Sex (in a Tree) in the City

02.14.2005 | Hannah Meyers | Science, Urban Affairs | 8 Comments

There’s a lot New Yorkers could learn from our pigeons. They don’t fly south in the winter; they just huddle more deeply into their bushy neck feathers. They waddle back and forth on ledges like it ain’t nothing, and they eat things that even hot dog lovers wouldn’t touch on a dare. But past all that, there’s a romantic savvy to these one-pound Lotharios that’s worth a Valentine’s Day gander.

Let’s begin with their bravery: As much as any high school couple, these lovers expose their exploits to all who share their metropolis. On subway platforms, parks and crowded midtown streets you can find hot packages of pigeon strutting, showing their stuff, and getting — yup — some tail. If you know what to look for, you too can enjoy the pleasure of cringing at these public displays of ardor, even while secretly envying their late-sixties lifestyle.

When pigeons are engaging in mating rituals, we tend to simply disregard their antics as Things Stupid Birds Do. These include bowing (wherein the male nods his head at the female several times), blowing out his neck feathers and circling about her. All of which sounds an awful lot like human males on the make, don’t it? The male further impresses the female by spreading out his tail feathers and dragging them around her. Then he drives the female away from the other males by running close behind her. As things progress, the female may slip her bill into his and the two begin to rhythmically bob their heads up and down in unison. (Am I the only one who thought these were two males fighting over food?)

The next thing you know the male has jumped on the female’s back, and after a few seconds of precarious balancing sows the seeds of the next generation of rats-with-wings. Feeling rightly proud of himself, he then makes a big show of flying about slapping his wings together over his back to make big clapping noises. I guess it beats pecking at cigarette butts.

With St. Valentine’s Day and its attendant pressures and rewards upon us, we can all learn something from the pigeons in our midst. According to the American Catholic Organization, “The roots of St. Valentine’s Day lie in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on Feb. 15th. For 800 years the Romans had dedicated this day to the god Lupercus.” The Organization’s website continues: “On Lupercalia, a young man would draw the name of a young woman in a lottery and would then keep the woman as his sexual companion for the year.” (Sure beats President’s Day!) The Roman Catholic Church thought this rather nasty, and Pope Gelasius I changed the custom so that men and women both drew the names of saints from a hat, and would then emulate their chosen saint for the following year. Whhheee!

But what the Roman Catholic Church has yet to comment on is the myth of pigeons’ St. Valentine’s Day encounter. According to Frank Mosca’s website on pigeon genetics, there has existed since ancient times a false belief that pigeons only choose mates on St. Valentine’s Day. Let us dispel this myth while becoming more aware of the amore that is clucking, flapping, and wobbling all about us. Initially, I suspected this belief was born in some bar (“Hey babe, it’s the 14th, y’hear ‘em cooin’? Let’s make like dem boids”). But in fact the conceit goes back at least as far as Chaucer, who versified: “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day/ When every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” But no matter its poetic appeal, the notion that pigeons only ride the beast with four wings once a year is rubbish! In the name of pigeonly honor, we must set the record straight!

Pigeons do become more sexually active around the middle of February, as increased daylight hours change their hormone levels. But pigeons make whoopee all year round, generally mating four or five times a year and producing two eggs after each encounter. For about 18 days, these lie in a small twig-and-grass nest constructed by the parents, with the father egg-sitting by day, and the mother assuming night-time duties. While the lovemaking may be public, the nests are well-hidden (quick: when’s the last time you saw a baby pigeon?) since pigeons were originally cliff-dwellers and still have the habit of building their nests in high-up, precarious places.

Once the chick is hatched life changes considerably for the proud parent pigeons. Both start producing a type of fatty, yellowish milk in their crop, which they literally throw up into the babies’ beaks. (Adult pigeons drink liquids by using their bills as straws and sucking beverages up.) After several weeks of such nurturing, squabs are nudged out into the world and begin to look for their own lifetime partners and affordable housing. Their eyes turn from adolescent grey or brown to an adult pink or red, and they become seriously hot, at least to other pigeons. At about the same time, their feather colors change from a youthful grey to one of the over thirty-two variations found in adults, including checkered, spread, and pied-splash, which sound at least as cool as human fashion trends.
Once they’ve found a mate, pigeons are by and large monogamous, although they will find new mates if the old ones die. These relationships last longer than many of ours: City pigeons tend to live about five years, although domesticated ones may last up to eighteen years!

If you’re a pigeon interested in family planning, here are some things that you should know. Male pigeons, or cocks, can remain fertile up to eighteen years, although ten to fourteen is their average limit. Female pigeons, or hens, may also remain fertile for fourteen or so years, although many stop laying eggs after seven or eight. On, Dr. David Marx of the Golden Valley Pet and Pigeon Clinic tells us: “The first sign that hens are ‘drying up’ is when they start laying only singles.” And he further elucidates:

You must also realize that some cocks don’t go all the way through the sex act. Whether they have arthritis or some functional problem, they just stop short of a full “cloacae kiss”. I have seen some cases where they just kind of swing the tail half way under and they don’t go all the way. They can’t reproduce for that reason, not that they are truly infertile.
If pigeons had a Super Bowl, one can only imagine the sexual dysfunction drug ads. We’ll try, though: “Tail ain’t swinging the way it should? Try new Peck-gra. My man did, and now his wings clap every time!” As it is, with Valentine’s Day here and daylight hours growing longer, take a moment today to appreciate the pigeon love that abounds.

I saw a baby pigeon once, the fruit of such love, it seems safe to venture. That in an a stairwell on the 18th floor of a midtown building where I'd been waiting to see a doctor. It looked like a pulsing, oil painted sphere. What I remember, though, was the mother (perhaps father -- it was day time), flying up and staring at me with a hatred that crossed species lines. It took a few moments before I connected the bird, which froze me (it seemed ready to attack, and even after 40 years in the burg, it's a bad situation; no glory if you defeat the pigeon, and shame if it defeats you) with the pulsing, oily things. Baby pigeons, I though just before I clipped my smoke and exited the stairwell.
02.14.2005 | Jon Jon
i wish that you had explained the act a little more. i know about how it works, the whole cloaca-to-cloaca thing, but when i try to explain to my friends, no one believes me!
02.14.2005 | trixies
I agree with Trixie. Much more detail is required. Could you please elaborate on the mechanics of pigeon lovemaking? Specifics please! And would it kill you to add some nice photographs of pigeons in the midst of copulation. Let's get this party started right!
02.14.2005 | Tedd
I've been watching pigeons out my window and have witnessed what you have just described frequently. But, I have also noticed that while this mating dance is going on there seems to always be a third pigeon, a female, hanging around. Almost as a protector or a moderator. Any thoughts?
05.24.2005 | Erica Beck Spencer
I too frequently see these mating rituals in the alley outside my window. I have noticed also that they tend to peck at each others heads before banging. Sometimes its hard to tell the difference between the mating ritual and male to male you know the differences? Also, have you ever noticed pigeons interacting in any way with other birds?
03.8.2006 | Aaron Knapp
There is a pigeon couple that lives outside of my living room window. As described above, the female and male will beak, circle each other, and then the male will mount the female. Rather than the male making a display afterwards, he usually hunkers down into a ball, which prompts the female to mount him and go through the exact same act that her boy just went through. What is the explanation? Is it common for both genders to mount the other?
04.30.2006 | Max
we have two resident pigeons who produce yearly. they mate on our fence - it is a joy to see the male and female apparently"kissing" (now I know better!), male mounting female, big flap of wings then ...... the female after having squatted down for the act, becomes suddenly perky and the male does what most males do on a sunday afternoon ...... goes to sleep .... the 4 - 5 seconds has nackered him out!
03.27.2007 | stella dellicompagni
WOWW....ive learned so soon as i saw what the pigeons on my balcony were doing i was interested to learn on what it actually was and how....and now i know...first they were waking back and forth( noticing that i was peaking)...then they started "kissing" i guess you could say(looked like they were fighting for crumbs in ones mouth)then one went on top of the other and then the other on top of the other circling around at pionts...and the other day i saw one of them bring in a stick probably for the nest its under a chair we have and a big blanket over it( dont ask ) does this mean there gonna have babies?? (clearly..but just to make sure)
04.19.2007 | H.B

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