There are two topics so controversial that to avoid arguments you don’t bring them up in polite company. They are religion and politics. But if you are in Pittsburgh, you may want to add a third subject to that list: pigeons. People in Pittsburgh either love or hate pigeons. Unlike their gray feathers, there is no gray area when it comes to these birds. Some view them as part of the urban landscape while others regard them as flying rats.

How Did Pittsburgh Get Its Pigeons?

Although pigeons have been around for 5,000 years, they aren’t native to North America. It’s believed that they came here with the settlers somewhere in the 1600s, and we hate to break the news, but there is virtually no difference between a pigeon and a dove. In fact, some ornithologists have quipped that doves are just pigeons with good PR. There are many varieties of pigeons, and they along with doves belong to the Columbidae family of birds. Pigeon is a French word derived from the Latin pipio, meaning peeping chick, while dove derives from a Germanic word describing the birds “diving” flight.

What often occurs with domesticated livestock also happened with the pigeon. Some of the domesticated pigeons that were brought here as food stock eventually “flew the coop,” and these feral birds are the ones we find in cities around the world. These “rogue” birds depend on humans to survive, feeding on scraps and trash. Doves are generally regarded as wild birds found in woods. It is estimated that there are more than 400 million pigeons around the world with 1 million alone in New York City. Domestic pigeons can live to be 15 years old, but the pigeons living on the mean city streets generally live only 3-4 years.

Tastes Like Chicken

Essentially, the difference between pigeons and doves is one of semantics and perceptions. The Holy Spirit is symbolized by a dove, and doves are released at weddings. There is even a soap named after this more well regarded bird. Imagine how different things would be if the Holy Spirit were depicted as a pigeon, or pigeons were released at nuptials. And who would dare take a bath with pigeon soap?

Rock pigeons, which are the types of pigeons we find in city squares, were bred and domesticated in Europe for food and sport. They were raised like chickens for food. One of the earliest recorded recipes for pigeon comes from the ancient Mesopotamians and is called Pigeon with Herbs. “Squab” is still quite popular in Europe, referring to a young pigeon who has not yet taken flight. While you may now think that there’s a bountiful harvest of food in Market Square just waiting to be consumed, you may want to think again before getting out your cooking pot.

Rats with Wings

If pigeons are such a good food source, how did they get such a bad reputation? Because feral pigeons depend on the leavings of humans, pigeons congregate wherever there are large concentrations of people. While their ancestors made their nests on rocky cliffs, our city pigeons make their nests on building ledges and bridges. Pigeons aren’t fastidious; they don’t clean their nests of droppings but build right on top of the previous nest. They are notorious for leaving droppings everywhere. In addition to being foul smelling and creating an eyesore, their droppings also damage the facades of building and accelerate deterioration of structures.

But pigeons pose an even greater risk. Their excrement carries the pathogens of numerous diseases such as ornithosis, encephalitis, and toxoplasmosis. Their feathers carry fleas, lice, mites, and ticks.

Pigeons Meet Their Nemesis

Most children love to feed and chase pigeons in the park, but not everyone in Pittsburgh is so welcoming. In the 1980s, legendary KDKA newscaster Bill Burns ruffled feathers when he called for the killing of the pigeons in Market Square and then shipping them freeze-dried to Ethiopia to feed the starving. Irate callers flooded the phones at the station with complaints, but it’s not known if Burns ever apologized. Many sided with Burns and took great pleasure in his rantings.

Not All the Birds Are Bad

While city-dwelling pigeons may be carriers of disease and cause destruction, pigeons aren’t all bad. Pigeons have a remarkable innate homing instinct that enables them to navigate precisely over unfamiliar terrain. This ability has been studied by researchers, but they still don’t know how it works. During World Wars I and II, carrier pigeons were used as a means of communication. The birds flew messages rapidly between soldiers in battle and their command posts.

Because pigeons have a reputation for being such exceptional navigators, they have also been bred for sport. If falconry was for the nobles, then pigeon racing was the sport of the common man. When pigeons race, they are transported miles away and then are released and timed to see how long it takes to for them to get back to their base. Pigeons reach speeds of nearly 80 m.p.h. and can cover between 600-700 miles a day.
When immigrants arrived in Pittsburgh, many of them brought racing pigeons with them or purchased them here and set up lofts of racers. During the early part of the 20th Century, scads of backyards had pigeon coops. There were numerous racing clubs throughout the area, with interest peaking in the sport in the 1950s. Today, there are only a handful of clubs still racing. However, the area boasts the oldest pigeon supply store in the country, Foy’s Pigeon Supplies, in Beaver Falls, which has been in business since 1883.

Not Bird Brained

In addition to their remarkable navigational abilities, pigeons have keen eyesight. They can see more wavelengths of light, including ultraviolet, than humans can. In 2015, CNN ran a piece on how pigeons were being trained by researchers at the University of Iowa and the University of California-Davis Medical Center to detect cancer from a tissue sample. This is what their research entailed:

For the experiment, eight birds were placed in a high-tech box in which they were shown an image a scientist would see under the microscope, along with two boxes. The slides showed relatively straightforward images of cancer cells, and cells that are not cancerous, from actual breast tissue samples. The scientists trained the birds to peck at one box if the sample was malignant, the other if it was benign. The birds trained with 144 images at different magnifications and each got a pellet when it pecked at the box with the right answer.

Over 15 training days the birds were able to tell the difference, even with images they hadn’t seen before. The pigeons showed “remarkable” success, getting the right answer 85 percent of the time. The birds did better with color images than black and white, but when the birds did a little “flocksourcing” and worked together to identify the images, their accuracy rose significantly.

Dirty Bird or Pittsburgh Pal?

While it’s doubtful that you’ll find any pigeons on staff at UPMC anytime soon, it is wise to remember that like most things in life, they are neither all good nor all bad. Whether it be for food, sport, or medical applications, even the much-maligned pigeon has a purpose.