Down in jungleland

Down in jungleland

Despite its vapid appearance,the pigeon is a plucky survivor.

Plump,benign,vacuous — pigeons and doves seem to evoke the essence of dumbness. They panic easily and have banal calls — guturgooo-guturgooo-gutoorgoo — which we find so yogically becalming. Like us,they think of sex 17 times in 30 seconds and can be indiscriminate in their choice of partners. And yet,behind the apparent dumbness,lies pure genius because they’ve wangled a successful survival deal with us. They’ve turned out to be smarter than those pushy sparrows and those street-fighting mynas which — like our political class — seem to like nothing better than fighting amongst each other (though the mynas simply do it because they enjoy a scrap,and not because they’re competing to rip off the whole country). Maybe,only the crows are smarter,but who likes crows anyway?

It’s difficult to believe that the ubiquitous Blue Rock Dove was once a daring cliff-nesting species at home in wild and wanton landscapes,especially when you consider their pathetic nest-building skills. But then they discovered skyscrapers and air-conditioning ducts and beehive hairdos and the rest,as they say,was history. They moved in with us. They’re grain-eaters and we’re grain spillers,but they’re not fussy and now do well on namkeen and breadcrumbs too. They’ve migrated en masse to nearly every major city in the world and somehow,(perhaps,because they look so dumb) have found a place in our foolish hearts. We feed them and cosset them,and they get fatter and pirouette madly and make love left,right and centre,right in front of young,impressionable souls and no one says anything. Let us try anything even remotely like that and see what happens!

Ah,you might say,but pigeons and doves have long been considered as symbols of peace and goodwill,so it’s good to have so many peace-loving birds amongst us making frantic love and not war. Politicians and world leaders have forever been throwing white doves into the sky after signing peace treaties. But,have you ever seen these symbols of peace and love,have a go at each other? For sheer viciousness,they’ll take those mynas to the cleaners (mynas just ham most of the time) as they try to tear each others’ throats out and beat each other senseless with their wings. Exactly what happens to those peace treaties.

Pigeon fanciers have for long bred and flown these birds — you can see flocks wheel over the skies over old Delhi virtually every day. Of course,in their peace-loving and good-neighbourly way,these keen hobbyists try and capture other people’s pigeons. Which,brings us to,perhaps,the species’ greatest talent: their navigational skills. Pigeons love their homes and will,exasperatingly,return safely no matter where you leave them. Their role as carriers of secret messages for spies during the World Wars is the matter of legend and cinema,and we’re still figuring out how they do it. They chart their course by the sun,they follow “leading lines” such as rivers and coasts,they can sense tiny changes in barometric pressure,they have iron buried in their beaks so they can align themselves with the earth’s magnetic field… the list goes on.


The Blue Rock Dove is,perhaps,the most successful species of this huge and multicultural family. A relative that’s also going places is the collared dove,that over-powdered mushroom-coloured bird that often flies straight up into the sky and planes down in circles,emitting a remarkably dumb,self-satisfied “krooon-krooon” call. This,believe it or not,is a territorial display. But the birds are brave and will chase crows with all the speed and tenacity of a cop-car chase. These doves have now migrated to Europe and England (from their origins in Turkey) and are causing immigration problems there. The trouble is that they haven’t actively displaced any local heroes from their niches because they’re generalists and not specialists,so there’s really little rationale to refuse them visas. Unlike many immigrants,they fit. But doves and pigeons,no matter how successful they are and how quickly they breed,should beware and keep their relations with us cordial.

Remember what happened to that relative of theirs — the Passenger Pigeon? As for me,I’m still looking out for a good recipe for pigeon pie. n

Ranjit Lal is an author,environmentalist and bird watcher. In this new column,he reflects on the eccentricities and absurdities of nature<\i>