Pigeons

Richard F Johnston. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Because humans seem to have had omnivorous ancestors, birds were probably a significant item in the human diet well before historic time. Many kinds of birds can be caught readily, and young adults are generally considered to be superior fare (Cott 1946). Additionally, the eggs of many kinds of birds are highly prized (Cott 1954). In the case of pigeons, the rock pigeon (Columba livia) is known to have frequented regions inhabited by our ancestors more than 300,000 years ago (Tchernov 1968).

At present, the domestic chicken (Gallus domesticus) and their eggs are extremely important in diets across the globe. Indeed, the husbandry of chickens is economically unequaled by that of any other bird. But the economic and dietary importance of domestic fowl is a relatively recent development and in large part reflects changes brought about by twentieth-century biology.

The domestic fowl, derived from Asian species of the genus Gallus, was introduced to the West and became known to people of the Mediterranean Near East only a little more than 2,500 years ago (Wood-Gush 1985).This was perhaps 3,000 years after rock pigeons were domesticated in southwestern Asia (Sossinka 1982) and long after they had become important in human diets. However, because pigeons also figured in early religions of the eastern Mediterranean region, the fact that they were domesticated birds does not explicitly address their use as food. Thus, the dual role pigeons have played in human affairs needs to be distinguished whenever possible.

The family Columbidae is widely distributed (Goodwin 1983).There are some 300 kinds of pigeons known to biologists, and many have been and still are used for food by humans worldwide. The record of dietary use is, however, without detail for most such species, as for example, doves. But it is likely that the flesh of most (although not necessarily their eggs) is suitable for human consumption (Cott 1946, 1954).

Rock Pigeons

The rock pigeon has a history in part coincident with that of humans for at least the past 12,000 years. The earliest information is of two kinds—the organic, sub-fossil, bony remains of pigeons in midden heaps in caves and the slightly later cultural record of human–pigeon interactions.

Bones from midden heaps, which constitute reasonably direct evidence that humans caught and ate rock pigeons, are present in eastern Mediterranean sites—caves in Israel that were used as dwellings by humans around 11,000 to 12,000 years ago. Because the bones are indistinguishable from those of wild rock pigeons currently living in the Near East (BarYosef and Tchernov 1966), it is possible that immediate post-Pleistocene pigeons might have nested in caves used by humans. And it is also possible that their bones were incorporated into the midden heaps as a result of death by other than human agents. It is considerably more likely, however, that bones in these refuse piles indicate that the pigeons in question served as food for human hunters.

But so long as humans relied on catching wild pigeons—probably squabs from nests—pigeon would have been merely an occasional item of diet. Only after pigeons were domesticated and relegated to a life of confinement in cages did they make a regular appearance on the table. The first such attempts are not recorded, but rock pigeons are readily domesticated (Darwin 1868), and as the following discussion shows, this practice doubtless occurred relatively early.

The earliest evidence of domestication has been found in Sumerian statuary and cuneiform lists; in the remains at a funerary feast in a tomb at Saqqara, Egypt; in Sumerian culture, which includes a version of the Mesopotamian Flood Myth featuring a pigeon; and in small clay religious shrines as well as on sculptures depicting fertility goddesses, Astarte or Ishtar. Slightly later, there are Egyptian bird sacrifices on record and a Babylonian scribal list of bird names in cuneiform. We will briefly explore this evidence, beginning with that which dates from earliest times.

The Sumerian Flood Myth can be dated from a massive flood that occurred about 6,000 years ago (Lang-don 1931). In the myth, a “dove” was the first bird released from the still floating Ark, and it returned for the night, signifying no available dry land.

The early Egyptian material includes traces of pigeon bones from a funeral dinner apparently held some 6,000 years ago (Hansell and Hansell 1992).This is the first, and very dim, indication of what may have been domestic pigeons playing a role in human diets.

Sumerian clay shrines, dating from some 4,500 years ago, depict pigeons that were evidently of religious importance. There are also fertility figures from the same period that have pigeons perched on their uplifted arms (Langdon 1931). Quite possibly, the significance of the pigeons in this instance has to do with their unusual reproductive capabilities (the ability of captives to lay eggs and rear young in midwinter).

Around 4,000 years ago it was recorded that the Egyptian King Rameses II offered 58,810 pigeons to the god Ammon, at Thebes (Hansell and Hansell 1992). The large number of birds involved can only mean that Egyptians were practicing pigeon husbandry at that time, for there is no way in which wild rock pigeons could have been rounded up in such numbers.

An Old Babylonian cuneiform tablet dated from 3,830 to 3,813 years ago contains 70 Akkadian bird names in more or less taxonomic groups (Black and Al-Rawi 1987), and no fewer than 3 of the names refer to pigeons, one of which almost certainly applied to the rock pigeon.

A considerable summary of such ancient records treating pigeons as sacred or at least of religious importance may be found in the opening pages of W. Levi (1974). Unfortunately, little of the archaic information provides a positive identity for the early species of domesticated pigeon. Most likely, however, rock pigeons and at least one other species, probably a kind of turtledove, were involved. In addition, of the species of pigeons (and doves) still present in the Near East, the rock pigeon, wood pigeon (Columba palumbus), stock dove (Columba oenas), and turtle-dove (Streptopelia turtur) were surely used as food and may be among the birds represented on the clay shrines and in the lists just discussed.

Rock pigeons have been common, year-round residents in the Near East. They have extremely long breeding seasons, nesting semicolonially in caves and on ledges of coastal and montane cliffs, and are thought to have sometimes become synanthropic in early Near Eastern cities (Glutz and Bauer 1980).Their reproductive capabilities of persistent, serial breeding, beginning early and ending late in the year, when no other kinds of birds are active, would have been readily observed and, thus, part of the knowledge of the time. Such knowledge would have been of considerable importance in fostering efforts aimed at holding pigeons as captives.

Fragmentary evidence as well as outright speculation about human behavior suggests that the domestication of rock pigeons took place between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. This must have occurred after the development of grain farming (around 10,000 years ago), which was the major human cultural acquisition that permitted animal domestication in the Near East (Harlan and Zohary 1966). But although cereal agriculture and early animal domestication originated in the Near East, the wild rock pigeon has a large geographic distribution (Cramp 1985) overlapping early human agriculture in many regions of Europe and Asia (Piggott 1965; Ammermann and Cavalli-Sforza 1971).

Consequently, rock pigeons could easily have been domesticated at many different places and times in southeastern Europe, North Africa, the Near East, and southwestern and southern Asia. Doubtless, another cultural factor that assisted in the domestication of pigeons was the experience gained by humans in domesticating other creatures. Wolves, for example, were domesticated in the Near East at least 9,000 years ago and even earlier elsewhere (Reed 1969).

Pigeon chicks taken at about 2 weeks of age would have been somewhat less wild than their parents and more likely to have accepted captivity. Wild adult pigeons are nervous captives, do not accept cages, and thus sometimes injure themselves; they also spend less time in reproduction than birds accustomed to confinement. In light of this, one suspects that domestication could have occurred in one of two, somewhat different, ways.

The first would have been for hunters to have captured rock pigeon squabs in nesting caves, with the idea of holding them and feeding them in cages until they grew larger. Gradually, however, humans would have learned to continue such captivity until the birds matured and were able to reproduce. A second scenario would have humans erecting nesting platforms in dove caves. This would have turned them into primordial dovecotes, where the birds could have been harvested and where much could have been learned about their reproductive behavior and ecology.

Concurrent with these scenarios, early cities of the Near East may have been voluntarily colonized by wild rock pigeons. The mud and stone walls of such settlements would have made quite suitable nest sites, with nearby fields of wheat and barley providing nutrition. These synanthropic birds could subsequently have been taken into confinement by either of the two ways just mentioned.

Selection of Pigeons for Food

Captive pigeons probably were unconsciously selected by humans for tameness and reproductive vigor, but they would have been consciously selected for characteristics that increased their utility as high-quality food. The major one of these traits to be modified was size. Wild rock pigeons in the Near East are relatively small and average about 300 grams in undressed weight (Cramp 1985). But today, males of large domestic strains are known to reach more than seven times that size (Levi 1974). Thus, the mating of large individuals would readily have repaid any early pigeon keeper.

We have no documentation for such a selection process, but it is clear that it was practiced. By Roman times, for example, a large-bodied domestic strain (usually identified with today’s “runt”) was already developed (Levi 1974).The runt is preserved in a variety of substrains by pigeon fanciers and commercial squab producers.

At the time that pigeons were developed for the table, smaller dovecote pigeons were probably also being selected. Dovecote pigeons are domestics that are, for the most part, allowed to fly freely in order to obtain their own food; they are also highly site-specific and return daily to the pigeon house or dovecote in which they were reared. Dovecotes are small buildings, usually raised above the ground and providing quarters for roosting and nesting pigeons as well as access for pigeon keepers to harvest the squabs.

Prior to the time that larger mammals were kept overwinter, pigeons were a reliable source of winter protein for rural people (Murton and Westwood 1966). Indeed, well-fed pigeons with a characteristically high fat content in muscle would have been important to such diets (Barton and Houston 1993). Pigeons have continued to be used for food up to the present time, although recent practice emphasizes the gourmet table rather than the farm kitchen (Levi 1974). As already mentioned, the current dominance of domestic fowl in human diets is a reflection not of its superior quality as a source of animal protein but of its greater adaptability to human poultry husbandry, which guarantees producers large returns on their work or investment.

Pigeon Husbandry in Europe and America

In earlier times, once a pigeon house was constructed, pigeons were easy to keep, at least at low to mid latitudes. The birds of a columbarium fed themselves on wild seeds and waste agricultural grains, and if their food was supplemented in winter, a large number—thousands of pairs—could be maintained throughout the year.

It is not clear at what time pigeon husbandry on such a large scale was found in Europe, but substantial columbariums were in operation in medieval times. Of the ones that are documented, some, such as those set up by thirteenth-century emperor Frederick II, were reasonably elaborate. The emperor’s holdings covered southern Italy and eastern Sicily, which were dotted with more than a dozen of his castles.

Frederick moved from one to another of these castles in the course of a year, because the large size of his court regularly required a fresh supply of food. Frequent moves also provided time at any one castle for the satisfactory recycling of wastes in between visits. Each castle had a large dovecote, built within and sharing some of the castle walls, which the court relied on for a significant fraction of its fresh meat (Frederick II 1942). We know these details of the emperor’s life because he was an ornithologist as well as a builder of castles. He left behind his writings on birds and the remains of his buildings, which clearly show that the columbarium was an integral part of the castles he designed.

While in Syria, where he was otherwise engaged on a Crusade, Frederick was able to secure novel domestic strains of pigeons. Birds from the Near East may not have been bred for table use, owing to religious practices of the Syrians, but the record is important to us because it suggests widespread pigeon husbandry at that time.

In post-Renaissance Europe, pigeon keeping was, to some extent, restricted to the privileged classes of society—to manor house lords and members of the clergy (Cooke 1920). Many large flocks were maintained, and recent estimates of numbers of dovecote pigeons in England and France in the sixteenth century run to the millions (Cooke 1920; Murton and Westwood 1966). As noted earlier, dovecote birds generally foraged for themselves in the agricultural countryside, going distances of perhaps 20 to 30 kilometers (Ragionieri, Mongini, and Baldaccini 1991).

As a consequence, peasant farmers on the estates and beyond sometimes had serious problems in getting their grains and pulses to sprout because of pigeon depredations. Maturing and ripe grain was also at risk, as was stored grain, for pigeons entered storage sheds if these were not secure. To compound the problem, farmers were prohibited from killing the birds. Indeed, some political historians have suggested that the victimization of farmers by the operation of aristocratic dovecotes contributed to the rebellion against social privilege culminating in the French Revolution of 1789 (Cooke 1920).

Whether true or not, such a sequestering of rights to rear pigeons by the privileged classes of medieval and post-Renaissance Europe speaks loudly of the significance of pigeons in the diet of people of preindustrial Europe and Asia. The birds were especially important in adding fresh protein to wintertime diets for those living at high latitudes or away from seacoasts, or anywhere that cattle could not regularly be over-wintered. It is likely that chickens also provided such protein in the cold months (as well as at other times of the year), but chicken reproduction dropped off considerably in winter. Thus, wintertime diets that featured chicken depended on mature birds, in contrast to the use of pigeon squabs, which appeared regularly throughout the year.

Current Pigeon Husbandry

The current architecture of pigeon houses in the Middle East, Mediterranean Europe, and North Africa may be little changed from earlier times, and rural Egyptians still build tall, earthen dovecotes—towers of mud into which clay pots have been placed for pigeons to nest in (Hollander 1959; Hafner 1993). By contrast, rural or small-town Italians use metal screening and planks of wood, usually keeping the birds in a flypen arrangement. But however pigeons are kept, adult birds of less than 7 years of age are employed as breeders, and their squabs are taken for the table at about 30 days of age (Levi 1974). The adults tend to overlap their broods, so that when well fed and fully confined, they may produce 12 to 18 squabs per year (Burley 1980; Johnson and Johnston 1989).Thus, even a small colony of 10 pairs could provide a family with squabs for the table each week.

Dovecote pigeonry in the Americas was introduced by settlers from England, France, and Germany to early seventeenth-century Nova Scotia and Virginia (Schorger 1952). Pigeons for the table (as distinct from racing or show purposes) are kept in much the same fashion today as in earlier times. The major difference is that the pigeon house in America is generally a single-story building that is spread out over a very large area relative to those of historic Europe and Asia, which tended to be columnar (Cooke 1920; Hansell and Hansell 1992).

Because a dovecote or columbarium consists of a large number of boxes, cells, or breeding enclosures in which a pair of birds can build a nest and rear young, a western European columnar columbarium facilitates the work of cleaning up by concentrating the birds’ droppings. In contrast, a ranch-style unit of pigeon houses, such as in North America, allows increased time intervals in such housekeeping. The houses are usually of wooden frame construction on a concrete pad; a center aisle allows entry by keepers to the nest boxes for feeding and housekeeping, as well as for keeping track of nests and eggs, marking squabs, and, ultimately, collecting them.

The birds may be confined, which means they live partly in a roofed nest-box enclosure and partly in a screened flypen, open to the elements. The classical dovecote operation was employed until relatively recently, even in commercial establishments (Levi 1974), but it is now found chiefly on single-family farms.

Use as Food

Squabs prepared for the table are about as large as small chickens, but their distribution of edible flesh is different. In contrast to chickens, pigeons are strong-flying birds, and perhaps 30 percent of a squab’s overall weight, and 70 percent of the muscular weight, will be in the paired pectorales or flight muscles. Pigeons, although also adept at running and walking, have leg muscles that are proportionally smaller than those of chickens.

Pigeons appear in the world’s first cookbook, which is attributed to Apicius, a first-century Roman, but is thought to have originally been a collection of Greek monographs on cookery by several authors (Vehling 1936). If we judge only by the frequency of its pigeon recipes, which number 2 against 18 for chicken, then it would seem that the ascendancy of the latter in human diets was already marked in Mediterranean Europe by the first century. However, since all the chicken recipes could be as readily done with pigeon, it may be that the authors were offering us their own preferences (an author’s prerogative) rather than indicating the relative availability of the two sorts of birds. The recipes for pigeon are ones dominated by raisins, honey, and dates, suggesting that perhaps the more pronounced flavor of pigeon is better able than chicken to emerge from such sugary dishes.

In any event, today pigeons are regularly prepared for the table in the same manner as domestic fowls, but because of the more assertive flavor of pigeons, stronger spicing may be used if desired. Pigeon breast muscles are “dark meat,” so that a significant fraction of current recipes employ plenty of garlic, and those using wines specify full-bodied reds, or sherries and other fortified wines.

Pigeons Other Than Rock Pigeons

Domesticated rock pigeons are the most important food species of the 300 kinds of pigeons in the world. Only one other, the ringed turtledove (Streptopelia risoria), has been domesticated, but it is smaller than the rock pigeon and not of general significance for human diets. A large number of other kinds of pigeons of variable sizes are also used on occasion for food by humans. Many of these are secured by hunters using guns or nets, such as the North American mourning dove (Zenaida macroura), the European wood pigeon (C. palumbus), and many other Asiatic, African, South American, and Australian species.

Such hunting may be regulated by government restrictions, so that a yearly harvest occurs each autumn when the birds are in fairly dense migratory flocks. But hunting may also be restricted to autumn for economic reasons, as this is frequently the only time in which it is profitable to secure the birds. A notable example is the famous netting operations in the valleys of the Pyrenees between France and Spain—valleys used by a large fraction of European wood pigeons in migration.

Unfortunately, the passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) of North America were hunted at any time of year and became extinct around 1900, although it should be noted that the cutting of the North American hardwood forest, which destroyed a significant food source and was the chief habitat of the birds, was an equally important factor (Bucher 1992). Nonetheless, it is fair to say that pigeons and their relatives comprise a group inordinately disposed toward extinction at the hands of human hunters. No fewer than 15 species have been exterminated in historic time, including such remarkable birds as the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) and the solitaire (Pezophaps solitaria), as well as the passenger pigeon. In all instances it is clear that the birds were used for food by humans, but it is a fact that habitat destruction and the introduction of cats, dogs, and rats also contributed to such extinctions, most of which occurred on islands.