Almost all modern feral pigeons descend from rock pigeons, Columba livia. Years ago, we lived in caves. So it didn’t take much—some spilled grain, some spare seeds—for the relationship to start. Pigeons cooed; we fussed. We put up some shelves; the pigeons moved in. In Gilgamesh, the hero, Utnapishtim, sends out a pigeon to find out if the flood waters have receded. A thousand years later, Noah repeated the trick on the ark. At the ancient Olympics in Greece, every athlete would bring a pigeon to the games, which would fly home to his village to bring news of a victory. Can you imagine the joy, the vigor, in those birds, barrelling out into the empty sky?
We loved them for their meat, and we loved them for their skill. In Imperial Rome, Caius Pliny wrote of “a mania for pigeons.” A dove (same bird) sat on the Prophet Mohammed’s shoulder and spoke the word of God. In eighteenthth-century England, rock pigeons were bred to be Runts and Jacobins and Turbits and Fantails and Dragoons and Indians and Nuns and Danish Suabians and Short-Faced Tumblers. Charles Darwin wrote the first chapter of On the Origin of Species about pigeons, and his friends thought it so good that they argued that he should focus solely on the birds people admired so much. “Everybody is interested in pigeons,” was the advice of Whitwell Elwrin, the editor of the Quarterly Review, who had seen Darwin’s manuscript. A decent book on the subject would “be reviewed in every journal in the kingdom and soon be on every table.”
Darwin pursued evolution, although he never gave up on pigeons. Their variety, and their adaptability, despite their all being descended from a single species, amazed him, and embodied his theory of the natural world. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” he wrote, “with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” When Darwin had close friends round to supper, he took them to see his pigeons: “the greatest treat, in my opinion, which can be offered to human beings.”
Pigeons are still wonderful and brave and various, but we love them no longer. Unlike all other feral animals, which turn brown and camouflaged as soon as they’ve left human domestication, pigeons have maintained their polish, their iridescence, the habits we encouraged them to have. No one knows why. Almost all the breeds that were in existence in Darwin’s day, at the peak of our pigeon fancy, are still around today. You can go to the Ruhr, in Germany, and mingle with escaped homing pigeons. Basel’s pigeons, in Switzerland, used to live in dovecotes, and entertain aristocrats. In Orissa, in India, there are retired carrier pigeons that once bore messages for the police. Pigeons tumble and sweep and waddle across our lives as they always have.
We imprint on the lives of pigeons in ways that we do not begin to understand. The disappearance of horses, and their feed, from twentieth-century cities was a disaster for pigeons. The triumph of Gothic architecture over Romanesque gave them a million places to roost. You open an umbrella, they scatter.
Our caves have become cities. Their shelves and dovecotes are now satellite dishes and heating vents and the underpasses near dirty canals. Yesterday’s grain is now gummy with high fructose corn syrup. But they love us still. They may be the only ones. We have only occasional glimpses of how in tune we used to be. Biologists have shown that pigeons can distinguish between baroque and modernist composers, between Bach and Stravinsky, with almost the same accuracy as humans. (The birds differ from us only on Vivaldi, whom they class as ahead of his time). They also know Monet from Picasso, who named his daughter, Paloma, for pigeons. They are there, ready for us, any time, should we ever want to take them back.
The skeleton of Lisa Gherardini, whom he believed to be the model for Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, was disinterred in 2013 at the former convent of Saint Ursula (Sant’Orsola) despite the early objections of Gherardini’s living descendants.
My fire escape crawls skyward, corroded steel drilled into the side of a tenement. It is lawn and porch to New Yorkers: a seat of leisure, a permeable barrier, a precipice for contemplation.