Those who consider pigeons “rats with wings” have little clue about the role these birds have played and continue to play in human history. These lovely, smart creatures are intelligent enough to recognize their image in a mirror — something dogs and cats don’t do. Perhaps no bird has done more for people and been so underappreciated by the public.
It has taken artist Duke Riley since last July to put together “Fly-by-Night,” and the result is akin to an avian ballet. The United States Navy’s Baylander IX-514, now decommissioned, is the temporary home of 2,000 domestic pigeons, which live in coops onboard. These birds have all undergone training as night messenger pigeons.
When released for performance, the birds create mesmerizing, constantly shifting lit patterns in the sky. After about a half hour of pigeon terpsichore, a whistle sounds the signal to return to the coops, and they begin gracefully returning home.
Riley is fascinated by pigeons and “Fly-by-Night” is driven by his desire to increase appreciation of these incredible birds. Roughly half of the pigeons in the performance belong to him, while the other half belongs to pigeon-keeping friends. There’s a history to the site of the spectacle. The area where the Baylander is docked was once Cob Dock. From the Civil War until the early 1900s, the man-made island was the location of the country’s largest naval pigeon coop and training center. In the pre-radio era, pigeons were trained by going out on navy vessels and bringing messages back to Cob Dock.
New York City pigeon-keeping
As any visitor to New York City knows, pigeons and Gotham are virtually synonymous. Street pigeons, or rock doves, are found throughout the city, cadging meals from street detritus and pigeon aficionados.
For decades, pigeon-keeping was a common practice among working-class New Yorkers, with coops on rooftops throughout the city. Gentrification and skyrocketing real estate prices have changed that. Today, there are only about 200 folks keeping domestic pigeons in New York City, and they are a close-knit community. Pigeon fanciers — also known as “mumblers” — fly their birds in great flocks at dawn and dusk, with different breeds engaging in different flight patterns.
Carrier pigeons were a vital part of the war effort in World Wars I and II, working in the US Signal Pigeon Corps. During World War II, there were 54,000 pigeons in the Signal Corps, and their received message rate approached 90 percent. The United States military stopped using carrier pigeons in 1956, and sold off the last of their stock in a sale held at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, in 1957.
New jobs for pigeons
You might have heard of dogs who can detect cancer via smell. They aren’t the only domestic animals with this ability. Because pigeons have first-rate vision, they can be trained to detect tumors on mammograms or biopsy slides. A study by University of Iowa psychology and brain science professor Edward Wasserman gained international attention in November 2015 when he published a study reporting that pigeons can detect tumors on mammograms, distinguishing between cancerous and normal tissues. After the pigeons were trained to identify differences in tissue using food reinforcement as a reward, they were able to retain their learning and correctly pick out malignant and nonmalignant tissues on new sets of radiographs or slides. In the study, the pigeons’ ability to correctly identify tumors in images was on a par with that of radiologists.
Obviously, pigeons have tiny brains, but their neural pathways work in ways similar to those of people. Iowa Now quotes Wasserman as saying, “Research over the past 50 years has shown that pigeons can distinguish identities and emotional expressions on human faces, letters of the alphabet, misshapen pharmaceutical capsules, and even paintings by Monet versus Picasso.”
The next time you see Columba livia — the formal name for the common pigeon — scratching about, pecking for food, take time to appreciate the bird’s unique intelligence and abilities. These birds truly deserve respect, not scorn.