Like many plentiful things the urban pigeon is easily taken for granted. It wasn’t always urban of course. Its real name is Rock Dove, so called because in nature it nests on rocky cliffs. In town it pretends that the edges of buildings are cliffs, which they also feel like to many an urban human scurrying along the grey canyons between them.
Brick walls don’t seem like attractive substitutes for craggy mountains, but pigeons it seems can adapt to anything as long as they have each other. They have secrets known only to themselves. Why for instance do they choose the gathering places they do? Downtown they find matter to peck up under the feet of rushing crowds, and at their other town square, the parking lot of the Oak Bay Marina, both picnickers and gulls let crumbs fall from above. But you don’t see pigeons on Esquimalt Road, which is equally littered. And why do they congregate, whispering among themselves, along hydro wires on a particular block of Carnarvon Street off Foul Bay Road? They’re not present in the block to the north or the block to the south.
And what are they whispering about? Pigeon trivia, we presume. “Trivia” is the gossip exchanged at places where roads meet (tri-via: three ways), and it seems there are pathways in the air too which we earth-bound creatures know nothing of. Local pigeons have learned where to congregate to hear the latest, going where their parents have always gone. “Pigeon” comes from the Old French “pijon”, from the Latin verb for “cheep”. Although they happily trill, pigeons aren’t known for the amazing accomplishment of chickadees, which scientists say can make their brains actually grow in the fall, i.e. make new neuronal connections as they make up new songs.
A new theory about why the passenger pigeon went extinct at a time when it was still breeding, suggests that it happened because the total number of breeders couldn’t sustain a necessary minimum size of flock. There had to be a mass, if there were to be new individuals. Population can only drop so far for a flocking bird.
So town pigeons have adapted to urban blight (concrete) and flock together to keep their numbers up. They break up the blight for us too if we really look at their pleasing colours. They’re not flashy but one wants to touch the mauves and greens glinting against soft grey feathers that contrast strikingly with the hard grey pavement the birds walk on. They look amazingly immaculate when we consider the grime and pollution they live with.
At night, after enduring the daily cacophony of traffic they coo softly, lulling each other to sleep. They breed year round so there are always nestlings to sooth, to teach pigeon language to. They must have an eye open even as they drowse, for hawks and owls prey on them. These raptors however haven’t adapted as well to urban living and most (although not all) have followed the wilderness as it withdraws ever further from town. That leaves the pigeons to us, and although some people call them a nuisance they display a pleasing self-possessed dignity in cities, which to most species are increasingly inhospitable.
Barbara Julien is a local writer and nature enthusiast who writes monthly about the various species making their home in Oak Bay.