Pigeons in Conservation

By Elizabeth Tatham

The feral pigeon (Columba livia)is a streetwise bird descended from domesticated rock doves (also C. livia). Unlike its cliff-dwelling ancestor, its presence has permeated every urban precipice across the globe. It is no secret that feral pigeons are neither cute, ‘exotic’ or rare. But then again, since when was conservation only about these species? Taken out of a biological context, the word ‘conservation’ can be misleading. It brings to mind conservatives, dusty sofas and resistance to change at all costs. However, conservation in the biological sense should focus on the future, where ecosystems will go rather than where they have been. It isn’t about stopping evolution and change, instead ensures we take the most valuable (whatever that means) ecological baggage with us. While this is not an argument to protect the feral pigeon as you would a tiger or a peregrine falcon (more on that later), it inspires some thought. How might we use the pigeon’s unparalleled ubiquity to aid conservation?

Free newspaper, anyone?

This is probably unfamiliar territory when discussing pigeons. It may be hard to reconcile this view while visualising ‘rats with wings’ (thanks Woody). However, we do not need to reinvent the discipline to realise the usefulness of pigeons in conservation. In ‘On the Origin of Species’, Charles Darwin introduced his theory of evolution by natural selection not with Galapagos finches, but with pigeons. A bold statement of allegiance to the pigeon cause? Unlikely. There are myriad sound reasons to introduce a ground-breaking theory with such a familiar species. Perhaps it was their prevalence, their reliability, ease of capture/identification and minimal permit requirements. He used pigeons so we, the sceptical reader, would understand.

As a research subject, they might just provide one of the best sample sizes for studies of avian behaviour, population dynamics and ecology. Monitoring abundant species is important because any fluctuations may indicate environmental issues. Their feathers could be measured for the presence of heavy metals and different plumage morphs could be associated with climate. Moreover, pigeons have a strong desire to return to their birth site throughout their lives. Therefore, a long-term study of pigeons could be used to indicate responses to environmental changes on a micro scale. We could even use environmental insights from pigeon populations to inform the conservation of threatened species, especially those that call the urban metropolis their home.

Three little pigeons went to market

Can you imagine what the world would be without the pigeon? Urban fauna revolves around the pigeon. They are a staple in the diet of raptors including peregrine falcons, those enthralling dive-bombers and master pigeon slayers. Birdwatchers are somewhat obsessed with raptors. But (unless you want to poison them) these birds are relatively difficult to capture and study. Not the pigeon. It is a living anecdote on how to thrive in an anthropogenic world. Insights into their adaptations could help us conserve urban biodiversity for generations to come.

Saturday afternoon

Whether you want to poison or feed the pigeons in the park, connection with urban nature is important. Our direct experiences with nature dictate our reaction to conservation campaigns. If the public have little interest in nature, conservation will not happen. Bird charities such as the RSPB are well aware of this, if their highly publicised annual citizen bird census is anything to go by. Each year, thousands of people in the UK embrace their inner twitcher and dutifully count the birds that flit in and out of their little patch of green. Such activities create ecological stewards of us all, translating ‘nature’s voice’ to the masses.

The nature in question will likely include a pigeon, in parallel with the unrelenting tide of urbanisation. By adapting to our presence, it has created a commensal relationship with us. From living off our food waste, defecating on our architecture and drinking from our fountains, they are the quintessential cosmopolitan. And it is clear that the connection is multifaceted. Not only does observing pigeons connect people to nature, it is a reflection of how humans have shaped the selection pressures on biodiversity.

In formation

Conservation science is about finding ways to predict, map and prevent biodiversity loss. Why can this not include pigeon science? Pigeons are not proverbial ‘rats with wings’. Get your mind out of the gutter. Instead of focusing on how to reduce the detrimental impact of pigeons (a reflection on human habits), we should try to use their ubiquity to create the largest conservation data set in the world.

Hi there! I’m Elizabeth, a 2nd yr biologist at St Hilda’s. I believe that the best way to enjoy nature is to experience it in all dimensions- you can often find me reading, watching nature documentaries and growing funky stuff. It’s also what motivates me to one day protect biodiversity by mediating between research and people.

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