How Pigeons Went From Prized Prey To Metropolitan Menace

There are three things in this life that I don’t want anywhere near me: Pigeons. Seagulls. And…other birds. Living in a city, pigeons are often the most egregious of the bunch. Everyone says that they’re vectors for disease, they’re aggressive, and perhaps worst of all, they’re everywhere. If no one really likes them and they’re such a pest—why are there pigeons everywhere?


Although I am what many would call a “hater” when it comes to these strange grey flying terrors, this sentiment isn’t shared by everyone. There are many who love pigeons, who feed pigeons, who breed pigeons, and who keep them as pets. Some of these people would claim that a pigeon isn’t any functionally different than a dove, to which I would reply, “I don’t want anything to do with doves either.”

The Purpose Of Pigeons

Well, in the history of human/bird interaction, this makes me a very small minority. People really only began to see pigeons as pests within the last 100 years or so. For centuries before that, people bred pigeons and domesticated them for a variety of reasons. One of the major factors was, of course, their well-known homing instinct, which means that they were useful for carrying messages across long distances. The history of this stretches all the way back to at least Ancient Egypt. But transmitting messages is just one purpose that pigeons have served.

Before city pigeons became a mean grey metropolitan menace, there was squab, AKA fledgling pigeon meat. Squab was once one of the most consumed sources of protein in the US, if you can believe it. It was easy enough. There were actually so many wild pigeons that hunting them or taking young ones out of the nest was extremely easy for anyone who needed an easy meal. But then, over the years, overhunting and deforestation took their toll and the population dropped severely.

Bird Vs. Bird

At the same time, a small set of businessmen became intent on making another type of poultry the next big thing—and changed the American diet forever as a result. Before 1916, most chickens were used solely for the eggs, but that year, scientists started to work to breed a chicken that would grow quickly, big, and provide an easy and cheap source of protein. Obviously, their gambit worked—and it pushed squab out of the American diet entirely.

Part of the reason that enterprising squab breeders couldn’t keep up with the chicken industry has to do with the nature of the bird. Compared to baby chicks, squabs are relatively helpless, grow slowly, and need one or both of their parents to feed them, which disrupts any potential factory farming process. There was simply no way that, as the population grew, that the production of squab could keep up—either naturally, or via breeders.

From The Plate To The Sky

Still, it was pigeon breeders (be it for money or simply as a hobby) who we have to thank for the proliferation of pigeons in cities—as well as the urban landscape itself. The popularity of pigeon-breeding meant that people were importing them in droves in the early 20th century. Eventually, many would inevitably escape captivity, breed, and fly free. And while they weren’t the only birds that were accomplishing this feat, they were the most adept to thrive. After all, there’s a reason that you don’t see budgies and parakeets crowding the balconies of high rises and the ledges of office buildings.

The ancestors of city pigeons came from the coasts of North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea, full of rocky ledges and cliffs. They evolved to sit, stand, and nest comfortably in these environments, passing that trait down to the pigeons we see every day, who seem more apt to perch on a bike rack than a tree branch.

Another reason why they thrive where they do is their diet. Their constitutions aren’t as delicate as those birds that rely solely on seeds and berries. Pigeons are veritable garbage machines. While, as mentioned earlier, their offspring are quite feeble, adult pigeons can eat basically anything and then feed their kids without incident or harm, making them much more quick to multiply in an urban environment.

We’re All Just Pigeons Looking For A Ledge

There’s a perfect storm of elements that made pigeons so prolific in cities, from their genetic makeup to the average human diet. While I still pray that I never have to touch one (I am convinced that the trauma would make me spontaneously pass away), I have the appreciate the sheer tenacity of a city pigeon. They thrive on garbage and make their homes in a completely inhospitable environment where a bunch of people don’t like them—which is, I think, something most city dwellers can relate to.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

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