Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

A Conversation with Rosemary Mosco Part 3

For today’s post, the third during my self-designated National Pigeon Week, celebrating Rosemary Mosco’s wonderful new book, A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching: Getting to Know the World’s Most Misunderstood Bird, I asked Rosemary about how pigeons are a major part of human history, going all the way back to the Neanderthals.

Yeah. The Neanderthals were eating tons and tons and tons of pigeons. 

 Explain how you know that. 

I believe they found bones of pigeons that were cut and burned. I think it was about 40,000 years ago that we know they were consuming pigeons. Although it’s hard to say exactly the relationship of humans and Neanderthals and different ancient relatives to pigeons because we're going back to a time before recorded history. Pigeons were domesticated before or around when we developed writing. And we’re missing a lot. We have to piece a lot of it together from things like bones and archeological remains and such. I really want to go back in time and watch that play out. There are so many questions that I have. 

Rosemary noted that domestication took place in the Fertile Crescent. 

When I say pigeons, I mean Rock Doves, because there are a lot of other really cool pigeon species. Like you mentioned the Dodo. But pigeons were native to parts of  Europe and parts of Asia northern Africa. We’re not totally sure because the feral ones have kind of taken over so much territory. So that was the pigeon’s native range, and that was also when agriculture was developing. And pigeons really like to eat grain. So it was sort of a no-brainer that the pigeons were hanging out and eating our grain, and we were like, “Hey, these things are tasty! Let’s put out some more grain.” And that was how the relationship kind of developed. 

I asked about other ways pigeons have been useful to people. 

This is a really interesting thing—pigeons are really really useful. I feel like it’s easy to go, oh, we domesticated the cat to keep our reflexes sharp by batting  glasses off our tables but also eat our mice, and there’s reasons we domesticated the dog or the horse, but pigeons, because we don’t use them for a lot of those purposes anymore it’s hard to remember, although they’re still used for food in a lot of the world. If you go to Egypt, you’ll eat a really fancy dish that’s made of pigeon, and there’s places in France where you’ll get fancy squab. So we were eating them. And like I said, we were using them for poop. Lots of areas in the Middle East where the soil was not necessarily the most fertile, they would put pigeon poop all over the place and they would use them for that. And then we started using them for all sorts of really interesting things like racing them, and for companionship. And there are pigeon shows like a dog show where you show off a fancy breed, and even more just like esoteric uses like in parts of Asia you’ll strap what’s called a pigeon whistle onto a pigeon. And when they fly they’ll make a beautiful sound. And these whistles have to be incredibly light so the pigeons can fly. So there are also art and music. So anything you can think of, really, we’ve put pigeons to that use. 

I asked Rosemary to talk about Reuters. 

Reuter—the original Reuter—was a fellow who made his name on the backs of pigeons essentially. The telegraph was being rolled out at the time and was revolutionizing communication, but you had to put in these cables. So there were definitely places where the lines hadn’t reached yet. Reuter made all his money by identifying this one particular spot where there weren’t lines passing through, where he could fill this gap in news by passing pigeons back and forth. The gap only stayed open for a couple of years, but he really made his name and a whole bunch of money during this period of passing pigeons back and forth. 

In the book, Rosemary called that the start of the “pigeonternet,” a pun I badly wish I’d come up with. Rosemary and I also talked about some fascinating elements of pigeon biology, which you will read tomorrow.