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8 march 2011

Hares and rabbits, or turtles and tortoises, are dissimilar species sometimes lumped together by the cultural constructions of language. Pigeons and doves, on the other hand, are pretty much the same bird, but exiled to opposite ends of the cultural spectrum by our language and our habits of thought.

Barbara Allen's Pigeon brings the contradictions and conventions of the pigeon/dove divide into sharp focus. To start with etymology: "pigeon" is Norman, "dove" is Saxon. But complications immediately arise. We know from Ivanhoe that the basic principle of Norman/Saxon animal naming should mean that the Norman name is food and the Saxon name is not: Beef/cow, pork/pig, veal/calf. But nobody eats "pigeon." In fact fried pigeon is usually called "squab," at least in America. And "squab" is probably a Saxon word as well.

[Well, there's another layer of complication; like all kinds of knowledge, etymology is fractal, often twisting through more contradictions as you look closer at the pattern. "Dove" and "squab" are apparently not originally Anglo-Saxon, but Norse in origin, and seem to enter written Standard English from forms used in the north of England. The Anglo-Saxon word for the animal is "culver," which appears unrelated to any other word. For that matter, "pigeon" is not a common Romance word, but a French innovation; the common Romance words (including the somewhat distant-looking Spanish paloma) are based on the Latin word columba.]

So with the pigeon/dove, we have the rare bird that was eaten in English but kept for other purposes in Norman French. Eaten as squab, of course, though there's another misleading term: squab is the name for a pigeon chick, but what we probably eat, if we ever do, is a more mature animal given a more appetizing younger name (much as most of the "lamb" eaten in the US is more properly "mutton").

Peculiar too is that the "dysphemism" (negative term) for the bird is Norman, and the euphemism is Saxon. It's probably futile at this distance to try to tease out how these birds were valued differently by different classes and ethnicities of people in early England. This much we can say: there's a common bird family, some members of which we consider "flying rats" and damn crap-emitting nuisances, and other members of which – displaying the same behavior, making the same cooing noises – that we think of as the international symbol of peace, and the emblem of the Holy Ghost.

Barbara Allen, more lyrical than many of the Reaktion Books Animal Series authors, traces the pigeon and the dove through natural history, mythology, domestication, and the arts. Pigeons, despite the visceral dislike they provoke in many city-dwellers, are among the birds that people bond with most adhesively. More contradictions! And if that's not enough, consider the effect that pigeons can have on the toughest of tough guys. Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, of course, but also the real-life Mike Tyson, shown in one of Pigeon's more remarkable images cradling a dove against his massive torso.

Allen ends with two lessons from ecology. Despite their hardy omnipresence, pigeons count among their ranks two of the most famous extinctions in historical times. The dodo was doomed, perhaps; complacent in its tropic-island nest, it had no chance whatsoever against invasive species. But the passenger pigeon was, by body count and biomass, the most dominant species on the North American continent. Early republicans sometimes called the United States "Columbia" after a certain Genoese sailor, but the term might as well have referred to the most basic of all American bird species. And now they're all gone.

Popular Darwinism often seems to think that natural selection favors those species that kick butt and appropriate entire ecosystems to their own use. But there's such a thing as being too successful. The passenger pigeon was perfectly adapted to pre-Conquest America. It was also perfectly vulnerable to the shotgun. When you are everywhere, you have nowhere to hide.

Humans often take the dodo as a morality lesson for extinction. Be fat and slow and complacent, and leaner/meaner species will eat your eggs and tear you limb from limb. By contrast we often see the passenger pigeon as the ultimate example of man's inhumanity to bird. But in a much more relevant sense, the passenger pigeon is us. We're everywhere now, too, and we don't guess we can ever be stopped. But a few generations after they darkened the skies, passenger pigeons vanished.

Allen, Barbara. Pigeon. London: Reaktion, 2009.