Besides the minority of eccentric bird-people in Washington Square Park (and some impressed/concerned onlookers), most New Yorkers would say the same thing: “I hate pigeons.”
Whether it is their erratic flapping when they fly, their dirtiness, or the way they sneakily amble around in search of crumbs, they are the most detested, and well-known, birds around.
These “rats with wings” may be irritating to the average park-goer, and may even come across as stupid as they bob under benches and hobble away with confused expressions, but that is just what they want us to think. Though they may seem quite the opposite, pigeons are actually extremely intelligent birds. They’re kind of like the friend who acts ditzy but excels in academics and surprises everybody (or like the evil villain who acts dumb but is actually plotting all along).
Numerous studies have been carried out in order to determine the extent of pigeons’ intellectual capabilities, and the results are pretty remarkable. The pigeon is one of six species in the entire world, and the only non-mammal, that can recognize itself in a mirror. In fact, a study done at Keio University has shown that pigeons have superior self-recognition skills to those of three-year-old humans. Pigeons are capable of recognizing all 26 letters of the English alphabet, and can distinguish between different words as well. They can also recognize humans by their faces, and they remember the people who are nice to them (and possibly, mean to them). They are on par with primates when it comes to mathematics, and can learn abstract mathematical concepts. Even more impressively, they can beat humans on difficult logic problems such as the Monty Hall Dilemma. Pigeons have amazing vision that allows them to distinguish between seemingly identical colors, and this trait may be the reason why they can spot breast cancer on a mammogram just as well as a trained radiologist. Along with apparent medical prowess, a pigeon’s eyesight can be applied artistically. A 1995 study showed that pigeons have the ability to distinguish between paintings by Monet and Picasso; coincidentally, Picasso was a devoted pigeon-lover during his lifetime, and actually named his daughter Paloma (Spanish for pigeon).
On a more down-to-earth note, pigeons in Stockholm have learned how to ride the subway to their favorite scavenging destinations, and are reportedly exceptional passengers. They also, incidentally, know how to use touchscreens. They’re just like the average New Yorker, except they don’t think that they’re better than everybody else. (Wait…actually, they probably do.)
This is all pretty impressive, but pigeons’ talent is not only limited to cognitive abilities. Pigeons are tough. Resilient. Sometimes, even war heroes. World War I spies used hundreds of thousands of pigeons and other birds to carry messages back and forth across enemy lines, and valued pigeons for their capability of returning home in even the worst kinds of weather. They are able to fly up to 100mph (yes, really), and can speed through the sky with airplanes as well as keep up with traffic on the road. WWI Reconnaissance pigeons also carried minuscule cameras to take pictures across enemy lines; kind of like old-fashioned, feathery drones. A particularly brave pigeon named Cher Ami delivered a message that saved the lives of more than 200 American soldiers, despite being shot multiple times by German troops. He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal, and is one of the most famous WWI heroes. Pigeons may not have the beauty, but they definitely have the brains and brawn.
It has been estimated that there are around 400 million pigeons in the world today, and the population is speedily growing. In New York City alone, the pigeon population is estimated to exceed 1 million. Pigeons inhabit practically every city in the world, and possibly interact with humans on a daily basis more than any other animal on Earth. Because they are so common, we tend to overlook them as we go about our daily lives, and we do not notice just how many there are (or maybe we do, if they’re in a gigantic flock around a pigeon-person throwing seeds in the park). Still, the average city dweller does not tend to stop and think about these brilliant animals, and the gears turning behind their calculating, self-recognizing, 20/20, mischievous orange eyes.
Which brings us to the question: could pigeons be plotting to take over the world? We have absolutely no idea but we may not notice until it is too late.