Though they’re often described as “rats with wings” (a phrase popularized by the movie Stardust Memories), pigeons are actually pretty cool. From homing instincts to misleading rump feathers, here are 8 things you might not know about these avian adventurers.
1. THEY MIGHT BE THE FIRST DOMESTICATED BIRD.
The common city pigeon (Columba livia), also known as the rock pigeon, might be the first bird humankind ever domesticated. You can see them in art dating back as far as 4500 BCE in modern Iraq, and they’ve been a valuable source of food for thousands of years.
2.THEY UNDERSTAND SPACE AND TIME.
In a 2017 Current Biology study, researchers showed captive pigeons a series of digital lines on a computer screen for either two or eight seconds. Some lines were short, measuring about 2.3 inches across; others were four times longer. The pigeons were trained to evaluate either the length of the line or how long it was displayed. They found that the more time a line was displayed, the longer in length the pigeon judged it to be. The reverse was true too: If the pigeons encountered a longer line, they thought it existed in time for a greater duration. Pigeons, the scientists concluded, understand the concepts of both time and space; the researchers noted “similar results have been found with humans and other primates.”
It’s thought that humans process those concepts with a brain region called the parietal cortex; pigeon brains lack that cortex, so they must have a different way of judging space and time.
3. THEY CAN FIND THEIR WAY BACK TO THE NEST FROM 1300 MILES AWAY.
The birds can do this even if they’ve been transported in isolation—with no visual, olfactory, or magnetic clues—while scientists rotate their cages so they don’t know what direction they’re traveling in. How they do this is a mystery, but people have been exploiting the pigeon’s navigational skills since at least 3000 BCE, when ancient peoples would set caged pigeons free and follow them to nearby land.
Their navigational skills also make pigeons great long-distance messengers. Sports fans in ancient Greece are said to have used trained pigeons to carry the results of the Ancient Olympics. Further east, Genghis Khan stayed in touch with his allies and enemies alike through a pigeon-based postal network.
4. THEY SAVED THOUSANDS OF HUMAN LIVES DURING WORLD WARS I AND II.
Pigeons’ homing talents continued to shape history during the 20th century. In both World Wars, rival nations had huge flocks of pigeon messengers. (America alone had 200,000 at its disposal in WWII.) By delivering critical updates, the avians saved thousands of human lives. One racing bird named Cher Ami completed a mission that led to the rescue of 194 stranded U.S. soldiers on October 4, 1918.
5. AT ONE POINT, MORE THAN ONE-QUARTER OF ALL THE BIRDS LIVING IN THE U.S. MAY HAVE BEEN PASSENGER PIGEONS.
Wild/feral rock pigeons reside in all 50 states, which makes it easy to forget that they’re invasive birds. Originally native to Eurasia and northern Africa, the species was (most likely) introduced to North America by French settlers in 1606. At the time, a different kind of columbiform—this one indigenous—was already thriving there: the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). As many as 5 billion of them were living in America when England, Spain, and France first started colonizing, and they may have once represented anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of the total U.S. bird population. But by the early 20th century, they had become a rare sight, thanks to overhunting, habitat loss, and a possible genetic diversity issue. The last known passenger pigeon—a captive female named Martha—died on September 1, 1914.
6. THEY’RE REALLY GOOD AT MULTITASKING.
According to one study, they’re more efficient multitaskers than people are. Scientists at Ruhr-Universitat Bochum put together a test group of 15 humans and 12 pigeons and trained all of them to complete two simple jobs (like pressing a keyboard once a light bulb came on). They were also put in situations wherein they’d need to stop working on one job and switch over to another. In some trials, the participants had to make the change immediately. During these test runs, humans and pigeons switched between jobs at the same speed.
7. PIGEONS PRODUCE FAKE “MILK.”
Only mammals produce genuine milk, but pigeons and doves (along with some other species of birds) feed their young with something similar—a whitish liquid filled with nutrients, fats, antioxidants, and healthy proteins called “crop milk.” Both male and female pigeons create the milk in the crop, a section of the esophagus designed to store food temporarily. As is the case with mammal milk, the creation of crop milk is regulated by the hormone prolactin. Newly-hatched pigeons drink crop milk until they’re weaned off it after four weeks or so.
8. ONE STUDY SUGGESTS THAT, GIVEN THE RIGHT CONDITIONS, THEY’RE AS GOOD AT IDENTIFYING CANCER AS DOCTORS.
We’ve already established that pigeons are excellent at differentiating between artists and words, but a 2015 study revealed they can also distinguish between malignant and benign growths in the right conditions. Researchers at University of California Davis Medical Center put 16 pigeons in a room with magnified biopsies of potential breast cancers. If the pigeons correctly identified them as either benign or malignant, they got a treat, According to Scientific American.
“Once trained, the pigeons’ average diagnostic accuracy reached an impressive 85 percent. But when a “flock sourcing” approach was taken, in which the most common answer among all subjects was used, group accuracy climbed to a staggering 99 percent, or what would be expected from a pathologist. The pigeons were also able to apply their knowledge to novel images, showing the findings weren’t simply a result of rote memorization.”