The Pigeon in History

By Dr Jean Hansell

No other bird has had such close links with man, nor been useful to him in so many ways. Over the centuries the pigeon has served him as symbol, sacrifice, source of food and, not least, as a messenger, both sacred and secular. It has also played a minor role as bait and decoy in the ancient sport of falconry and was massacred by the hundred in the English pigeon-shooting matches of the 19th century. Today, the gentler pursuits of pigeon fancying and racing both have a large following in many parts of the world.

It cannot be said that the pigeon is a very popular bird nowadays. In the cities of the world, where most of them now live, they are much in the public eye but are generally regarded as a civic nuisance. Today, people are divided into those who love the creatures and those who detest them. Sadly, this current prejudice overlooks many aspects of the bird’s long history and fails to acknowledge the great debt owed to it in the past; it is not just any other bird.

Urban Flock of Feral Pigeons

Urban Flock of
Feral Pigeons

The complete story of this remarkable bird has been much obscured by the age-long confusion between the terms ‘pigeon’ and ‘dove’, both of which are still used loosely and are interchangeable today. In general, ‘dove’ is traditionally reserved for use in the aesthetic contexts of religion, literature and art, and ‘pigeon’ for much more mundane matters, such as sport, fancy breeds and culinary use. It is not immediately obvious that both the Old Testament dove of Noah and the New Testament dove of the Holy Spirit are the ancestors of the dovecote birds of the past and today’s multitude of urban pigeons. Nor does there seem to be an obvious resemblance between the white dove of peace and the pigeon in a pie, but all these birds are directly descended from the blue rock pigeon (Columba Livia), which is found in the wild everywhere in the world except at the polar icecaps. The bird makes its natural home in the rocky ledges and niches of coastal and inland cliffs, but it has an inborn affinity with man and a tendency to nest in and around his dwellings to the extent that in the first place it probably domesticated itself and man may have done no more than meet its advances halfway.

Rock Doves in Natural Habitat

Rock Doves in
Natural Habitat

Accounts of the affinity between man and pigeon have been recorded since earliest times; even today intriguing examples of the bird’s tameness and adaptability to its domestic life are sometimes highlighted. One of the earliest tame pigeons belonged to the Greek poet Anacreon, who lived more than 2000 years ago. In a poem, describing the bird’s flight as a messenger carrying a love-letter to the poet’s lover, we read that, at home, it drank from his cup, ate from his hand, flew around the house and slept on his lyre. A later account comes from the 1st century Jewish philosopher Philo, who noted, on a visit to Ascalon, that the pigeon had become ‘very bold and impudent’ on the domestic scene due to religious protection.

The earliest history of the pigeon dates back to a remote time in antiquity when primitive man worshipped the all-powerful Mother Goddess with whom the bird was inextricably linked. The symbolic bond between them stemmed primarily from the pigeon’s exceptional fecundity, but may have been allied with the curious tenderness of its courtship behaviour. The archaeological discovery of lifelike pigeon images beside the figurines of the goddess, dating from the Bronze Age (2400-1500 BC) in Sumerian Mesopotamia, confirms these ancient roots. Worship of the goddess and her bird spread to Crete, where she was depicted with doves on her head, and also to Cyprus where the birds can be seen on Roman coins perching on the temple roof-tops. In the Greco-Roman classical world Aphrodite (Venus) was regarded primarily as the goddess of love to whom pigeon offerings were made in exchange for blessings and favours in such matters, while Demeter (Ceres), another version of the Mother Goddess, sometimes borrowed the dove symbol.

Ancient Greek legend tells of the sacred oak grove at the Dodona where the god Zeus (Jupiter) and his dove-priestesses made oracular interpretations based on the flight and behaviour of birds. Among the birds customarily used were ravens, crows, cranes and owls, but only the pigeon with its innate homing instinct could be relied upon to return without fail, particularly when used covertly as a messenger. An early Greek coin shows Zeus standing between trees on which the birds are perched. In Greek mythology the relationship between Venus and Mars (Ares), the god of war, became a popular allegory of strife overcome by love. During the Renaissance this was graphically illustrated in paintings and manuscripts.

The Old Testament story of Noah and his release of the dove from the Ark shows that he was also familiar with the bird’s homing ability. The symbol of the dove carrying an olive branch and bringing its message of hope and peace has endured until the present day. One variation of the legend relates that the Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat in the mountainous region between the Black and Caspian Seas, an event commemorated on a 17th-century coin showing the dove returning with the message of good hope.

Many facets of pagan worship were woven into early Christian dogma and the dove, like other deeply-rooted elements of the past, was adapted and perpetuated. In the New Testament the allegorical exhortation by Jesus Christ to his disciples, ‘Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye therefore as wise as serpents and harmless as doves’, recalls the snake and dove, both symbols of the ancient goddess. The dove as the Holy Ghost, the messenger of the Divine, had evolved into the third person of the Trinity. It played a central role in Christianity, particularly at the Annunciation when it brought the message from God to Mary and on the occasion of Jesus’ baptism. In more concrete form dove images were used in churches as adornments for pews and as font covers and also as receptacles for the Holy Sacraments.

Mobile Pigeon Loft World War I

Mobile Pigeon Loft World War I

Apart from the birds’ ancient oracular role, their use as messengers in peace and war was recorded as early as Greek and Roman times. The tradition seems to have continued into the Middle Ages and, writing in the 14th century, the Englishman Sir John Mandeville recorded that the birds were used in wartime in the Middle East. Although many of his tales are exaggerated, this account seems largely authentic: ‘The people of these countries have a strange custom in times of war and siege; when they dare not send out messengers with letters to ask for help, they write their letters and tie them to the neck of a colver (pigeon) and let the colver fly away. They immediately seek the place where they have been brought up and nourished and are at once relieved of their messages by their owners and desired aid is sent to the besieged.’

Cher Ami - War Hero WWI

Cher Ami -
War Hero WWI

In later centuries pigeons played an important role in Western Europe, particularly during both World Wars. In the British Intelligence Service they were used in World War 1 as a method of maintaining contact with sympathisers and resistance movements in enemy-occupied territory. In one method used, batches of pigeons, each with its own body-harness and parachute, were jettisoned from an aeroplane and released at intervals by a clockwork mechanism. On landing, risks to the birds were considerable and while many perished, several returned with essential messages.

The white dove is still a popular emblem of peace and goodwill and in this age of consumerism it features widely in many kinds of promotion, including greeting cards. When depicted carrying an olive branch in its beak it symbolises the traditional message which originates in the biblical story of Noah. The maxim ‘Hawks and Doves’, in which the hawks favour action and intervention while the doves support compromise and negotiation, was already familiar in early fables and is often used nowadays, particularly in times of conflict. Media reports of peace marches often carried the description of The Day of the Dove. More recently, the political scandal in the UK concerning the supply of aircraft to Saudi Arabia has revealed that a strange distortion of the Arabic word for the affair, ‘Yammah’, means ‘dove of peace’.

In fact, the birds have had so many roles, as symbols of gods and goddesses, sacrificial victims, messengers, pets and food and sometimes more than one of these at the same time, that one cannot help thinking that we have put too much on them. To love them for their homing instinct and then to use that instinct for sport or war might seem like exploitation. But the present prejudice that exists against the city pigeon is possibly the greatest irony of all. Our past debt to the bird should not be forgotten.

The feral city pigeons in towns all over the world today are largely refugee birds from abandoned dovecotes of yesterday. City buildings resemble the rocky cliffs of the natural habitat and afford alternative nesting sites. The birds themselves have become superbly adapted to the risks and vigours of urban existence, but it cannot be said that they are very popular. Being much in the public eye they are generally regarded as a civic nuisance. Hence, in many parts of the world a solution is being sought by civic authorities. Lethal controls are not only inhumane but have proved to be ineffective. By contrast, a combination of measures to ‘pigeon-proof’ buildings and to restrict pigeon feeding by the public to designated areas together with the erection of pigeon-lofts for the birds, from which eggs are removed, has proved to be successful in reducing numbers.

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