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 PigeonNetwork.com, 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.