I like to keep track of my pigeon friends, and lately, this guy — I call him Spec — has been hanging around my porch a lot.
(The usual disclaimer: I have absolutely no idea if Spec is male or female, as I am a dolt when it comes to sexing pigeons. The use of “he” is purely for convenience sake.)
His color makes him very distinctive. In a crowd of pigeons — even the oddball pigeons who hang around my yard — Spec stands out.
It seems that maybe Spec stands out to the other pigeons too. I have frequently seen him being bullied or chased off the rail. He is frequently the last to eat, and when he does show up to eat, he is usually alone. I’ve taken to putting food in other locations, or leaving some of the feed I spill on the steps when filling the feeders, so that Spec can eat there if the others chase him off the rail. Obviously, I have a weak spot for misfits — it was my “special needs” pigeon Timmy who got me interested in the local group to begin with. So Spec has caught my attention.
I have a theory — based entirely on casual, anecdotal observation — that pigeons sometimes “pick on” the oddly colored members of their group. I’ve seen it around town, and now I’ve been watching it with Spec. I don’t have nearly enough data to confirm this hypothesis or even to strongly support it — it is entirely possible that the instances I’ve witnessed were coincidence. That the “bullying” of the birds in question was a natural part of pigeon life, having to do with status or rank or something else entirely, and that their coloration was irrelevant. But I’ve seen it enough times to make me wonder.
The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has a project called Pigeon Watch, which allows amateur ornithologists -- bird watchers, in other words -- to contribute data to the study of these birds. City pigeons are unique in many ways. To begin with, they are feral birds -- not exactly wild, because they are all the descendents of domesticated birds. As I've said before, pigeons were one of the first animals domesticated by humans -- only dogs and maybe horses have been around longer. They were using domesticated homing pigeons to send messages about floods up and down the Nile many thousands of years ago. And according to reports, there were already feral pigeons living in the streets of ancient Rome.
One of the main questions the Pigeon Watch project seeks to answer has to do with the different color patterns -- or Morphs -- among feral pigeons. Pigeon breeders identify many different Morphs -- some say as many as 28 -- but the Pigeon Watch has simplified that, for their purposes -- into seven. The basic pattern is called "Blue Bar". As the Pigeon Watch site describes it: "Blue-bars generally have a dark head, neck, and chest with some iridescence; a light-gray breast and belly; a black band at the end of the tail; and two black stripes or bars on each wing." This is by far the most common color pattern among pigeons, and is the color of the original wild pigeons of Europe and Asia from which feral pigeons are descended. (And not so different, except for the wing stripes from the native Band-Tailed Pigeons in the Pacific Northwest.)
But despite the fact that feral pigeons have been living in our urban environments for hundreds of years (at least 400 years in North America, and much longer in other parts of the world) many different color morphs still survive. In wild species, there is usually a culling process that takes place -- those individuals who stand out too much are more likely to be targeted by predators -- which might be one basis for an instinctive fear of different individuals, if it really does exist -- the fear that they attract dangerous attention. In the city, pigeons don't have a lot of natural predators -- there are Hawks around, like the Cooper's Hawk who frequents my neighborhood, and who took a pigeon right off my porch a few months ago -- but urban pigeons are much more protected than their wild cousins. Also, food is plentiful, so dominant individuals and groups can't monopolize the supply like they might in the wild. Both of these factors could lead to greater diversity.
The Pigeon Watch is interested in how these color patterns effect breeding. Are birds more likely to breed within their Morphs, thus ensuring that the patterns are passed down and survive. Are a certain percentage of birds naturally attracted to individuals of other Morphs? Pigeon Watch allows all of us to make observations and submit that information to the study, to help solve these questions.
Along with the questions about mating, though, I'd be interested in knowing about "bullying". Are certain Morphs naturally dominant? Is it simply a matter of numerical superiority? Dominance of individual birds?
In my own yard, I know that the bird who most frequently seems to bully Spec is a very large individual who fits into the Morph called "Spread" -- birds who are almost entirely dark grey or black. This bird seems very aggressive and frequently attempts to bully other birds, including Timmy and his partner. (Again, I have no idea of the genders; I'm just using the convenient pronouns). However, Timmy and Friend usually combine to chase him off. Timmy and his friend are both “Checkers” under the Pigeon Watch classification, because they have a checkerboard pattern on their wings. So none of this really fits the pattern of the dominant – most common – morph excluding others.
Something interesting has happened in the last few months, though. Since I’ve been feeding Spec, he seems to have grown more confident. When the “pigeon smack downs” happen lately, Spec is more likely to stand his ground, and often succeeds in holding his position. (Although, not with the largest bully.) Is it because he feels this place is his now? Because he’s better fed? Or perhaps he was young and is growing into his adult confidence? I don’t know. But I’ll keep watching, and reporting what I see to Pigeon Watch, and in this blog.
I’d be interested in hearing your observations too.