For the Birds Radio Program: Rock Pigeon

Original Air Date: Aug. 27, 2003 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: Sept. 30, 2004

That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but that which we call a Rock Dove will be corrected by an ornithologist to Rock Pigeon now.

Audio missing


When I started birding in 1975, one of the exciting joys for me was finally figuring out how the birds in my every day life fit into the grand scheme of things. What I’d always thought of as McDonald’s Sparrows—because they were the little birds who begged for French fries and bits of hamburger bun—turned into House Sparrows, and my books explained that this was the same species nicknamed the English sparrow. I was surprised to discover that this was just one species—up until I saw them in my first field guide, I’d thought the males and females were two different kinds of birds because their markings were so different.

Regular old ducks turned into Mallards, and again it was nice to clear up that males and females were for sure the same species, even though the males were so vivid and iridescent and the females weren’t. One of my books even explained that Mallards were one of the first domesticated birds, and that white farm ducks are the exact same species as the wild and brightly colored wild Mallards. Farm ducks are still close enough genetically that the two types can interbreed. Young from such a cross tend to be bigger and more washed out than normal Mallards, but it doesn’t take many generations of breeding with wild Mallards to produce young that look exactly like pure-bred Mallards except slightly bigger with a wider white neck band.

The shiny black, speckled birds I used to feed out my dorm room window in college turned out to be European Starlings. The long-tailed, sleek black birds with gold eyes were Common Grackles—my family had always called them crows or crow blackbirds, back from the days when urban crows were not nearly as common as they are now. The first crow I saw after I became a birder, on March 17, 1975 in the Morton Arboretum outside Chicago was also the first crow I’d ever noticed in my life.

Robins were still robins, only now I knew they were American Robins, in an entirely different family than the “Robin Red-breast” found in England. The only bird whose name was exactly the same as I’d thought was the Blue Jay.

Perhaps the first birds I ever noticed in my life were pigeons. My earliest memory is of standing on our family’s sofa to look out the living room window. We lived near the Chicago River, with a drawbridge within sight. When the bridge went up, pigeons would fly up into the sky, drawing my eyes upward, carrying me away from the grimy streets and cruel people and sad losses in my life. My brother caught a pigeon when he was ten, and after building him a coop and getting involved in pigeon fancier clubs, entered him into many pigeon races.

When I became a birder I learned that pigeons, like House Sparrows and starlings, were introduced to America, but in the case of pigeons, they were never intended to become wild birds. Pigeons were used for food and for carrying messages. My grandpa told me about the pigeons in the Army Signal Corps that saved soldiers lives during the two World Wars. I loved these birds, and was delighted when I became a birder to learn that their real ornithological name was more dignified than pigeon—they were Rock Doves. This was the name they’d held since the American Ornithologists’ Union first standardized English names of birds in 1886, but apparently someone referred to them as Rock Pigeons in the literature at least once before anyone called them Rock Doves, because this month in the updated checklist, the AOU changed its name officially to Rock Pigeon. It’s disconcerting after over a quarter of a century to have to start calling this bird something else—like when one of my friends got divorced and not only went back to her maiden name, but also changed her first name, too. Now I have to train myself to say Rock Pigeon. I’ll eventually get used to it. But I’m sure glad no one wrote some of the other names for pigeon in the ornithological literature of the 1800s. I’d never adjust to changing its name to the flying rat.