Despite being called "rats with wings," there are reasons why pigeons are awesome and smarter than most of us realize.
Pigeons are one of the first birds to be adapted to domesticity by man and have lived alongside us for centuries. The pigeons we see every day are not the birds that were native to North America (those were made extinct long ago due to hunting practices). Those we see in our parks or on ledges today are descendants of pigeons brought to America from Europe in the 1600s that used to roost on sea cliffs. Over time, however, their intellect, speed, and general acumen helped them to survive in cities everywhere as they expanded - and, oh, how they thrive!
The pigeon we know today is one high functioning bird. Space and time? They understand it. Reading? It's on their radar. Saving lives? Been there, done that. Delivering imperative war time messages? They have you covered. The pigeon - despite being much maligned over the centuries - is more than just a dirty pest. Instead of shooing them away next time you see them, give them the respect they deserve - and a little bit of feed wouldn't hurt, either.
Be nice to your feathered friends - they'll no doubt remember you. Yes, pigeons can recognize faces. In 2011, the University of Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense performed a study on the birds using two similar looking scientists in different colored clothing. One was nice and fed them while the other shooed them away. The next time the researchers entered the park and confronted the birds, they neither fed them or chased them. In fact, they did nothing - but the birds remembered the person who fed them and gravitated toward him. They even swapped lab coats, and the birds were still able to tell who was who.
Like little, flying quantum physicists, birds are able to conceptualize time and space but, much like Albert Einstein, they do not process the two separately.
Researchers tested the birds with non-moving horizontal lines on a computer screen. The birds had to discern not only the length of the lines, but how long they were visible. If they got their answers right, they were rewarded with food.
The birds knocked it out of the ballpark — they were able to figure out which lines were not only longer in length, but longer in visibility, even when the line and duration lengths got more intense.
Once numbered in the billions, the passenger pigeon flew over North America darkening the skies for hours at a time as they traveled from place to place. But by the early 1900s they had all disappeared. But why?
It seems they were easy targets for hunters. Too easy. Gemma Murray, a researcher from the University of California, Santa Cruz, said the birds were used to living together en masse, which is also essentially what killed them.
"It's known that they collaborated in finding food, and they also collaborated in rearing young," Murray says. "And so these sorts of behaviors are the sorts of things which might work really well when your population size is large and dense. But when hunting had a big impact on their population, and their numbers went down hugely in the 19th century, maybe those things didn't work anymore."
Murray added we were too overzealous in hunting. "Passenger pigeon extinction was avoidable. It was entirely our fault. We over-hunted and over-exploited this amazing animal, and we should try to be careful about what we're doing today."
Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, lived at the Cincinnati Zoo until her death in 1914. Hre remains are now housed at the Smithsonian.
A Black Check cock carrier pigeon, Cher Ami is likely the most famous bird to have helped with the war effort.
While in France during WWI, the U.S. Army Signal Corps used the birds to deliver messages to other troops stationed in the area. Cher delivered 12 critical message to the American sector in Verdun and on his last mission was shot by the enemy. He made it back to his loft with a message attached to the wounded leg that was crucial in saving almost 200 troops in battle.
Cher was sent back to the U.S., where he died on June 13, 1919 as a result of his wounds. He was given several awards for his service including the French Croix de Guerre and a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Pigeon Fanciers. Cher Ami was also inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931.