Columba livia

Just like tourists and residents gather to enjoy Merida’s main square, the Rock Pigeons also flock to this city park. Visitors and locals may feed rice or snack food to them. But pigeons also feed on vegetation, grains, berries, and seeds. They are one of the few bird species who can submerge their bills into water to drink without lifting their heads to swallow.

When domesticated about six thousand years ago, Rock Pigeons were used as food, to carry messages, or to be revered as symbols of love, faithfulness and dependability. Whether they are called homing, carrier, racing, or war pigeons, they all arose from the wild Rock Pigeon which lived in European and Asian mountains and along coastal cliffs. Distributed throughout the world, pigeons have adapted to city living. City buildings have become their artificial cliffs and ledges and therefore have run “afowl” with people due to their droppings and messy nests.

For about 800 years, pigeons served as postal carriers. Charlemagne, Charles Darwin, and Queen Victoria raised them due to their beauty. Paul Reuters, founder of Reuters News Agency, used pigeons as carriers of stock market prices. Pigeon racing is still popular – a Chinese enthusiast bought a racing pigeon for $200,000 in 2011. In France and Britain, blood samples from small hospitals are still sent via pigeons to testing facilities as the pigeons are cheaper and faster than a vehicle.

Its importance to humans may be a surprise as Rock Pigeons have been credited with saving thousands of lives!

Before the telegraph, radio or telephone, pigeons were the quickest means of long distance communication.

Genghis Khan and Julius Caesar used them during war. Millions were used as messengers during World War I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam War and to detect chemical attacks in the Iraq War. Pigeons were on war ships, aircraft, submarines, and even attached to paratroopers.

Many pigeons received medals of honor and awards. Taxonomic specimens of honored birds reside in different museums in Europe and America including a bird named Cher Ami, French for “dear friend”. She earned the French Cross of War for heroism. She served the 77th Infantry from New York in WW 1, behind enemy lines in France. Cher Ami was the last available pigeon to relay a message for help. When released, the pigeon was shot in the chest and blinded in one eye, but recovered to deliver the message. Cher Ami’s leg hung on by a tendon with the attached message. About 200 US Army men were rescued. By the way, the taxidermist realized that Cher Ami was a female, although she was registered in war as a male. Most references today still cite her as a male.

I’ve only used Cher Ami as one example but one group of carrier pigeons helped in the rescue of 330,000 troops.

I think the pigeons deserve a bow as veteran heroes, especially since the US just celebrated Memorial Day on May 26th.

Sound link: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/135942

Nature’s wonders inspire Cherie Pittillo, a wildlife photographer, zoologist, and author. Follow her friendly, feathered journey as she discovers the birds of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Editorial and Photography by Cherie Pittillo for use in Yucatán Today

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