In the course of the history of mankind the most different kinds of people have appeared, flourished and then vanished. Innumerable religions and philosophical theories have been thought up in the heads of people and later been forgotten. Only very few things have remained, either as ideas or as material objects. One that has is the Pigeon. It meets us with the first evidence of the presence of mankind as the holy creature of the gods. It accompanies the earliest people to practice agriculture over 10'000 years ago to all the then known parts of the world, as a domestic animal and as a symbol. It was involved both in the polytheistic religions of antiquity and in Judaism and Christendom and in many other religions.
Even in our present age the Pigeon has survived as the symbol of Peace and is a noticeable spiritual as well as physical presence. Inseparably linked with its symbolical significance is its actuality as both a domestic and a wild creature. The Pigeon has survived through time, both as a biological organism and as an idea. It multiplies, conquers the towns and adapts itself ever better to life in them. With this adaptation in the town the Feral Pigeon at the same time becomes a new creature.
This conquering journey of the Pigeon from its first meeting with people to its conquering of our large cities will be the theme of this book.
How the Pigeon came to mankind
As to the exact point in time and the reasons for the first domestication of the Rock Pigeon one can only conjecture. In view of its wide distribution the Rock Pigeon might have been domesticated at different times and in different places. In such case in each such different domestication centre the local subspecies of the Rock Pigeon would have been domesticated. In Europe this was the subspecies Columba livia livia, in Egypt Columba livia schimperi and in India Columba livia intermedia (figs 2 and 199).
As a proof of this Darwin first instanced that nearly all (presumably if blue/black in colour) the Domestic Pigeons in northern Europe had a white lower back like the European Rock Pigeon while nearly all Domestic Pigeons from India have a grey lower back like that of Columba livia intermedia.
Species of pigeons that inhabit rocky cliffs tend in general to take to living alongside man. In Tibet and Mongolia, the Eastern Rock Pigeon, Columba rupestris lives and breeds on or inside buildings. The same behaviour can be seen in the White-collared Pigeon, Columba albitorques, in Addis Abeba and the Speckled Pigeon, Columba guinea, in many parts of Africa.
For the domestication of the Rock Pigeon, several different hypotheses are discussed at the present day.
a) The Synanthropy Hypothesis suggests that already in Neolithic times, when arable farming began in the 8th century B.C. the Rock Pigeon on its own initiative attached itself to man. It fed in the man-made grain fields and used the buildings of the settlements as a substitute for its breeding cliffs.
With the spread of arable farming outside «the Fertile Crescent» the Rock Pigeon was able to extend its range and inhabit new living space. Wherever people use stone as their most important building material, there stand substitute cliffsides. In sovereign indifference to our human intentions, also other cliff-dwelling birds (Swifts, Swallows, Jackdaws) use these new possibilities that stonewalls offer as nest sites.
Bechstein (in 1805) wrote of Pigeons: «As these birds feed largely on grain so in Europe they probably followed the spread of the plough culture from south to north in Europe, like the House Sparrow, and as they found no more cliff cavities they established themselves in castles, churches and towers and the cavities erected for them in courtyards, in which, anyway, they found their food in snowy weather and in this way became domesticated.»
b) The Domestication Hypothesis assumes that the early people gathered nestling Pigeons from Rock Pigeon breeding places for food. If then living squabs were taken back to the settlements they could have been brought up within human families. The artificial rearing of Pigeons is very simple as the still blind nestlings readily push their bills between a person's lips. By this mouth-to-bill feeding nestling Pigeons can be reared without difficulty. When such birds were fledged and independent, they settled down and bred freely among people. A possibly early bit of evidence for this comes from excavations in the Hayonim cave in West Gallilee, in Israel. In Neolithic times this was inhabited from people of the Natufien-culture. In various excavations also bones of Rock Pigeons were found. These remains were identical with the corresponding bones of Rock Pigeons now found on the Mediterranean coast of Israel. The Rock Pigeon and these early humans were using the same cliff formations (literally: "abiotic structures") and belonged to the fauna of that biotope (literally: "to the same biocenosis"). Perhaps man already had begun before about 12'000 years to gather the eggs and young of these synanthropic Rock Pigeons and by their own presence in the caves to protect them from other enemies. Perhaps these early people had already begun to make simple structural alterations to provide more nest sites for the Pigeons.
c) A third possibility for the domestication of the Rock Pigeon is the Temple Hypothesis (fig. 14). The first temples in the Mediterranean region were often built on exposed positions directly on the seacoast, on dangerous high places and mountains. These places were the natural habitat of Rock Pigeons. On one such place stood, for example, the sanctuary of Aphrodite-Venus on the Eryx-mountain in Sicily.
A few pairs of Rock Pigeons settled in these holy places and fed in part on the votive offerings such as grain and bread. Because of this these Pigeons were associated with the relevant Divinity and honoured and protected.
Unfortunately we cannot now be sure which of these theories is correct. All three possibilities for the domestication of the Rock Pigeon appear likely and all probably occurred in actuality in different places at different times.
Why the Pigeon?
Modern studies of animal behaviour have brought about a better understanding of animals. The starting point for every cultural interpretation of the biology and the behaviour of the Pigeon was observation of the living birds. People then sought to clarify and interpret what they saw in terms of their own experience and their own limited perceptions of the world, which often led to errors. Only so can one understand the often almost absurd mistakes that people made about their fellow-beings. Birds have many peculiarities that make people feel especially sympathetic towards them. According to Koenig, birds are pleasingly remarkable for their liveliness, their calls and their singing. Above all their courtship behaviour, their breeding and their rearing of their young can be easily observed and resemble the corresponding behaviour of people. In comparison with mammals that, because they find their way about largely by smell, often spread about penetrating smells, which are sometimes very unpleasant to us, birds are practically scent-less. Bird dung, in addition is, compared with mammal dung, relatively dry which is more convenient for people when birds are kept. In contrary to the largely nocturnal mammals birds are, with a few exceptions, diurnal. Because of their ability to fly, birds as compared with mammals, allow closer approach by humans and are thus easier to observe. Marshall attributed the high regard in which birds tend to be held by people as follows:«Birds are unquestionably the class of animals most beloved by both primitive and civilised peoples […] Birds are harmless, to people hardly ever are they dangerous creatures […] They are, further, mostly also fine creatures […] Their flight is the poetry of movement […] How our wider sympathies are touched by the family life of the birds! Most species live in monogamy, and the members of a pair keep faithfully together. Love makes the handless little creatures accomplished nest builders and where in the animal world will we find a more devoted attachment of parents to their own, yes, and even to stranger's young, so beautiful and so touching as in birds? Thus it is not to be wondered at that birds bring out all the best feelings and abilities that slumber in the human breast, the impulse to poetry and inner feelings and attachments more than any other animals. No other [class of animals] lives in the same way in both folk and classical poetry as the birds.» (Marshall, 1898).
Not all Pigeons are the same
The Dovecote Pigeon
The Rock Pigeon became in the course of its domestication a utility animal. An originally loose connection between it and people led to an extensive form of domestic animal-keeping from which the Dovecote Pigeon developed. People provided water and nesting places from which they kept away predators such as birds of prey and small predatory mammals. The first arable fields of the early settled peoples lay between large areas of fallow or unploughed land that provided additional food for the semi-free ranging Dovecote Pigeons in the form of seeds of wild plants. In this symbiosis-like form of Pigeon-keeping, people used the young Pigeons for food and the Pigeon dung as a useful fertiliser. The original numbers-regulating factors such as birds of prey and seasonal food shortages were at this period likely to have been still the most important selective processes. The Dovecote Pigeon was only changed to a small degree by the interference of mankind. Principally used as food, pairs that produced large numbers of young and particularly beautiful or imposing individuals would have been selected as breeding stock.
The Domestic Pigeon
The breeds which belong with the truly Domestic Pigeon are much more highly domesticated than the Dovecote Pigeon and have developed marked differences in body structure, physiology and behaviour. Man fitted the Pigeon to his own various needs. Domestication besides changing morphology and selectively breeding for special behavioural aspects, above all had one aim: The greatest possible number of young to produce in the smallest possible space. To achieve this necessitated on the one hand successful breeding ability must be heightened and at the same time territorial aggression (defence of the largest possible breeding territory) must be lessened. By these means a large number of Pigeons could be kept in a small space. The natural terrified fear of man of the Rock Pigeon had to be reduced. Therefore as with many other domestic animals Pigeons were primarily selected for tameness and fertility. Modern table Pigeons can rear up to 22 young per year, whereas a pair of wild Rock Pigeons rear on average 4 young per year. The increase in fertility of the Domestic Pigeon has, through man’s artificial selection, produced a creature with the following specific attributes:
Breeding all year round: Rock Pigeons do not normally breed during cold times of the year.
Overlapping broods: As a rule the Pigeon’s clutch consists of 2 eggs. Therefore to adapt the breeding rate to particularly favourable environmental conditions cannot be done by increasing the number of eggs in a clutch, but is achieved by shortening the time between the laying of clutches of eggs so that for some days long both newly hatched eggs and young are being cared for.
Reaching breeding age early: Rock Pigeons are hardly able to breed in their first year. Under man’s care early maturing birds can rear more young and thereby increase in populations of Dovecote Pigeons. Hen Pigeons can lay eggs which hatch successfully when they are only 4.5 months old, cock Pigeons have viable sperm at 5.5 months old.
In addition come further biological factors such as a high fertility rate of eggs and sperm, a hormonal sensitivity even in short daylight periods or a complete emancipation of the hormonal system from being controlled by the length of daylight, efficient incubation and breeding behaviour and efficient glands for the production of crop-milk; Ability to continue breeding while moulting and further as yet unknown qualities. For the Rock Pigeon in its natural habitat a similar excessive productivity, such as most Domestic Pigeons show, would be fatal. Through increased investment in the offspring fat reserves, which are necessary to survive in periods of food shortage, would be lost. The breeding would also thereby produce a great number of young for which sufficient food and breeding sites would not be available, and would thereby cause sharper competition for these resources. A competing population with a lower mortality rate and a rate of reproduction adapted to the available resources would be more successful and in a position to out-compete Pigeons with such a strategy.