Author Archives: Mass Audubon

Why You Should Appreciate Pigeons. Yes, Pigeons.

We all love birdwatching, but—pigeons? Who cares about pigeons? Rosemary Mosco, the creator of the nature comic Bird and Moon (and Mass Audubon alum), has a new book out that explains why these ubiquitous city birds deserve a second look. It’s called A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching: Getting to Know the World’s Most Misunderstood Bird.

Here, Rosemary shares some of the most frequent questions she gets asked about pigeons.

Why should I care about pigeons?

Our aloof attitude towards pigeons is a new thing. For much of human history, people loved them. Native to parts of northern Africa, Europe, and western Asia, rock pigeons (Columba livia) were domesticated in the Middle East by least four or five thousand years ago.

People used them for meat, for poop (a potent fertilizer), and to carry important messages. Pigeon fans developed all sorts of amazing and fancy breeds, just as with dogs and cats. The birds became a symbol of peace and love, and in some places, only elites were allowed to keep them.

Colonists brought them to North America in the 1600s. But over time, pigeons became obsolete with the introduction of chicken meat, chemical fertilizer, the telegraph. People began to forget why there were pigeons everywhere. It’s a sad tale—feral pigeons are just like feral dogs and cats, but we’ve forgotten why they’re here!

Okay, but why should I watch pigeons?

They’re surprisingly fun to watch! They mate for life and dance for their partners. They feed milk to their young—both male and female pigeons make a rich, fatty milk in their throats and puke it into their chicks’ mouths. Pigeons come in a mix of cool colors because of their purebred past.

Also, watching them can help you find hard-to-spot birds of prey. Peregrine falcons, Cooper’s hawks, red-tailed hawks, and all sorts of other birds prey on pigeons. If you see a flock of pigeons burst into the air, scan the skies for a raptor.

What’s the difference between a pigeon and a dove?

There’s no real difference. The beautiful white symbol of peace is the same as the city pigeon. Pigeons and doves belong to the scientific family Columbidae. It’s a big, amazing family full of beautiful members such as the mourning dove, Nicobar pigeon, and dodo.

Within that family, people randomly named some birds “pigeons” and some birds “doves,” regardless of who’s related to whom. But wait, why do we have two English words for the same thing? It might date back to the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The word “pigeon” comes from French and the word “dove” has Old English roots.

Do pigeons harm the environment?

They certainly annoy people when they poop on statues or nest on our balconies. Pigeons are now a major part of the urban ecosystem, but for the most part they don’t have a huge impact on wild spaces. They tend to stay near human settlements—that’s what people bred them to do!

There are exceptions, though. In the Galapagos, for example, pigeons were exterminated so they wouldn’t spread disease to the rare native Galapagos dove.

Why do I never see baby pigeons?

In their wild past, pigeons nested in cavities in cliffs. In urban areas, they nest in crevices in buildings or under bridges. Babies don’t emerge from these safe places until they’re old enough that they look a lot like their parents—just with duller plumage and paler eyes.

You may not ever see pigeon chicks (which is a shame, because they’re gangly, fluffy, and amazing-looking). You’ll hear them, though. They make a high-pitched whistling noise. Listen for that sound when you’re walking around the city or under a bridge.

Learning from the Latest Climate Report 

Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth major report on the science of climate change. Condensing scientific evidence from 14,000 studies, its findings paint a stark view of our future.  

Using the strongest language ever used by IPCC scientists, the report confirms with “unequivocal” certainty for the first time that human activity continues to contribute to climate change. 

bird on grass and twigs in silhouette with bright sun in the background
© Declan Schweizer

It also issues a clarion call to avoid the worst-case scenario that otherwise looms ahead by enacting transformational changes to our energy, transportation, built environment, and land systems. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres says, the report is “a code red for humanity…the alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable.” 

The IPCC’s analysis of the latest climate science shows four significant trends: 

Trend 1: Rise in Greenhouse Gases

Human activities have caused observed increases in greenhouse gas concentrations since the Industrial Revolution. As of 2019, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were the highest they have been in two million years, and methane levels were the highest in 800,000 years. The report calls on countries to cut their methane emissions to most effectively limit temperature increases. 

Trend 2: Warming Temperatures

Global surface temperatures between 2011 and 2020 were 1.09°C warmer than between 1850 and 1900, and the past four decades have been the warmest of all decades since 1850. Since 1970, the global surface temperature has increased faster than any other 50-year period in the past 2,000 years. Among the report’s most startling findings: warming exceeding 1.5°C as soon as 2040 is possible if swift action is not taken. This is at least a decade earlier than projected in earlier IPCC reports.  

Trend 3: Sea Level Rise

Since 1900, the global mean sea level has risen faster than any other century in the past 3,000 years. Additional sea level rise and glacial melting are unavoidable: sea levels could increase by 2 feet by 2100 (as opposed to the 1.5-foot rise previously predicted). 

Trend 4: Links Between Climate Change and Extreme Weather 

Major improvements to methods that link climate change to extreme weather events show that the intense heat waves experienced across North America this summer—such as 116°F in Portland, Oregon—would be “virtually impossible” without humanity’s influence on the climate system.  

The Road Ahead: Reason for Hope  

The IPCC makes clear that some climate change is irreversible—our unrelenting reliance on fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution means a degree of warming that cannot be undone. This news can feel completely overwhelming.  

But we really do still have reason for hope: a chance to avoid the worst impacts of climate change remains. We have about one decade worth of emissions at current levels remaining in the “carbon budget” to hold onto the chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C by 2100.  

Meeting this carbon budget in the next decade will require swift, decisive, and transformational changes to our current way of doing business. We’ll be advocating for these changes—and sharing opportunities for you to do the same—every step of the way.

By Anna Mervosh and Michelle Manion