saw him for the first time, I fed and watered him once, and he said “Ooooh Mama!” and started living on an eave atop our front door. If I had a dollar for everyone who has asked me about my strange pet bird, I could retire!
This is Pidge!
I was able to find basic pigeon care instructions on the internet, but I also wanted to get to know the history of pigeons and pigeon keeping, and this book by Andrew D. Blechman seemed like the most informative and entertaining first step.
I learned so much about the history of pigeons and how closely human and pigeon lives have intersected from the beginning of civilization. For example, it was a pigeon that brought the results of the first Olympics in 776 B.C.! Nearly a million pigeons served in both world wars. Several have been given medals for saving thousands of soldiers’ lives through the messages they delivered. Darwin relied most heavily on pigeons to support his theory of evolution. The Queen of England still keeps pigeon racing lofts!
I also solved the mystery of where Pidge may have come from after reading this book. I originally thought he was a racing pigeon because of the bands on his ankles. After not being able to track his numbers on any of the major racing associations, I was puzzled until I read about the wild world of fancy pigeon breeding! There is a whole subculture (which has it’s own pageant each year pretty close to where I live!) with millions of pigeons that are bred to have bizarre and sometimes beautiful (like Pidge’s ruff) mutations (for a lack of a better word — the ruff comes from breeding the pin feathers backwards). I now feel pretty sure he is an escapee from someone’s fancy pigeon breeding experiments! I had no idea this even existed.
I found the book compulsively readable and completely engaging (although I had to skim the chapter on live pigeon shoots — what a horror). I learned that pigeons find Spanish peanuts to be their ultimate treat (a pigeon racer called them their “steak or lobster”). Their homing instinct is so strong that they will do anything to get back there. My favorite story from the book:
Regardless of why they do it, homers return home, and every racer has his own stories to tell. Orlando’s favorite involves his bird Marty, who always places well in competitions. One day she didn’t return home from a three-hundred-mile race. Orlando assumed a hawk had eaten her. But two weeks later, he found Marty sitting on his door stoop with a broken wing.
She had walked home.
I found the chapter on the city pigeon feeders to be the most crazywonderful and unforgettable chapter. If you appreciate Grey Gardens, you will love these stories. I still can’t stop thinking about Sally Bananas and her Banana Gang (which consisted of her dogs Charlie Bananas, Sandy-of-Oz, Jose Caliente and cats Subway Red, Whiskers, and Choo-Choo). She not only feeds the NYC pigeons forty to fifty pounds of seed a day, but has reportedly taken Charlie Bananas (the poodle) to the Waldorf-Astoria for drinks, and the whole Banana Gang on a cruise. She says the pigeons need her:
“They know me,” she says of her pigeons. “No matter how I’m dressed they know who I am. And they’re always so hungry, the poor darlings. We’ve taken away their habitat. Imagine if you had to hunt around for a seed to survive. Remember, every animal was once a mother’s child.”
Just call me Jackie Bananas — I think I qualify as an honorary member of the Banana Gang, don’t you think?!?!
In short, even if you have not been adopted by a pigeon, I think you would enjoy this book. Whist I learned so much about pigeons, I learned even more about human nature. How does a living thing valued since the dawn of civilization become a “rat with wings” in less than 50 years? Why do people want to control nature? Why do they want to save it at all costs? This book holds a few puzzle pieces to The Huge Puzzle of Life (2938429832038402938420983 pieces!) and I loved it. What a unique and sensitive soul Andrew Blechman has.