Courtesy of the CBC
Woody Allen famously dubbed them “rats with wings,” and we all more or less agree: when it comes to pigeons, everyone’s a hater. They’re filthy disease carriers! Parasites of the urban environment! Dumber than chickens!
Not so, says award-winning Toronto-based filmmaker Scott Harper, and he’s setting the record straight in his documentary The Secret Life of Pigeons, airing Thursday November 20 on CBC’s The Nature of Things.
“They can recognize an individual by their face alone,” says Harper, revealing just one of the surprising pigeon truths revealed in his film. The birds are actually highly intelligent, and can differentiate between the nice old lady bringing a bag of corn to share and the mean old witch ready to beat them off with a stick, just by examining their facial features.
Pigeons also have a very long and surprisingly amicable history with humans. Domesticated as far back as ancient Egypt, pigeons have served man as a mode of communication, a tasty snack, a form of entertainment and even as a medium for studying brain chemistry.
Carrier pigeons saved thousands of lives during WWI, and were as close to a walkie talkie as guys like Genghis Khan were going to get.
Pigeon races were once a popular pass time, and though they don’t draw a crowd like they once did, the Queen and Prince Charles continue to keep racing pigeons, and there are still races held as nearby as Bradford, Ontario.
Then there is the world of the pigeon fancier — individuals who breed pigeons for show. Yes, it’s a thing that exists, and we suggest you Google it (to see many photos of grown men — including Mike Tyson — holding their beloved pigeons).
And because pigeons form and then lose memory in a manner remarkably similar to humans, scientists use the birds in Alzheimer’s research and testing.
But perhaps the most surprising fact revealed about these ubiquitous birds is that they continue to exist at all.
“It’s amazing how these birds have survived in a place where they are really not wanted,” says Harper. The story of the urban pigeon actually turns out to be a rather heartbreaking one. Because they are domesticated animals that have found themselves homeless, they don’t feed on anything natural, and so must surviving on little more than refuse and what the odd pigeon lover leaves for them. In fact, says Harper, when someone who regularly feeds the neighbourhood pigeons stop doing so, that whole flock will likely die. “They made feeding pigeons in London’s Trafalgar Square illegal,” says Harper, “and now there are no pigeons in Trafalgar Square.”
And what is a city without its winged rats? Wait, don’t answer that.
The Secret Life of Pigeons airs this Thursday, November 20 at 8 pm on CBC Television’s The Nature of Things.