Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, November 4, 2021

A Conversation with Rosemary Mosco, Part 4

In A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching: Getting to Know the World’s Most Misunderstood Bird, Rosemary Mosco talks a lot about how important pigeons have been to people: for food, carrying messages, producing guano for fertilizer, and racing. As tasty as pigeons apparently are, we’ve never been able to breed them as prolifically as we breed domestic chickens, turkeys, or ducks. Rosemary explained:

A lot of what they do is kind of mediated by these particular quirks that they have. For example, with meat, we definitely used to eat tons and tons and tons of pigeons, but they have to take good care of their babies. You can’t just take their chicks away and raise them like you can with chickens. You have to have the mom pigeon feeding them pigeon milk, which the mom and the dad produce in their throat. They’re caring for their young, so it’s a little bit tougher to raise large quantities of them, so instead, we switched to chickens, and this homing tendency is a little tough to overcome so we switched to Internet. So there are a lot of reasons why they became a little less useful over time for sure.  

Rosemary’s book does a better job of explaining the unique quirks of pigeon biology than most high school and college textbooks do. We talked about just one element of it: 

Rock Pigeon

If you look at a pigeon’s circulatory system, you’ll notice that they have this wild mesh of veins that’s all around their neck. It kind of makes sense when you think about a pigeon poofing up its neck. It’s this thing called the collar plexus for short. It’s this region that can help a pigeon swell up and do its poofy neck thing, but also can help it stay cool or stay warm. It can exchange heat through that collar plexus. And it’s just one of those things about a pigeon that is kind of familiar but really alien that they have, like an entire branching circulatory system all around that poofy neck. 

I asked her about B.F. Skinner’s famous work with pigeons.

Pigeons are surprisingly smart, and also surprisingly not smart.  They’re both familiar and alien in terms of their minds, which I think is really interesting. For a long time, people thought that birds were not very smart, partly because if you look at their brains which are kind of small, they don’t look as wrinkled as our brains, and we usually think of wrinkly brains as a smart thing—lots of folds and lots of cells and lots of intelligence. But that’s because their brain anatomy is just totally, totally different. They don’t have a neocortex, but they do have this thing called a mesopallium that has cells that act in almost the same way. 

A lot of birds are really smart. There are parrots that can memorize tons of words, there are ravens that will knock snow off roofs onto passersby and target their hits with precision. And then there are pigeons, which will have their moments of being less intelligent. For example, if you swap a pigeon’s babies with another pigeon’s babies, they won’t notice. They can’t recognize their children. But at the same time, people have trained them to do unbelievably cool things. B.F. Skinner trained them to play ping pong, and we’ve trained them to recognize Indian dance versus martial arts, and we’ve trained them to tell cancerous breast tissue from uncancerous breast tissue looking at medical slides. And they can recognize themselves on video, and there’s so much they can do that’s remarkable, and then you get into their homing abilities which are so incredible. They really are not slouches. They’re just sort of a different type of mind than we have. 

I mentioned how Skinner compared elements of pigeon and human intelligence.

Yeah. He didn’t think that pigeons were especially smart. He wasn’t super complimentary about them. But he did think that they had a lot to tell us about our own minds, which I think is interesting because they do, and then they also just do things that we can’t even fathom at the same time, which I think makes them really interesting. I mean, I couldn’t find my way home across 600 miles without some sort of a GPS or a compass or something.  

One scientist even more enamored of pigeons was Charles Darwin. Rosemary had this to say about him:

Darwin was obsessed with pigeons and he loved them. His history with pigeons was that at one point he kind of wanted to look more closely, with his evolutionary theories, at a creature that he could keep in his backyard, and pigeons were perfect because they were kind of all the rage. There was a big pigeon craze. So he built a pigeon loft. He was a little reluctant about it. He thought it wasn’t as interesting a species. So he started to go to pigeon group meetings and meet a lot of other pigeon keepers, and he just became utterly obsessed. 

I start the book with this quote from him writing to his friend [Charles] Lyell, where he says when you come visit, let me show you my pigeons, which are the greatest gift that anyone can give to someone else. Because he was just so so in love with these creatures. He would breed them, and he was trying to figure out, are all of these fancy pigeon breeds, some of which are just absolutely bizarre looking, are they all descended from the same species. And he was able to determine that yeah, they all come from Columba livia, from the Rock Dove. And so by looking at how humans changed pigeons over time, he could look at how nature might change species over time. So they were really, really instrumental, and if you read his book, there is a lot of pigeon content—so much you might get a little bogged down by all of his descriptions of all his breeds. But he was just absolutely head over heels for pigeons which I think is cool, but in a biologist’s way. He’d talk about, like, oh, they’re so beautiful and I can’t wait to skeletonize them and look at their bone formation. But yeah, he was a big pigeon fan. 

Tomorrow I’ll close out National Pigeon week with Rosemary Mosco’s and my conversation about pigeons used by various militaries to carry important messages.