I told Nancy Miller, the editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury America
“I want to write a book about pigeons.”
“Why,” she asked?
“Because I want to know what they think of us.”
“And do you?”
“Well, then, it seems to me we don’t have a book.”
And being the lovely woman she is, Nancy added:
“Get back to me if you ever figure it out.”
I was reminded of what Steve Ross, my editor for my book Dogs Never Lie About Love, said to me when I told him I was going to write something in there about what dogs dreamed about:
“Jeff, we could have a major best-seller if you can crack that.”
Back to pigeons:
I am sure I am not alone when I wonder how they live so close to us, and yet are so unknown by us. We insult them: “Rats of the sky” we call them. (Mind you, why should “rat” be an insult in any event? I have known, and befriended, many a domestic rat, and so have my children.)
The pigeon called the Passenger Pigeon (not because he was a passenger, or carried anything, but because he was just “passing” by, from the French) is gone. In the 19th century in America, there were so many of these wonderful birds, that once a single flock was observed that spread a mile wide, and went on for 300 miles: It contained 3.5 billion birds in it! Possibly this was the largest collection of animals ever seen. Yet humans managed to kill every one of them. How? Mostly by hunting them for “fun.” It was easy to kill the birds once they were nesting, as the parents refused to abandon nests with young in them. So for example, at a nesting site in Michigan, 50,000 birds were killed each day for five months. So successful was this slaughter, that eventually only a single female passenger pigeon, Martha, was left, sad and alone, in the Cincinnati zoo, where she died in 1914. Aldo Leopold said after this: “Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”
We know of “crimes against humanity.” One day, I am sure, there will be an International Criminal Court that will try crimes against the natural world and its inhabitants, including pigeons.
But what about my original question? Pigeons are not domesticated. Even if they live in cities or right on top of our houses they maintain a discreet distance from us, yet they are always near. Is it because the living is easy? Could they just like our company? What could we do to make them our friends, beyond feeding them? What are we to them? I suspect they are waiting for us to wake up. What do you think is in their minds? Please don’t say “nothing” because that is impossible. If cats and dogs think about us, why not pigeons? If they seem far more mysterious or harder to read, it could be only that we have never tried. I am in Malaga, Spain, right now, with my family, and we see pigeons every day, and I get the feeling they know I am on to them. If I ever crack the code, I will give Nancy Miller a call, and you will be able to read all about it.