Pigeon Story: How the Rock Dove Became the Sky Rat


Human history is intertwined with some of Earth’s mightiest species,

but there is one graceful creature that rises above the rest.

Only when seen it in its ideal habitat, can we truly appreciate this king among birds.

Behold: the nobel pigeon.”

If you think theyre only good for pooping on statues, then think again.


In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin presented an idea that changed the world.

He knew if he was right, this idea was gonna turn science on its head, so in chapter 1,

you know what he chose as his very first example?

It wasn’t the tortoises, or finches, or even the giant fossil armadillos he found

during his journeys.

He chose pigeons.

Over giant fossil armadillos.

But he had a good reason, and if you think otherwise, then youve never seen FANCY pigeons.

These are the birds that got Darwin’s attention, because underneath all that feathery fashion,

is just one species, like dogs with wings instead of rats with wings.

All of that variation was tweaked from one ancient mold.

The wild rock dove.

Thousands of years before they were eating old hot dog buns out of the trash, these birds

were found on seaside cliffs, but pretty much as soon as cities sprung up, they moved

in, because to a pigeon, a building is just a cliff with better architecture.

Pigeons are uniquely suited to city life, but they were only able to conquer all of

Earth’s urban areas because we brought them there.


Because we liked feeding themto ourselves.

In fact, from Egypt to Rome to the early 20th century, the main roles of a pigeon were dinner,

or something for rich people to breed into silly shapes.

Over time here and there, a few of these domestic birds escaped and returned to awild

life, they just never left the city.

But for some reason along that journey, our opinion of pigeons went from thisto this.

Watch pigeons pecking at the sidewalk and youre not looking at the smartest birds

in the tree.

They can’t solve puzzles like crows.

They can’t talk like parrots.

A pigeon’s brain is only about the size of that fingertipbut like most things

in nature there’s more to the story.

Most of their skull is eyeball: if they were the size of humans, their eyes would be as

big as grapefruits

Those huge eyes have five color receptors, compared to our three, letting them see things

we can’t imagine.

One pigeon named Linus was trained to remember nearly a thousand images.

Pigeons can peck out a Monet from a Picasso, they can even judge if a child’s drawing

is good or bad.

Pigeons can tell correctly spelled words among misspelled words, As if they aren’t annoying


They can even put groups of objects in numerical order, which sounds easy because were smart,

but pigeons do numbers as well as monkeys do,

Pigeon vision is the bomb.


During WW II, psychologist B.F. Skinner tried to turn these birds into weapons.

He trained pigeons to keep an image centered on a tiny screen by pecking at it.

He hooked this up to a navigation system, and then loaded it inside of a bomb.

He wanted to create explosive missiles piloted by kamikaze pigeons.

He built several successful prototypes using money from the General Mills cereal company

yes, the people who make Cheerios, but the Army never let it get off the ground.

Pigeon navigation goes a lot farther than bird bombs.

Just like /human/ city-dwellers, pigeons are commuters, flying out in the morning to find

food and coming back at night.

Theyre tightly bonded to their home, and this instinct is so strong that weve used

them as messengers for centuries, like Flapchat instead of Snapchat.

Before Paul Reuter founded a global news service, he used pigeons to deliver news.

During World War I and II, racing pigeons with names like Cher Ami and GI Joe were given

actual medals for delivering messages under fire.

How are pigeons so good at finding their way home from places theyve never been?

Different experiments have found pigeons use visual maps, Earth’s magnetic field, the

angle of the sun, even smells to navigate.

But when scientists knock each of these senses out, some birds can still find their way home.

What we do know is pigeons use a lot of senses, maybe even some we don’t know about yet.

Even though pigeons are everywhere, there’s one thing you never seem to see: Baby pigeons.

They do exist, andthey are ugly.

But it’s a reminder that even a bird that’s everywhere only gives us glimpses into its


Darwin’s ideas about natural selection were born on a voyage around the world.

But you don’t have to go to exotic places to have your mind blown by evolution’s awesomeness.

Darwin knew that, and that’s why he picked the pigeon to introduce the world to his theory.

If you know where to look, wildlife is everywhere that we are: just make sure if you look up to admire

it, you keep your mouth closed.

Stay curious.

I want to thank our friends from BBC Earth for helping us make this episode, because

pigeons look awesome in slow-motion.

Some of pigeonsoldest enemies have followed them to cities: birds of prey.

These scientists are studying peregrine falcons for Planet Earth II, the sequel to the groundbreaking

BBC series.

It’s part ofCities”, an entire episode dedicated to urban wildlife.

Of course, birds of prey aren’t pigeonsonly urban predators.

For Planet Earth II, the team filmed a pigeon hunt you have to see to believe.

You can find Planet Earth II on BBC One in the UK and coming soon to BBC America.

For more information, check out their website.