Pigeons and People
IT WAS spring. With the growing warmth and lengthening days, my pigeons were starting to think about nesting. All winter they had paid no attention to each other. After coming in from their daily exercise flights, they had flown directly each to its own perch. Now the loft was noisy with cooing. The daily flights became shorter and there was no more loafing on the roof. The birds hurried in to take up the serious business of choosing mates and selecting nest sites.
I was interested in the conduct of the pigeons: their behavior was at times strikingly human. There were pugnacious bullies of both sexes, and meek ones that would allow themselves to be put upon. There were stubborn as well as pliant ones. Some were thrifty and hard-working, others lazy and indifferent. There were flirts and philanderers as well as strict homebodies. Some of the youngsters were precocious problem children; others were retarded.
My pigeons were racing homers. In the newspapers the breed is usually referred to as “carriers,”to the great disgust of all fanciers; for the carrier is really a heavy bird of use only for show purposes, bred to display in the highest possible degree certain physical peculiarities. The racing homer is normal in all bodily respects. Its value to man lies in its intense love of home and its ability to return directly to its loft over many miles if removed by force. Before the war, pigeon races of hundreds of miles distance were regularly held in many parts of the world. During the war, homing pigeons were much used by the armed forces as messengers, for they often get messages through in secrecy that can be sent in no other way. They can’t be lured from their course, they bring the message directly to their own home, and they are hard to shoot.
Pigeons mate for life. In spring the older pairs start housekeeping as soon as the days lengthen, often early in February, and at the same time the youngsters hatched last year set about pairing off. The cocks coo and swell out their necks to show off the brilliant iridescent colors, and strut about in a ridiculous way with their tails dragging the floor, but the hens seem indifferent to the display. Only if a cock gets too ardent in his demonstrations does she notice him, and then merely to the extent of a few sharp slaps of her wing. One can almost imagine he hears her mutter something like “You fresh thing!”
But the hen must pay more attention than she seems to, for somehow she makes a choice from the eager suitors. Just like human individuals, pigeons often choose what seem to outsiders to be unsuitable mates. Not seldom a wild street pigeon — a “corny” — will make its home with a colony of homers, and often has no difficulty in finding a mate, even though legitimate inhabitants may still be single. To our eyes, a corny is a miserable bird, all feathers and little body, with no style or smartness.
Pigeons pay no attention to the color line. I don’t mean the color of the feathers; that is no different from complexion with us. But all of the 165 or so varieties of cultivated pigeons will mate and breed together freely, though many of them are so different in form and size as hardly to resemble pigeons at all.
However the pigeons make their choice, once paired they seem as ecstatic as any human newlyweds. They are constantly together, crowded as close as possible, and the amount of kissing and fondling that goes on is scandalous.
I seldom cared to depend on my racing pigeons’ choosing their own mates when I wished to keep the youngsters. It usually seemed better to pair together birds of outstanding performance and pedigree. This is called “force mating,” though no force is used. Two pigeons can no more be forced to mate together than a boy and a girl: one must use guile.
In force mating, the prospective pairs are selected well in advance, and the sexes separated. Then, when the proper time comes, the two birds of a pair are placed in opposite sides of a small coop which has a slat partition down the center. Food and water are placed in dishes in the middle, so that they eat and drink together, yet are kept apart. The principle is the same as setting two people who have quarreled to washing opposite sides of the same window.
It is not always necessary to separate the pigeons in mating coops. It is usually simpler merely to shut them up together in a nest box. This not only tempts them to mate but it also settles them in a particular nest. But it is fatal to shut two birds up together without an introduction. They may fight, and take a dislike to one another that can hardly be overcome. One pair that I was particularly anxious to mate together quarreled violently for weeks because they had not been properly introduced.
When introducing two pigeons to each other, I used to take all the birds from the breeding loft and shut the cook up in the nest box I wanted him to use. Then I would set the hen loose alone in the big room and let the cock out. Almost always the two would agree together in a short time, and I could then lock them up in their future home to get better acquainted,
IN THE case of old pigeons it was not always easy to arrange a divorce if I thought it desirable. There was one pair who for several years had been most devoied, and who had reared excellent youngsters; but I wished to change the mating. Neither would look at the new spouse I had chosen, though they had been separated for several months. I finally accomplished my design by separating the new pairs altogether, out of sight and hearing of each other. Then they finally mated as I wished them to; but after the breeding season was over and all the birds were allowed to be together, the two instantly abandoned their temporary partners and were inseparable again.
Sometimes it is impossible to persuade a pigeon to mate. I owned one particularly fine cock, which I had bought as a youngster just out of the nest. He had been with me for several years and had produced some good youngsters. His breeder wrote me and asked to borrow him for a season. I agreed, and shipped Black Jack out to Kentucky.
Months later I got a letter saying that my bird was being returned, and that he had refused to father a single egg. Half a dozen different hens had been introduced to him, but he would have nothing to do with any of them. If he had fought them, there might have been some hope, but he had ignored them all and merely moped on his perch in homesick despair.
Shortly word came from the express office that my pigeon had arrived. He had come back in bad shape, without food or water in the crate, and was weary and untidy after a trip of several days.
As I carried the box into the loft, his joy at recognizing home was unbounded. I could hardly prize up a slat, on account of his frantic efforts to get out, and he squeezed through before I could make a decent opening. He flew at once to his old nest and soundly trounced the usurper who had taken his place, and then evicted the other interloper who was using his perch. Then he greeted his old mate with much affection, and not till he had done that would he eat or drink.
Although the hen chooses her mate, he selects the nest site, subject to her veto. Sometimes he suggests several places before she is satisfied. Once the selection is made, they can hardly be driven from it, though it may be most inconvenient from our point of view. I provided my birds with nest boxes of a suitable size, furnished with a terra cotta pan for egg laying. Here they had privacy and quiet, and most pairs were contented and happy in them. But an occasional couple would have none of it, and insisted on using the floor or some other place where they had neither privacy nor comfort, and where the youngsters would later be exposed to considerable risk. There was nothing to do but acquiesce in their decision, though it is exceptional for healthy youngsters to be reared in nests on the floor.
Pigeons have a strong sense of property and will fight valiantly to protect their own. None of the dove family are thought of as warriors; they are traditionally emblematic of peace. Yet two cocks will often fight all day. Of course they can’t hurt one another, for they lack talons or spurs, and their bills are weak. But they peck, and shove, and strike resounding blows with their wings until both are exhausted, nests are upset, and eggs broken.
Fighting never takes place for mates, but only for property rights. Most pigeons are satisfied with what they have, but sometimes a bird wants more than its share. Not. satisfied with one home, he tries to take his neighbor’s house too. This the rightful owner resents, and gives battle, assisted by his wife.
To keep peace in the loft, I used to handicap an aggressor by tying his feet together, and then would shut him up with his victim in the disputed box. A good thrashing was all that was needed, and it rarely had to be administered twice. He was soon glad enough to escape and go home to his mate.
Both sexes cooperate in nest making, and there is a definite division of the work into his and hers. He collects the nest material and brings it home; she arranges it. But like people, some cocks are better providers than others. Some can’t have too much, and bring home a great pile of material; others are satisfied with a few straws. Much or little, each load is greeted with cooing and gestures of affection on both sides. He doesn’t just dump his offering down, but spends a few moments to tell how hard he worked to find it and what a splendid nest she is making, and she tells him how wonderful he is.
The cock takes a great interest in his home and family. When not working, he and his hen spend much time inside the nest box, crowded as close together as possible. But he is ready at a moment’s notice to fly out to suppress unseemly conduct in others. Coupling usually takes place on the floor of the loft rather than in private, and it seems to give great offense to every pigeon in sight. So many dart down to chastise the immodest pair that one wonders sometimes how eggs ever get fertilized.
A few days before the hen is due to lay, the cock is obsessed with a fear that the egg will not be deposited in the proper place. He is unhappy whenever his mate is out of the nest, and forces her back to it for fear of an accident. Fanciers call this stage “driving,”because the cock spends so much time driving the hen back to the nest whenever she leaves it for any purpose. Of course some only give her a few pecks in a halfhearted sort of way; but others are so anxious that, they hardly give the hen a chance to eat. My pigeon Black Jack I feel sure always delayed the appearance of his first egg a day or two by his vigorous driving, and his hen was invariably half-starved by the time he felt it safe to leave her in peace.
BOTH sexes share in incubation, according to a definite schedule. The hen takes up her duties in the late afternoon and keeps the eggs warm till morning, when she is relieved by her mate, who attends to the housekeeping during the day. But he doesn’t sit. quite so close as she does, and keeps himself informed of what is going on. He may even leave the eggs for a few moments, especially if he sees any immodest conduct that he feels impelled to reprove. And just because he has a family he isn’t blind, and is not above a bit of philandering if opportunity offers.
Often there are one or more unmated hens in a loft, who are a great temptation to virtuous householders.
I have several times been amused to see a sitting cock show interest in such a one during his time off duty, but he seldom succeeds. His wife keeps an eye on him, and if she thinks the flirtation is going too far, down she comes on the temptress like a thunderbolt and gives her a good beating.
Unmated cocks rarely try to break up families, but they become the most vicious bullies. No weaker bird is safe against them. Undeveloped youngsters especially, being too feeble to get out of the way, are the worst sufferers if their father’s back is turned but a few moments. If an odd cock is in the loft, few healthy squabs will be raised from nests on the floor.
When the squabs first hatch they are tiny little things, blind, and as weak and helpless as babies. Like babies, too, they must at first be fed a special food. Both parents secrete the so-called “pigeon’s milk,”which comes from the crop and is fed by regurgitation. At first the little ones can hardly hold their heads up long enough to he fed, but they grow and strengthen very fast. At the age of a week their eyes open. From the sixth to the eighth day they can be permanently marked with a numbered aluminum band slipped on one leg. Before the sixth day the band will fall off; after the eighth day it won’t go on. From now on, the pigeon is an individual with a registered number, and can always be identified.
At the end of two weeks the squabs are well feathered and can move about a little, though their legs are still too weak to support them for more than a moment at a time. By now the mother is beginning to lose interest in them. She cares only for tiny babies, and is ready to start a new family. But the father not only brings the material for the new nest and compels his wife to use it; he also takes full responsibility for his older children. This task is not unduly strenuous. The youngsters are well enough feathered that they no longer need to be kept brooded and warm, and require only feeding. But they eat prodigiously. It is no small job for their father to keep their appetites satisfied.
When the squabs are just over three weeks old, there comes a crisis in their lives: they start to leave home. If they wait until they have a little strength, there is not much risk, but often they fly or fall from the nest before they are strong enough to fly back. Then they must run the gantlet of any vicious unniated cocks that may be in the loft, for their father can’t protect them all the time.
Sometimes they get confused in the great world and are not able to find their proper nest again. If they come back to the wrong one, they are in lbr real trouble, for the rightful owner does not concern himself with the age or intentions of an intruder. The squab can expect no help either: fora cock once mated and settled respects his neighbor’s property and won’t trespass even to protect his youngster. Or perhaps he just doesn’t recognize a youngster in a strange nest.
By the time a squab is a little over four weeks old, it is ready to leave home for good. Till then, its father gives it the best of care. But eating for two, or rather for three, for squabs are almost always twins, is rather a chore, and regurgitation is pretty hard work. Gradually the father shows them what food looks like, and they get the knack of picking it up. When they can do that, they are on their own. They stop pleading to be fed. Their parents no longer recognize them.
The sexes are equally desirable for racing, and a good bird can be depended on till it is nine or ten years old. Even older pigeons have been successful. When they are raced, we take advantage in every way we can of their love of home and of their family. Unmated birds will come home when taken away, but will not exert themselves to the highest degree, and are unreliable. Only mated pigeons are worth entering in a long race.
We try to find out under what conditions a bird will put forth its greatest efforts. In the case of a hen, it is usually when she is sitting on eggs or on tiny youngsters. A cock is likely to turn in his fastest race when he is driving his hen, a day or so before the first egg is expected. Sometimes we can add jealousy to the anxiety natural to him at this tirne, by shutting up a strange cock in the nest with his mate, so that the last thing he remembers before leaving is that there is a rival to be evicted from his home. One of my best birds gave his finest performance after such a trick had been played on him.
I have found the observation of my pets as interesting as the excitement of race days. A knowledge of their behavior and psychological reactions has been of much help to me in understanding why people behave as they do.