Most city dwellers would agree that pigeons are sentient garbage. They eat pizza off the ground and defecate with abandon, sometimes on pedestrians’ heads. Worst of all, they don’t seem terribly bothered by humans—they’ll flap their filthy wings in our faces and move on as if nothing happened. But today just so happens to be Pigeon Appreciation Day (yes, really) so we’re giving them a little extra love. Like a diamond in the rough—or the french fry at the bottom of the trash can—it’s entirely possible these creatures have some kind of hidden goodness. Maybe.
According to Paul Sweet, collections manager in the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, pigeons have unfairly gotten a bad rap over the years.
“The pigeons we have in North America, the ones we see in the cities, are the domesticated form of the rock dove,” he told Gizmodo. “The rock dove in its habitat in the Old World in Europe and Asia is a wild bird that lives around cliffs. It was domesticated by humans—originally, probably for food—and then was later used to carry messages.”
While urban-dwelling pigeons aren’t exactly known for their bright colors, the family of birds they belong to—Columbidae—has some very vibrant members. The orange dove is a radiant bird found in Fiji. The orange-breasted green-pigeon—endemic to India—also has extraordinary hues on its feathers. Even the pigeons here in New York City, which are called rock doves (Columba livia), exhibit iridescent plumes. That purple and green stuff on pigeons’ throats is comprised of intricately intertwined pigments in their feathers. They’re majestic, winged mermaids who sometimes like to eat from the trash.
“I don’t think they’re that gross,” Sweet explained. “If you look at the ones we have in the park, they’re quite clean and have nice formations. They also make nice noises. So I don’t think they’re that disgusting.”
Pigeons play an important role in their urban ecosystems by serving as food for red-tailed hawks. They’re also the unofficial “clean up crew,” sweeping up their habitats—with their mouths.
If you’re willing to look beneath their layers of grossness, you’ll find that pigeons are the ultimate urban survivors. Making it in the big city isn’t easy, but these guys certainly get the job done.