Two Names for One Bird

According to the dictionary, a dove is a gentle person, or one who prefers peace to war or conflict. It is a term of endearment and care, used to express a certain delicacy, as in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Great Chinese Dragon”, with his “womankind milkwhite and dove-breasted”. We love doves. Even Urban Dictionary, whose definitions of words are often crass at best, describes the dove as “a white bird that coos a lot”. Mothers coo to their infants and lovers coo to each other; again, this is a kind and gentle term for what we have decided is the most delicate of birds. Let us look at this again. The first entry in the dictionary for a dove is “Any of various widely distributed birds of the family Columbidae, which includes the pigeons, having a small head and a characteristic cooing call.”  Suddenly, there is a level of distaste because one bird was mentioned: the pigeon. In general, we do not like pigeons. People can be “pigeon-chested”, meaning they have a narrow, protruding chest, or pigeon-toed, meaning their feet and toes point inwards. Neither of these is considered a positive trait and yet, both are inexplicably tied to a single bird. We call pigeons “gutter birds” among other unsavory names, but doves are labeled the “Bird of Peace”. Why this unfair distinction?

Part of it, certainly, has to do with prevalence. If you live in a city, chances are that not a day goes by in which you do not see a pigeon, or even several pigeons. Because their natural habitat consists of steep cliff faces with small ledges for nesting, our cities are a great boon to them. The general human populace, however, is not so kindly disposed to these feral interlopers. The 1980 film Stardust Memories immortalized the term “rats with wings,” which helped cement our perception of these birds as akin to rats, which are historically a serious disease vector.

A second part that seems to cast pigeons in such a negative light is their size. There are many, many types of birds that share our world, but only a select few are considered urban invaders. Pigeons, crows, and seagulls are often targeted because of their size and, therefore, visibility as a nuisance. A flock of sparrows or finches is not nearly as conspicuous as the sky-darkening mass of these larger birds in flight.

Perhaps, however, we should reserve judgment. After all, we are at fault for their massive spread across the world. For years, pigeons were a reliable source of protein, bred and kept in dovecotes all over Europe. Though their lack of mass-production viability caused them to fall out of favor as a meat source, pigeons remain a delicacy in some cuisines. Even though they are not a popular meat today, our hunger for squab years ago brought these birds to the four corners of the world, so maybe we should not begrudge them their success.

Written by Briana Konigsberg

Pigeon. Barbara Allen. Reaktion Books, 2009.
Superdove. Courtney Humphries. HarperCollins, 2009.