Pigeon

Pigeons are found the world over, with the exception of the polar regions.

“How can we keep pigeons out of our barn?” a friend recently asked.

Pigeons, she meant the common birds of farms and towns and cities I knew, the birds of parking lots and parks, the birds often called park pigeons. It’s also often called dove. When someone makes a distinction a larger one is a pigeon, a smaller one is a dove.

There are actually many species of pigeons and they’re found worldwide, everywhere except the polar regions. The American Ornithologists Union lists 20 species in the U.S. and Canada.

To me and to most Americans there are just two species in the U.S. and Canada, park pigeon and mourning dove. All pigeons and doves have small heads, for the size of their bodies, rather long pointed wings, tails that they can fan, short legs and small feet.

In color, most pigeons are a mixture of gray and black with some patches of iridescence. Many have a white rump. The mourning dove is mostly gray with black eyes and bill. But there is great variation, everything from colorful plumes to pure white birds.

Pigeons and doves both have a cooing call. The mourning dove is named for its call, that soft, sad, coo-oooo-ooo, heard so commonly in the summer, particularly on clear summer evenings.

The passenger pigeon, an American bird, was once probably the most numerous bird in the world. There are numerous accounts of flocks many miles long and several miles wide, flocks that darkened the sky and took days to pass. They traveled in huge concentrations and nested roosted and nested in equally large concentrations. In a nesting area, which covered several square mile, there were so many nests in many trees that the weight of nests, adult birds and squabs often broke off large limbs.

I have never seen a live passenger pigeon, and I never will. They were slaughtered by guns and nets, even by long poles, and their carcasses loaded in barrels and shipped to markets in many cities. By the middle of the 19th century they were becoming less and less common. The last known passenger pigeon was a caged bird that died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

My brother and I had pigeons once, when we were boys. We had read that pet pigeons, when freed, would return home. Homing pigeons they were called, and at one time, during World War I primarily, they were used to send messages from the front lines back to England, across the English Channel.

Thinking it would be fun to have birds, pigeons, that we could turn loose a few miles from our home and that would fly back to our home, we caught some pigeons in the town park, took them home and kept them in a cage we built and put on the roof of our garage.

We gave them quantities of food and water, and after several days, began turning them loose, first in our yard, then the neighbors’ yards, then farther and farther from their cage. When we turned them loose we left the cage open and at first they returned to their cage. As the days passed, however, fewer and fewer returned. Our homing pigeons became non-homers.

Responding to my friend, I told her, “Keep the barn closed. “It’s the only way I know to keep pigeons out, or any birds.”

“We can’t keep the barn closed,” my friend told me. “We have to keep it open so our horses can go in and out whenever they feel like it, to get shelter when it’s raining or snowing or to get out of the heat when its exceptionally hot or the cold when its windy and cold.”

“In that case,” I said, “learn to live with pigeons in your barn. Your horses won’t complain.”

Neil Case may be reached at neilcase1931@gmail.com.

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