Human history is intertwined with some of Earth’s mightiest species, but there is one graceful creature that rises above the rest. Only when seen it in its ideal habitat, can we truly appreciate this king among birds. Behold: the nobel pigeon.” If you think they’re only good for pooping on statues, then think again. [OPENING MUSIC] In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin presented an idea that changed the world. He knew if he was right, this idea was gonna turn science on its head, so in chapter 1, you know what he chose as his very first example? It wasn’t the tortoises, or finches, or even the giant fossil armadillos he found during his journeys. He chose pigeons.
Over giant fossil armadillos. But he had a good reason, and if you think otherwise, then you’ve never seen FANCY pigeons. These are the birds that got Darwin’s attention, because underneath all that feathery fashion, is just one species, like dogs with wings instead of rats with wings. All of that variation was tweaked from one ancient mold. The wild rock dove. Thousands of years before they were eating old hot dog buns out of the trash, these birds were found on seaside cliffs, but pretty much as soon as cities sprung up, they moved in, because to a pigeon, a building is just a cliff with better architecture. Pigeons are uniquely suited to city life, but they were only able to conquer all of Earth’s urban areas because we brought them there. Why?
Because we liked feeding them… to ourselves. In fact, from Egypt to Rome to the early 20th century, the main roles of a pigeon were dinner, or something for rich people to breed into silly shapes. Over time here and there, a few of these domestic birds escaped and returned to a “wild” life, they just never left the city. But for some reason along that journey, our opinion of pigeons went from this… to this. Watch pigeons pecking at the sidewalk and you’re not looking at the smartest birds in the tree. They can’t solve puzzles like crows.
They can’t talk like parrots. A pigeon’s brain is only about the size of that fingertip… but like most things in nature there’s more to the story. Most of their skull is eyeball: if they were the size of humans, their eyes would be as big as grapefruits… Those huge eyes have five color receptors, compared to our three, letting them see things we can’t imagine. One pigeon named Linus was trained to remember nearly a thousand images. Pigeons can peck out a Monet from a Picasso, they can even judge if a child’s drawing is good or bad.
Pigeons can tell correctly spelled words among misspelled words, As if they aren’t annoying enough.. They can even put groups of objects in numerical order, which sounds easy because we’re smart, but pigeons do numbers as well as monkeys do, Pigeon vision is the bomb. Literally. During WW II, psychologist B.F. Skinner tried to turn these birds into weapons. He trained pigeons to keep an image centered on a tiny screen by pecking at it. He hooked this up to a navigation system, and then loaded it inside of a bomb. He wanted to create explosive missiles piloted by kamikaze pigeons. He built several successful prototypes using money from the General Mills cereal company… yes, the people who make Cheerios, but the Army never let it get off the ground.
Pigeon navigation goes a lot farther than bird bombs. Just like /human/ city-dwellers, pigeons are commuters, flying out in the morning to find food and coming back at night. They’re tightly bonded to their home, and this instinct is so strong that we’ve used them as messengers for centuries, like Flapchat instead of Snapchat. Before Paul Reuter founded a global news service, he used pigeons to deliver news. During World War I and II, racing pigeons with names like Cher Ami and GI Joe were given actual medals for delivering messages under fire. How are pigeons so good at finding their way home from places they’ve never been? Different experiments have found pigeons use visual maps, Earth’s magnetic field, the angle of the sun, even smells to navigate. But when scientists knock each of these senses out, some birds can still find their way home. What we do know is pigeons use a lot of senses, maybe even some we don’t know about yet.
Even though pigeons are everywhere, there’s one thing you never seem to see: Baby pigeons. They do exist, and… they are ugly. But it’s a reminder that even a bird that’s everywhere only gives us glimpses into its life. Darwin’s ideas about natural selection were born on a voyage around the world. But you don’t have to go to exotic places to have your mind blown by evolution’s awesomeness. Darwin knew that, and that’s why he picked the pigeon to introduce the world to his theory. If you know where to look, wildlife is everywhere that we are: just make sure if you look up to admire it, you keep your mouth closed.
Stay curious. I want to thank our friends from BBC Earth for helping us make this episode, because pigeons look awesome in slow-motion. Some of pigeons’ oldest enemies have followed them to cities: birds of prey. These scientists are studying peregrine falcons for Planet Earth II, the sequel to the groundbreaking BBC series. It’s part of “Cities”, an entire episode dedicated to urban wildlife. Of course, birds of prey aren’t pigeons’ only urban predators. For Planet Earth II, the team filmed a pigeon hunt you have to see to believe. You can find Planet Earth II on BBC One in the UK and coming soon to BBC America.