It's a story of sacrifice. A story of unsung heroism. It's the story of the humble pigeon — perhaps the only bird in the world at once so reviled and so revered.
The American Pigeon Museum and Library in Oklahoma City opened earlier this month to pay homage to, in its supporters' opinion, the misunderstood bird.
Ubiquitous in urban landscapes, the cooing, waddling, pooing birds developed a reputation. Annoying. Stupid. Filthy. Flying rats.
The true story of the pigeon, the one the museum hopes to put forth, is one of beautiful biodiversity, unmatched intelligence and a close history with mankind spanning thousands of years.
Here are 11 facts about the pigeon.
1. The pigeon species is remarkably diverse.
More than 300 breeds of pigeons exist today, including fancy pigeons, like the Frillback, a gray pigeon with curly feathers. Other fancy pigeons — which are bred and shown like purebred dogs — include the multicolored Cauchois and the Indian fantail, so named for its feather arrangement. Then there is the homing pigeon, also called a messenger or carrier pigeon. These birds are used in pigeon races. The white doves released at weddings are homing pigeons.
2. There is an ambitious effort to bring back an extinct breed of pigeon, the passenger pigeon.
The ill-fated passenger pigeon inhabited North America's forests, but European settlers hunted the birds and destroyed their habitat. By 1914, the passenger was extinct. Now, in an effort called “Revive & Restore,” evolutionary biologists, leading geneticists, ornithologists and passenger pigeon expert Ben Novak are extracting genetic code from species of the bird displayed in museums. The hope is the genetic code can be inscribed in the passenger's closest living relative, a breed called the band-tailed pigeon.
3. Pigeon is French for dove.
4. Pigeons have been used in warfare for thousands of years, including Cher Ami, a pigeon credited with saving almost 200 American soldiers in World War I.
It was late September 1918 during the massive Meuse-Argonne Offensive in northern France when 500 American soldiers found themselves trapped on a hill, surrounded by Germans. Making matters worse, American artillery, unaware of the lost battalion's location, rained shells on the group. Within a day, only about 200 Americans remained alive. Desperate, the group released two carrier pigeons in search of help. Both were shot down by Germans. A major then released Cher Ami, who flew 25 miles in 25 minutes to reach Allied lines. The bird arrived shot through the breast and missing an eye and a portion of a leg, from which the message dangled. Almost a million carrier pigeons served during the two world wars and are credited with saving thousands of lives. Cher Ami is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington.
5. Homing pigeons can fly hundreds of miles without stopping for McDonald's or taking gas station rest breaks.
Weighing just a pound, pigeons can fly 500 to 800 miles a day at more than 60 mph. In ancient times, homing pigeons could fly only about 100 miles a day. The increase in the modern bird's distance capabilities is due to selective breeding aimed at pigeon race glory, bragging rights and prize money.
6. It's still not entirely understood how homing pigeons find their way home from hundreds of miles away.
Science has yet to put a finger on how, exactly, the pigeon navigational system works. It's thought pigeons rely on directional aids, like the sun's position, and that they have an internal clock and compass to help them judge their precise location in relation to the sun. But, since a blindfolded pigeon can still find its way home, there is an additional navigation ingredient, widely thought to be the bird's ability to read the Earth's magnetic field. The heads of pigeons contain minute bits of magnetic iron ore. Visual and olfactory clues near the pigeons' homes are also thought to play a role.
7. There is a low pigeon divorce rate.
Pigeons mate for life and don't tend to stray from a partner unless the partner dies.
8. To the envy of breastfeeding women everywhere, both the male and female pigeon produce milk.
Produced from neck glands, infant pigeons look to both mom and dad for sustenance in the first few weeks of life.
9. Pigeons have been domesticated since the dawn of man.
Every major historical superpower has utilized the birds. A pigeon delivered the results of the first Olympics in 776 B.C., for example.
10. Pigeon racing is an international sport that counts among its enthusiasts the Queen of England.
Winning birds can fetch anywhere from thousands to millions of dollars in races. The best racers may sell for tens of thousands at auction.
11. Pigeons, whether living in luxury in the Queen of England's racing lofts or picking at pizza crust on an urban street, all descend from Columba livia, the rock dove.
Loosely translated, the Latin name means a “leaden-colored bird that bobs its head.” Other members of this family include the turtle dove, mourning dove and the wood pigeon.
Sources: “Pigeons: the fascinating saga of the world's most revered and reviled bird,” by Andrew D. Blechman; The American Pigeon Museum and Library; National Audubon Society; Revive & Restore; Smithsonian.
To learn more
The American Pigeon Museum and Library is at 2300 NE 63 in Oklahoma City. For more information, call 478-5155 or go to www.theamericanpigeonmuseum.org.