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The Pigeon

( Originally Published 1918 )



THE strong resemblance that the tame pigeon often bears to the wild one known as the rock-pigeon makes us suspect this latter to be the ancestor of the bird that inhabits our dove-cotes. The rock-pigeon has ashy-blue plumage with black-spotted wings and pure-white tail. The neck and breast are changeable in color according to the light in which they are seen, and shine with a metallic luster, in which sometimes purple and sometimes golden green dominates."

"That is exactly the ordinary plumage of our pigeons," said Emile. "When they come and peck the bread that I crumble for them in the sun, I like to see their magnificient breasts shining first with one color and then with another, every time the bird moves."

"Fond of traveling and endowed with a power of flight in accord with this predilection, the rock-pigeon is scattered over the greater part of the world. Nevertheless it is rare in France, where, a few wretched pairs, always in dread of the talons of the bird of prey or the hunter's shot, make their nests in the most sparsely settled cantons, on the shelves of high rocks. The rocky and mountainous regions of the Mediterranean islands are their chosen haunts in Europe."

"But it is no uncommon thing," Louis remarked, "to hear of wild pigeons being shot in this country."

"You confound the rock-pigeon, my friend, with another kind of wild pigeon, the wood-pigeon. This, as its name indicates, perches on the branches of tall trees, which the rock-pigeon never does."

"Yes, that 's so," Jules interjected. "I have never seen pigeons that are descended from the rock-pigeon alighting on trees. They alight on rocks, on roofs, or on the ground."

"In its free state the rock-pigeon builds its nest in the hollows of rocks; the wood-pigeon, on the contrary, builds in trees, in the depths of dense forests, where it finds in abundance the acorn and beech-nut, its principal food. These habits are not the only difference between the two birds. The wood-pigeon is much larger; its breast has the color of lees of wine; its neck, gleaming with variegated metallic glints like that of its brother, is further adorned on each side with a white spot in the shape of a cross. Its flight is sustained and rapid, its cooing sonorous, its sight piercing. It feeds on all sorts of seeds, especially acorns, which it swallows whole.

"Wood-pigeons like to perch on dead branches at the tops of trees. During the cold winter mornings they stay there motionless, waiting for a little warmth to come with the rising sun and arouse them from their torpor. In summer they frequent full-grown forest-trees, and their cooing may be heard in the very midst of the dense foliage. Their nesting place is by preference at the junction of several forking branches. The male goes forth and gathers from neighboring trees, never from the ground, the building material of dry twigs. If he sees a dead twig attached to the branch on which he is perching, he seizes it with his claws, sometimes with the beak, and tries to break it either by leaning on it with all his weight or by pulling it toward him. Possessed of his prize, he returns at once to his mate, who contents herself with putting the materials into place without taking part in getting them. In building the nest, therefore, the male is the worker and the female the architect; but an architect without talent, we must admit, for the structure is nothing but a mass of intertwined sticks without lining of feathers and flock, and, worse still, without firmness. Hence it is not unusual for this nest to fall to pieces before the brood has taken its flight; fortunately the strong branches on which it rests save the young ones from a disastrous fall.

"Wild and mistrustful, the wood-pigeon has never been willing to accept the calculated hospitality of the pigeon-house; it prefers the perilous life of the woods to the full-fed existence of servitude. This is the wild pigeon that frequently falls before the hunter's fire. In certain defiles of the Pyrenees it is caught with large nets, hundreds at a time. The rock-pigeon, on the contrary, has from time immemorial been dependent on man; and in return for the shelter of the pigeon-house which protects it from birds of prey it has been willing to forget so completely the rocks where it first nested that to-day one seldom finds, at least in our country, any wild pairs.

"Not all our pigeons, however, show the same degree of tameness; far from it. Some, voluntary captives rather than real prisoners, are faithful to the pigeon-house only as long as they find suitable food in the neighboring fields, whither they go in flocks. If the house is not to their liking, or if food is lacking, they seek another abode, the more adventurous sometimes even returning to the wild life. The others, thoroughly enslaved, have completely lost their desire for independence. Seldom do they leave their roof, and some are such stay-at-homes that the most pressing hunger could not make them go out and try to find a little food for themselves in the neighboring furrows. Food must always be given them, for they are incapable of procuring it themselves.

"Those first mentioned, the pigeons that venture afield and find food for themselves, are called rock-pigeons, after the wild pigeon whose ways, and frequently whose plumage, they have retained in part. They are also known as flighty pigeons (fuyards), either on account of their occasional distant expeditions, or because they sometimes take flight from the pigeon-house and never return. They are the least costly to raise, but they are small and not very productive, as they lay only two or three times a year. The second kind, those that scarcely ever leave the pigeon-cote and cannot do without our care, are called cote-pigeons. Their maintenance costs more because they must be fed all the year round; but in compensation they do not ravage the neighboring harvests, which cannot be said of the rock-pigeons; and beside they are much more productive, their periods of laying numbering as many as ten a year. Modified from the earliest times by man's intervention, the cote-pigeon includes a number of varieties in which the traits of the primitive species are often no longer recognizable. Let us mention some of these.

"First of all are the pigeons with feathered legs and feet, looking as if they wore gaiters. This growth of feathers reaches to the very tips of the claws, forming a cumbersome and unsightly sort of footgear which is found to be due to captivity, the wild bird never having anything of the kind. Then come the pouter pigeons, which have the faculty of swallowing air and inflating the crop in a large ball, so that the base of the neck seems to be affected with the deformity known as goiter. That is their way of showing off : the larger the ball, the prouder they are of their figure."

"What a queer idea," Emile exclaimed, "to think it improves one's looks to have a frightful goiter or to wear those feathered leggings that trail in the mud and interfere with walking ! "

"A life of idleness, my friend, engenders many caprices : examples abound in man even more than in pigeons. But let us get on; these things do not concern us.

"Now, here are some pigeons that have their heads adorned with a crown of feathers, are shod like the preceding, and imitate in their cooing the roll of a drum."

"Then they ought to be called, from the roll of the drum, drummer-pigeons," declared Emile.

"You have hit it exactly: that is precisely their name. Here are others with trailing wings, tail erect and expanded like a fan, and the body in an almost continual state of trembling. You would say they had a fever. The spread tail gives them the name of fan-tails, while from their ceaseless shaking they are sometimes called shakers. Ruffled pigeons have the neck encircled with a ruff of disordered feathers. Jacobins wear a sort of hood resembling a monk's cowl. The turbit carries on the nape of its neck a tuft of feathers thrown back and hollowed out like a shell. Tumblers are remarkable for their strange evolutions in the air: in mid-flight they will suddenly let themselves fall and turn a somersault as if shot in the wing. This recreation is their favorite pastime."

"The pleasure of a vertical fall," remarked Jules, "accompanied by a somersault, must carry some fear with it. Perhaps that is what gives zest to this exercise."

"But the pigeon pulls up in time?" queried Emile.

"Whenever it wishes to," his uncle replied, "it brings to an end its downward hurtling from these airy heights, ordinary flying is resumed, and presently the tumbles begin again finer than ever. Here let us pause, without exhausting the list of varieties, amounting to twenty-four, counting only the principal ones. These few examples show you sufficiently what diversity pigeon-house life has stamped on the form, habits, and plumage of the primitive bird.

"All pigeons, wild as well as tame, lay never more than two eggs to a hatching, from which generally spring brother and sister. The cares of brooding are shared by the father and mother alike, a practice found in no other tame bird. In the morning, when hunger makes itself felt, the female calls the male by a peculiar cooing and invites him to come and take her place on the eggs, which he does with alacrity. About three or four o'clock in the afternoon the roles change. If the pigeon which until then has remained on the nest does not see its mate coming, there follows an anxious search, with admonitory cooings and, in case of need, admonitory peckings ; and the laggard is brought back to the serious business of brooding. But as a rule the mother is irreproachably punctual; she returns to the nest at the hour agreed upon and does not leave it again until the next morning. Incubation takes seventeen or eighteen days.

"The little ones are born naked, blind, ungraceful. The father and mother, sometimes one, sometimes the other, feed them from the beak. This beak-feeding method of the pigeons is exceptional and deserves special consideration. I need not tell you how other birds feed their brood; any one that has ever raised a sparrow will know that."

"The little sparrow," Jules hastened to explain, "opens its beak as wide as it can and the parents put into it the food they have brought, just as I put a grasshopper into it, or a piece of a cherry, or a soaked bread-crumb."

"Jules forgets," said Emile, "that it is well to tap the little bird on the tail to excite its appetite and make it open its beak."

Emile's improvement is not indispensable," Uncle Paul replied. "If it is hungry the bird will open its beak without being asked. Into this beak that gapes so wide the parents put the point of theirs and drop whatever prize they have found; but if the little bird is very young the father and mother begin by half-digesting in their own stomach the food des-tined for the little one. Then they put their beak into the little one's and disgorge the nutritious pap that they have prepared.

"Well, pigeons do exactly the reverse : it is the father and mother that gape, and the little ones that plunge their beak deep down into the throat of the parent bird. The latter is then seized with a convulsion of the stomach accompanied by a rapid trembling of the wings and body. Little plaintive cries denote that the operation is perhaps not quite pain-less. From the crop thus done violence to, the half-digested nutritive matter comes up in a jet that passes into the half-open beak of the nursling. Twice a day the little pigeons receive their food in this way; twice a day, but no more, so painful to the nurses seems this mode of feeding from beak to beak."

"I should think," said Jules, "that the parents would feel rather uncomfortable when the young pigeon tickles their throat, deep down, with its beak. If we can judge by what would happen to us, the stomach would rebel and would throw up its contents painfully."

"That is apparently the way of it. The disgorged food is a pap of seeds all ground up fine in the crop; but for the first three or four days after hatching a special food is given., fine and strengthening, suited to the weakness of the little one. It is a white sub-stance, almost liquid, having the appearance of real milk. It does not come entirely from digested food; for the most part it consists of a sort of milkfood that is distilled by the stomach on this occasion only. So for the first days of the brood's rearing the pigeons have, deep down in the throat, a sort of milk factory, or what one might call the equivalent of an udder."

"That reminds me," Jules interposed, "of a joke common enough among us fellows. When we want to gull some poor innocent, we tell him that pigeons suck. This jest comes nearer the truth than is commonly thought. Pigeons do not suck the breast, it is true, but it might well enough be said that they are suckled, since what they are fed on has so much resemblance to milk."

"Little pigeons stay in the nest a long time," resumed Uncle Paul. "Entirely covered with feathers and almost as large as their parents, they still continue to receive parental care. To induce them to shift for themselves and give up their place when the time for a new laying approaches, some cuffs have to be given to these spoiled children that are so reluctant to leave home. But at last they consent, though not without returning from time to time to torment the mother with their lamentations and to beg her for something to eat. The father, less weak on the side of his affections, thenceforth receives these importunate lazy-bodies with a peck of the beak.

"Let us consider certain other details of the pigeon's habits. I will not tell you, these things being pretty well known to you, of the cooings of the pigeon when it puffs out its throat, of its ceremonious salutations, its bowing to the very ground, its pirouettes when it shows off before its mate. I shall interest you more by acquainting you with its gregarious instinct, which impels it to assemble in immense flocks when it travels, in its wild state, to find food."



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