Isolation has forced me to learn more about the pigeons outside my window

By Angela Heathcote 1 April 2020
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There’s more to rock doves than just being enormous pests.

I WAS CAUGHT IN the unfortunate predicament of having to move homes two weeks ago, just as the Coronavirus pandemic was ramping up. Now settled in, I’ve found different ways of occupying myself in my new house.

As an environment reporter, I’ve focused lately on writing about all the different ways Australians can continue to connect with the natural world while they’re asked to stay at home.

When I’d heard #BirdingatHome had taken off on Twitter, I was excited. Finally, a simple, gratifying way to connect with nature at home, as opposed to looking at nature through a computer screen or TV.

That was until I looked out my window and remembered I live in Sydenham, in the inner west of Sydney, where I see more planes in the sky than I do birds. My new house does offer me at least one interesting view though.

I live across the road from a small park and atop the powerlines live a flock of feral pigeons that “coo” throughout the entire day. A lonesome ibis sometimes strolls through their flock when they’re feeding on the ground, as do cockatoos, but mostly they’re on their own. 

My desk is positioned almost directly in front of my window so I see all their antics. The males alighting the females, the competition for food and the manic flapping of wings. It’s all pretty revolting to be honest. 

My view.

In 2018, I wrote a small article about rainforest pigeons and how they could change the way we urban-dwellers view these birds. Those pigeons have bright pink crowns and one of them actually looks like a tropical cocktail. 

Case in point. A superb fruit dove. (Image Credit: Houshmand Rabbani/Shutterstock)

For that article I interviewed ornithologist and author of Pigeons and Doves in Australia, Joseph Forshaw, who briefly mentioned that he’d studied one of the few wild populations of rock doves in the world. Rock dove is the common name for those feral pigeons you see everywhere. 

Upon seeing them outside my window, stuck in isolation, I remembered that this is a bird with quite a colourful history. 

“In May 1972, at a secluded locality on the west coast of Ireland, I encountered wild rock doves in what then was one of the few known European colonies free of interbreeding with domestic pigeons,” Joseph writes in his book.

“It was a typical May day for that part of County Kerry – overcast with light rain – and for me it was an incongruous spectacle to observe rows of ‘blue bar’ pigeons appearing quite dishevelled in the rain and perching amid cormorants and gulls on offshore rocks.”

Irish birders have staunchly protected the few flocks of rock doves that live along the coast. One flock living on the island of Inishbofin, just off the coast of Ireland, further north than County Kerry, consists of only 40 birds.

In 2014, when a new resident brought 30 of their domestic pigeons to the island, the Irish Times reported that they were quickly admonished, with one local birder calling it a “near-calamity.”

The article explained, “These are wild originals of all domestic pigeons, racing, fancy or feral. They once lived as close to Dublin as Howth, but in their pure form survive in Ireland now only on islands strung out from Donegal to Kerry. Some field guides to birds, indeed, forget the species exists at all.”

Picturing these birds, glossy green and iridescent purple, perching on the cliffs and in the dark, hidden sea caves, weathered by the smashing waves off the Irish Coast, certainly made me see them in a different light. But the birds I’m looking at in Sydney are far different from those ones.

There is evidence of rock doves being domesticated by ancient cultures as far back as 4000BC, hency why the wild populations are so rare. Their widespread release occurred when humans stopped eating them following the development of more sophisticated agricultural practices, while at the same time stray hobby birds inflated feral populations. 

This still doesn’t explain how they got to Australia, considering the continent is well out of its range. According to Joseph, we don’t actually know when the pigeons got here, but he says that the ‘fowl’ listed in the livestock bought on the First Fleet likely included pigeons. 

All the interbreeding has allowed for a number of different colour mixtures, also known as colour strains. There are eight primary colour strains in Australia, and I’ve occupied a lot of my time lately categorising my local flock because boredom does strange things to a person. 

The important colour strains to look out for are known as ‘blue’, which closely resembles the wild rock doves and ‘blue chequer’, which is similar to blue but with a darker appearance. And for those of you who get excited about seeing a white pigeon, those are known as ‘pied’. 

It is these different colour strains, along with the different body shapes and sizes achieved through the domestication of the rock dove, that made them important in shaping Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. An entire chapter is dedicated to them in The Origin of Species.

birding at home Related: Birding at home is officially a thing and there has never been a better time to become a birder

According to Joseph, the “most successful urban birds in the world”, are made for city life. The dark nooks and crannies of Sydney closely resemble the sea caves their ancestors so enjoy, minus the sea spray. 

Who could forget the pigeon that was stealing poppies for its nest at the Australian War Memorial? It seems like they can practically live anywhere. It’s just lucky they haven’t worked out how to remove the anti-nesting spikes like our sulphur-crested cockies have

Understanding the fascinating ancient lineage of the species has given me a sort of appreciation of the birds – despite the fact that they are pests.

In a biodiversity hotspot like Australia, pest species pose an enormous threat, particularly cats (regardless of their fascinating ancient lineage, I’d never become an advocate for cats). So is it okay to appreciate rock doves? 

Sydney university urban ecologist Dieter Hochuli, says “absolutely”. In previous interviews with Dieter he’d mentioned that those who live in cities and enjoy nature “take what they can get” when it comes to wildlife interactions. 

Related: Meet Australia’s rainforest pigeons

“Ecologists and environmentalists are often very conservative with respect to the things they value in nature,” Dieter says. “We’ve found that the broader community doesn’t always share that perspective, in that many introduced species can garner appreciation quite widely.

“Pigeons are adapted to roosting on cliffs and rock ledges. When humans started building structures to make cities, we entered a relationship with them that means their lives are inexorably linked to ours. A bit like black rats…we’re stuck with them now.”

In 2006, US urban ecologist Robert Dunn coined the term the ‘pigeon paradox’.

“We are faced with the potential extinction of thousands of species and with radical changes to many of the world’s ecosystems in the next 50–100 years. Paradoxically, conservation may increasingly depend on the ability of people in cities to maintain a connection with nature,” including interactions with non-native animals such as pigeons, hence ‘pigeon paradox’. 

Dieter explains that, as our cities are highly modified novel ecosystems, it’s hard to keep non-native animals out, and they’re too difficult to remove. 

“It’s in this context that I think it doesn’t hurt to admire or appreciate pigeons, common mynahs, foxes or lantana. They are extraordinary animals and plants and, like most of us, are just trying to get through life.

“But if these things are threatening processes to other things we value more, like native animals and plants, I see no problem with actively trying to remove them.”

According to Dieter, unlike cats, foxes and feral horses, there’s little evidence to suggest that rock doves outcompete native species for food. When sulphur-crested cockatoos invade my neighbourhood flock, the rock doves wisely choose to eat around the cockies.

There is some concern about the diseases they carry, so their numbers have to be kept in-check. But for now, there’s no harm in admiring these birds from your home isolation. They might be the only connection with nature we’ll have for a while.