In 1901, the catholic magazine De Engelbewaarder published an article about the pigeon. The young readers were encouraged to try and take care of ‘these kind creatures’: ‘It is worth the effort to try and keep pigeons close. They are not shy, soft-tempered, very clean, beautiful in shape and colour. They do not fight with each other. Of her young, she takes care in the most loving way. For these reasons, they are held as symbols of innocence and tenderness.’ Another edition supplemented this list with ‘... wisdom, wit, science, devotion, advice, power, fear of God …’ And it weren’t just catholics who loved the bird; pigeons also played an important role in Greek and Roman mythology for example, or in the Islamic religion. In less religious representations, the pigeon is a symbol of peace and romance.
These traditionally positive connotations didn’t come out of the blue: since ancient times, pigeons played an important part in human civilization. Unti less than a century ago, they were bred on a big scale for their fertile faeces and nutritious meat. Popular medicine made use of the intestines, blood and excrements. Most famous, of course, is her role as messenger: carrier pigeons were already used by the ancient Greeks, Romans, Persians and Chinese for their long-distance communication. The bird proved especially useful in times of war, even when, during the First and Second World War, telegraph and telephone were in use. These modern technologies could be tapped or sabotaged, while the pigeons stayed out of reach of enemy engineers. Several war memorials show the winged messenger at work.
Little more than half a century later, not much is left of this old glory. In Amsterdam, pigeons are known as ‘rats with wings’, marking them as unwanted, uncontrollable vermin that smudges our cities and spreads diseases. And though the real danger to humans is negligible, in the eyes of most people they are simply dirty and annoying birds, scavengers who feed themselves with our garbage and carry the dirt of the city with them in their grey coat of feathers. Vermin - in that new identity, the whole entwined history of pigeons and humans is reduced to one of nuisance and pest control. Looking beyond this label, however, reveals a much more complicated story - a story about historical and biological change, about cities, nature, humans and animals.
Animals and the city
The pigeons who roam our city streets evolved from a formerly domesticated species. These were selectively bred, so that only the most fertile animals remained - so that, in a relatively short period, there were a lot of pigeons. In the twentieth century, more and more of these birds left the farms in the countryside and settled in the fast-growing cities, where they discovered its many conveniences: food laying around in the streets, alleys and marketplaces and enough rooftops, facades, cracks and ridges to build nests. Once provided with food and shelter, they continued doing what they did best: breeding, the whole year through.
For humans, this migration to the city didn’t exactly come at the right moment: they were just busy clearing ‘their’ cities from non-human animals. For thousands of years, they had lived together with the cattle on which they depended, in the city as well as in the countryside. Herds and flocks were driven into the city to be sold at markets or to be slaughtered, often out in the open. The bloody carcasses and severed pieces were displayed on butchers’ facades, providing the customers with the possibility to check the freshness and quality of the meat before buying it.
When, in the nineteenth century, cities started growing rapidly, the amounts of cattle increased as well. Herds blocked the increasing urban traffic and defecated in the streets, together with the horses needed for this traffic. Together with the waste left behind by the many human urban dwellers, the amount of dirt started to get out of hand - especially whilst politicians, doctors and social workers started to stress the importance of enough room, light and clean air for healthy subjects. The slaughtering of animals and the displaying of their severed body-parts led to more and more disgust of passers-by. In the ‘modern’ cities, there wasn’t room anymore for death and dirt, and the animals that were - at least partly - responsible had to be kept in the countryside, far from the clean and ‘human’ cities. Only the cute animals could stay, as long as they were kept in clearly demarcated and controlled spaces, as ‘pets’. Those who weren’t controlled were labelled ‘strays’ and cleared from the streets by specialised organisations.
At the same time, pigeon-breeding started to decrease. Artificial fertiliser facilitated and survived the modernisation of agriculture, making pigeon fertiliser no longer profitable. Pigeon meat disappeared from the menu: the new genetically modified chickens were better able increasing the supply and demand of meat to amounts never seen in history. And finally the carrier pigeon too became obsolete and replaced by advanced communication technologies.
With the clearing of cities from animals, the modernisation of agriculture and the genetically controlling of whole populations of animals, the relation between humans and animals and cities and nature changed. With technological development, humans seemed to have conquered all non-human nature, at least in the cities and the countryside. Just then, the pigeons decided to challenge this seemingly self-evident hierarchy, unknowingly defying the artificial borders between city and nature, between wild and domestic.
What’s the use of our technological development, with which we made our environment so predictable, if a grey-feathered bird so easily escapes its grasp? Effortlessly, she ignores the boundaries we humans drew or thought to have drawn around us and our cities. By using our building for shelter, by eating our left-overs, pigeons became dependent upon us, but without us agreeing or being able to set the terms for this new relationship: it was an unforeseen and most of all uncontrollable dependency. And it was this feeling of loss of control that made humans scared; the fact that the birds like to roam in flocks certainly didn’t help. It evoked feelings of unease and annoyance, invading our human sphere to steal our garbage and spread who-knows-what kind of eerie diseases. Other animals in the city had been given a clear space and role, an identity to which they kept: loyal dogs on leashes, fluffy cats who came home for dinner, cute rabbits in cages, colourful birds who could be lured to cute bird-houses or where at least nice to look at and listen to. Pigeons, however, escaped all these categories and functions, paving the way for new concerns about dirt and disease.
Pigeons fall between most human categorisations. As free-roaming, once domesticated species, involved in an uncontrollable relation of dependence with humans, they are hard to place on either side of the city-nature boundary. Neither domesticated nor belonging to wildlife, the bird challenges those human-imposed categories, maybe even showing that they were never really any good in the first place.
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Jerolmack, Colin, 'How pigeons became rats. The cultural-spatial logic of problem animals’, Social Problems 55 (2008) 72-94.
Skandari, Zina, Sébastien Lepetz and Anne-Caroline Prévot-Julliard, ‘Nuisance species. Beyond the ecological perspective’, Ecological Processes 3 (2014).
Wischermann, Clemens, Aline Steinbrecher and Philip Howell eds., Animal history in the modern city. Exploring liminality (London 2018).