Origin Story: Pigeon

Robert James Russell


Lots of people talk to animals. Not very many listen though. That's the problem.

A.A. Milne


My dog is scheduled to be put to sleep tomorrow. 

The news came suddenly. A month ago, he survived major surgery to remove what the vet assumed to be a one-off tumor. His surgery scar was frightening, and for the first few days afterwards our place was a bloody mess. But he quickly became again the dog I’ve known for twelve years, just older, like he is, slightly slower. Then we woke one morning to a trail of blood leading from his bed. It wasn’t clotting. It just kept flowing. The vet ran some tests: he had zero platelets and seemed to be rapidly losing red blood cells. Whatever that tumor had been, something else had crept its way into his bone marrow. There really was no other choice; I didn’t want him to suffer. 

I see figments of his life tonight as I watch him. His life, which will end tomorrow. I replay little moments incessantly. How he’d follow me to the bathroom, not wanting to leave my side. How he’d nuzzle up against my leg, rather than bark, to seek attention. How he’d sniff theatrically when he wanted something—chicken, eggs, pizza crusts. I desperately want him to amble out of the little nest of blankets in his front closet bed, shake his head, give me a gentle woof.

See: I can’t think about pigeons without thinking about my dog. When we lived in Indiana, pigeons would roost in every roof eave and overhang. Pigeons are clumsy: they will, on occasion, accidentally knock an egg out of the nest to the ground. In our apartment, I had to relocate pigeon nests many times, built precariously on the corner of our thin, rod-iron railing or on top of the outdoor light box that, inevitably, wouldn’t have supported a full nest. My dog would watch me, enraptured, wanting to be part of the exchange. I still think about two live hatchlings I found under a burr oak when we were out for a walk. They’d been knocked down and it looked like the parents had abandoned the nest entirely at this point. They were half-dead, barely making a sound. He sniffed them, kept pulling me back toward them even as I walked toward home. I wish there were something I could’ve done.

Here in Nebraska, I live near where a road is cleaved in two: an upper portion that moves straight west, and a lower portion, a newly-formed underpass, that cuts through the heart of our part of downtown. Pigeons live in scores in the underhang of the road above us. You can’t walk down the sidewalk without stumbling on a patch of feathers, pigeon shit, or occasionally a carcass with its head bitten clean off. 

On my own I wouldn’t pay much attention to the pigeons, I don’t think. But Chewie would want to watch them for hours, curious as to their comings and goings. They cooed down at us from above, flapped furiously if we moved too close as they fed on the ground. Because of him, I began to understand the beauty of this throwaway bird.


Illustration courtesy of the author, based on true events.


The biophilia hypothesis by Edward O. Wilson states that humans possess an innate desire to be close to nature and other forms of life. Pets, this proximity, began for less than noble reasons, though: 

According to scholar Charles Phineas, the middle class family pet was meant to distract from “the stresses of the industrial city” while being a docile addition to the nuclear family. And the working class embraced this, seeing pet ownership as some sort of net gain.

But often, this is curation. We value animals in our homes and disregard the rest. And we forget to marvel at the wild species around us: particularly the common ones that have adapted especially well to our raze-and-burn lifestyle. We treat them as if they’re a nuisance, some form of nature creeping in and soiling (often: literally) our constructed edifices. From a 2008 scientific paper by Daniel Haag-Wackernagel and Ila Geigenfeind titled “Protecting Buildings Against Feral Pigeons,” the authors write, in blunt summation: “With our study, we elaborate the relevant structure data to help maintain a building free of pigeons.” A 1986 article in The New York Times about keeping pigeons away from your home: “If pigeons landing on the windowsill are a nuisance, there are a number of ways to discourage them from doing so.”

I find this fascinating, how we manifest beings like pigeons, for example, as invaders, how we attempt to free ourselves of their presence altogether. Really, attempting to dissuade a bird from being a bird is an absurdity.

Pigeons and doves are in the same family, yet we associate doves with peace, spirituality, and love, while pigeons are the proverbial rat-with-wings: annoyances who get too close to us when we dine al fresco. They have done nothing but adapt and survive, and yet we can no longer see their charm; we take for granted how we move in step together.

What is it to call an animal or a plant a pest, anyway? To say it does not belong wherever it might find itself? We worry so much about words like endemic and exotic, forgetting that these beings will outlive us all, will find a way to migrate even if we weren’t here. We scour the globe, leave home, find adventures in new places. We spread ourselves along wall-sized, push-pin festooned maps in our bedrooms and wish to be anywhere but here. But an animal? Invasive. A plant? A weed.

Turns out, we just numb ourselves to the majesty surrounding us.



George Shiras III was a U.S. Representative and nature photographer in the early 20th century credited with pioneering nighttime flash photography and taking photos of wild animals otherwise documented only once they’d been killed or trapped. But he saw a future, a way not only to chronicle the animals on our periphery but to better understand how we come into contact, how we might peel back the penumbra of their world. To Shiras, they represented an idealized view of nature, pure and untamed. Through him, wildlife photography was born—it was his photos that transformed National Geographic from a magazine of essays to one known for its remarkable photos.


This June 1890 photo from northern Michigan represents the first wild animal to take its own picture; Shiras rigged a cord stretched from the camera, creating a tripwire; the deer tripped the shutter and took its own photo. Photo originally appears in George Shiras' two-volume autobiography Hunting Wild Life with Camera and Flashlight, 1898 (reprinted in 1936).


What Shiras went through to capture nature, to glimpse that whole world he could not see on his own, is something we now take for granted. We can go out and snap a photo of a pigeon or a squirrel eating a donut from the dumpster or our cats, indoors. We meme-ify a rat lugging a too-big slice of NYC pizza down into the subway. And yet, everywhere, rats are still killed just for being rats, their name itself a synonym for dishonesty and vulgarity. 

Once, humans were at war with animals at every turn—it was our survival at their expense, our needs at their extinction. Even in some small way, we each come into contact with the wild world every day. Now, out my window, a roost of house finches flit and play and sing. There are starlings and robins fighting over territory. Fattened-up squirrels nesting in thin trees whose branches look like they might snap at any moment. We go to zoos for a glimpse of faraway animals living in manufactured habitats, yet these pigeons, these finches, the stray cats, the raccoons and so on that live in discarded boxes or beneath our homes, that lurk near our trash bins, are forgotten. 

Maybe: we crave not what’s close to us but what’s over the horizon; we desire what we can’t really ever know.



In a chapped field, on a crisp October day, men come together with their racing pigeons crated in the beds of worn-down pickups or in the back of conversion vans with painted images along the sides. They’re bundled in workwear, faces pink from the wind. Here, on a stretch of land that has already been harvested for corn or soy, they are set to release their birds and time how long it takes them to return home. This is the sport: to see how quickly the birds, across unfamiliar terrain, can make it back.

Research now tells us that pigeons sense the Earth’s magnetic field to help them navigate great distances. Some pigeons have been clocked at making over 1,000 mile journeys in competitive races flying at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. These men in this field release the birds all at once, a synchronous flapping you can’t appreciate, not really, unless you’re there, boots on the ground, shielding your eyes from the bright morning sun. This is a sport of absence: unlike watching horses run or dogs in show, you release the birds, drive home, and wait. You wait and wait; you might keep a pigeon at home with you to use as bait, calling out to its brood, let it flap around in your gentle fists. But your roosts are empty. The land is quiet. Turns out you need them more than they need you.



A London advert giddily announcing the demise of 97% of a feral pigeon population.


I’m in Trafalgar Square in London. I’m eighteen and this is my first trip anywhere without my family, my first time feigning adulthood. I’m traveling with two friends, and here, men in colorful shirts sell paper bags of birdseed. We witness other tourists take part: the moment they place some seed in their palms and stretch out their arms, pigeons swarm, landing on every possible surface. I laugh, I want to feel their feet on me. My friends don’t understand why, and I can’t explain it—a long-time fascination with watching birds in my backyard, counting jays and cardinals and robins with their bouncing, spindly legs. I wanted to see the world, wanted to be free, I suppose, in a way I never had been, free from family and religion and the confines of my Midwestern town. I buy the seed and hold out my arms. My friends won’t ever really understand the rush I feel at being entombed by them, the wisdom I see in their small dark eyes, how it’s all I want.



(1) Modena (2) Reverse-wing Pouter (3) Black German Nun (3) Red Capuchin


From Pigeon Keeping for Beginners (1919), the author, W. Watmough, describes pigeons “like a bronze statue glittering in the sunlight.” And here’s the thing: there are fancy pigeon breeds, breeds with fanned out tails and puffed up ruffs and some with curling feathers and others with splendid color combinations you won’t see anywhere else in the animal kingdom. There’s Jacobins and Modenas and Owl Pigeons and the Archangel and Trumpeters; there’s a Saxon Fairy and a French Mondain and a Tippler, a Pouter, the Budapest Highflyer. We are drawn to them for their beauty and their cunning and ultimately their obedience: they always come home.



As if they owe their allegiance to us:

Genghis Khan used pigeon posts to send messages across his massive empire, critical to the success of his conquests.

Homing pigeons played a crucial role during World Wars I and II. They were used to carry messages to military units in the field who would then communicate the message via telegraph or field phone. Pigeons were so crucial to the United Kingdom in World War II that the Dickin Medal, recognizing animals’ combat service, was awarded to thirty-two pigeons with names like Paddy and Beach Comber and William of Orange.

Olga of Kiev, patron saint of widows and converts, who inherited her kingdom after her late husband’s murder, was ruthless. She burned nobles alive who would attempt to placate her power, ordered 5,000 drunk soldiers to be slaughtered, and, grandest of all: demanded from her surviving foes that every house gift her three pigeons and three sparrows as fealty. They obliged. At night, her men attached a small piece of sulfur and string to each of the birds’ feet; once released, the birds flew back to their home roosts. The homes were easy now to set on fire. Her soldiers swept through the land and killed them all.

In 2016, a Jordanian border official caught a pigeon with a letter tied to its foot containing a phone number. ISIS fighters, desperate to get messages to operatives, recognized the dangers of using digital messages and decided to go analog.



I think of the nestling fallen into the deep grass,
The turtle gasping in the dusty rubble of the highway,
The paralytic stunned in the tub, and the water rising,—
All things innocent, hapless, forsaken.

—Theodore Roethke, from "The Meadow Mouse"



It was a classroom pet we inherited: a white hamster named Wheeler. An escape artist, he figured out how to unlatch his cage and would disappear into our house. My mother would curse and chastise it. To her, the hamster was and always would be a wild animal, untamable and full of roving madness. Once, he accidentally lodged himself under the stove. It took my father and uncle and all their strength to lift it up and coat Wheeler in vegetable oil to get him out. I remember how small he looked then, his fur matted down to pink skin. 

But maybe it was part of some grand plan: my mother, annoyed, insisted his cage be put out on the deck that night as some sort of punishment. We weighed the top down with books, we were sure, to protect him. The next morning, the books were lying at the side of the cage and the hatch was wide open. Wheeler had made his escape. For years after, my brother and I told each other stories of his exploits, wondering if he’d gone south to Florida or out west to Colorado or Arizona. Impossible that he could have remained in our backyard, in Michigan. In our minds, he was traveling to places we could only visit in dreams.



We forget so easily in our interconnectedness what great distance looks like, how to render it in our heads. Imagine:

Caribou have been found to have the longest existing migrations in the world, up to 745 miles roundtrip.

A gray wolf from Mongolia traveled 4,503 miles in a year. That’s longer than the Amazon River, the equivalent of you walking from California to the east coast and back again.

Baleen whales make 14,000-mile round trips. For perspective, it’s only sixty-two miles straight up into space.

In 2020, a bar-tailed Godwit, once a delicacy in England, flew 7,600 miles from Alaska to New Zealand. It never stopped, not once.

Dragonflies have been tracked covering over 4,000 miles over open waters. Recently, scientists discovered an 11,000-mile previously-unknown dragonfly migration route that took them from India → Maldives → Seychelles → Mozambique → Uganda. The best part: the migration spans generations of dragonflies, as their life expectancy is only six months. This now becomes a cross-generational, inherited need: to move, to move.



“Migrations speak to us, not just as observers of nature but as integral parts of it. The world moves and, deep inside, we long to move with it.”

Mike Bergin, 10,000 Birds Blog



The sandhill crane migration in Nebraska is a wholly remarkable sight—one of the world’s largest migrations, and one of its last of this size. Up to 600,000 cranes stopover in the Platte River Valley in central Nebraska on their way to Siberia from the Gulf Coast. 

The sky is on fire, alight with oranges and reds and pinks. You’re in a long cedar box, eye level with the water and the flat land. The trilling, chirping sounds they make rumble the earth, a deafening chorus of crane-song that erupts and boxes your ears. When they take off together, they blot out the sky and its light. They change the world. They’re a sign of spring. 

This is a migration these cranes have done for more than 10,000 years, since the last ice age. Here they stage: fatten up, meet up with family and friends and mates, ready themselves for a very long flight. We snap their photos, watch them through binoculars. We’re all quiet in this shared, stunning diaspora we’re witnessing. It’s a coming together, we reckon, that’s difficult to fathom otherwise. 

I sometimes can’t believe the routes I’ve taken in my life, where I’ve ended up. My own migration is one of earnest self-consideration: I have always needed not to understand the world, that impossible task, but to make sure I understand how little I matter in it, and to live with this as an indisputably optimistic fact. When I see a world map, I see now a trail of almost-always-in-love, a road of wonder as my senses percolated with all the new, astonishing things I discover. 

It wasn’t always this way. I often had daydreams in Sunday service when I was younger: What if everything is a lie? But then I’d feel guilty God could hear me, that I’d be doomed to hell for even thinking such things. Later, after I left home for college and the world cracked open for me, when I realized how shriveled and small my old world really was, I gave it all up, anyway—the set course, the family demands, even the expectation that I’d have children of my own someday: the desire was there, once, briefly, but it subsided and I’m not entirely sure why.

Well, I suppose it might be this: I share myself so intensely with the world already. I have nothing left to give.



If I’m being honest, my goal here is to document our proximity to animal life, here and yet forgotten; or, rather, curated: our pets, the animals we like, forsaking all the others. But now I’m thinking about migrations, how we all move at such a pace and often end up right where we began. Maybe: where we should be.

My own migrations: 

— Lansing, Michigan to Los Angeles, California → 2,216 miles
— Los Angeles to Grand Rapids, Michigan → 2,175 miles
— Grand Rapids to Oxford, England → 3,770 miles
— Oxford to Detroit, Michigan → 3,697 miles
— Detroit to Incheon, South Korea → 6,611 miles
— Incheon to Ann Arbor, Michigan → 6,600 miles
— Ann Arbor to South Bend, Indiana → 168 miles
— South Bend to Lincoln, Nebraska → 593 miles

I have been lucky to call many different places home. And yet, I’m settled now ten or so hours from where I grew up. I dreamt of oceans and deep-green valleys and trees with leaves bigger than my head and yet I have ended up in the Midwest, a place I see now for its barbarous beauty; I am no longer offended by flatness. The flatness reveals the horizon’s enormity. And the sky here is impossibly large, seeming to swallow the whole of the world in its peachy maw. 

Yes, there’s something to be said about distance helping us focus on what was there all along. Once I saw inland lakes and hills and endless woods as limiting perimeters, circumscribing, fencing me in. It was always over the next horizon that I might find peace and calm. Beyond that mountain, that’s where I’ll find love and my real self. But that’s a figment, I know now. 

My dog and I used to, weekly, traverse a forest near where we lived years ago. I was single and lonely and at a low place in my life. I hated where we’d hike, saw it as the only option of a slew of bad ones. But now I ache to walk beside him again there along the path lined with cedar chips, to stop as he smells the skunk cabbage and mark fir and elm and oak, to take a rest, together, in the shade of an overgrown hemlock, taking the land in, him in my lap, our breathing all but in sync.


We know this story: the last passenger pigeon died on September 1, 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo. Her name was Martha, named after Martha Washington. We were witness to the extinction of an entire species. Two males with whom she was acquainted had died in 1910. Martha pressed on without them, finally succumbing (old age, disease, heartache). Previously, the American Ornithologists' Union offered bounties for alive pigeons: show us a nest or a colony or even just a single bird, and we’ll pay you $1,500 dollars (the equivalent of over $40,000 today). No one found a thing, and Martha, alone in that cage, was really it.

I saw her stuffed corpse in a museum exhibit in D.C. once. It was a reckoning with what we had done: hunted them out of existence.

It was a sad sight: her on display behind glass. In front of me, two children smeared the glass with their fingerprints. Their parents said “Come along now, we have more to see,” as if she was nothing but novelty. But once, Martha would have been part of a breathtaking migration each spring and fall, blacking out the sun, all of them moving together as some dreamy vestigial consciousness we can hardly fathom.


This is the earliest known published illustration of the passenger pigeon. Illustration by Mark Catesby, 1731.



Why pigeons? I wonder.

Well, it’s often the overlooked, isn’t it, that impresses the most? Pigeons can be taught complex actions and response sequences. They can learn from their mistakes. They can remember hundreds of images for years at a time. 

Maybe my fascination is this: we take them for granted. They are local and thus, ordinary. Pigeons do not migrate, wanting instead to stay close to home. Migrations are a beautiful thing, but there’s something just as lovely about ending up where you began. I’ve traveled nearly 25,000 miles throughout my life, from home to home. I’ve loved and lost, felt fulfilled and lonely, happy and desperate. I saw sunsets along green mountain peaks and sunrises on Pacific Ocean beaches. I surrounded myself with friends—my family, real as any blood. Once, I vowed not to be a Midwesterner—to leave and never come back. I thought this place was small and offered nothing for me, no future, and coming back would be a heartland-shaped millstone I’d never be able to leave behind. But now, after seeing all I have, it can only be here.



Here’s the beauty I try to recognize every day: my dog is gone, and yet on my phone are countless photos from puppyhood until the day of his death. He is immortalized, his whole life, in pictures and videos. Unthought of once, even by the likes of George Shiras and his contemporaries, even though there’s now a gaping hole in my life where he once was, I have a portal now to bring him back.



In Stuart Spencer's 2006 article “History and Ethics of Keeping Pets” in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, he writes: “It is interesting that we refer to those who have companion animals as ‘’pet owners;’ this makes the pets into a commodity in the same way as a car is a commodity we own.”

Yes! There must be some mutualism, some appreciation and awe for the inner lives of animals in order to yield a benefit. After all, as Katherine C. Grier writes in her book Pets in America: A History [emphasis my own]:

First applied to people, ‘pet’ was used by the early 1500s to describe ‘an indulge or spoiled child; any person indulged or treated as a favorite.’ By the mid-sixteenth century, ‘pet’ included animals “domesticated or tamed and kept for pleasure or companionship.” [...] These definitions are based on human perception: no people, no pets.

There is strong science supporting the benefits of pet ownership: data shows that pets help relieve stress, fear, anxiety, soothe and calm, benefit our well-being and, quite literally, prolong our lives. But here’s the thing: studies show it’s not just dogs and cats, hamsters and parakeets. Surrounding ourselves with any life, appreciating and caring for it, giving it a safe place to flourish, is beneficial. In a 2016 study, elderly subjects were given crickets in a cage and became less depressed over time compared to a control group. Grooming and feeding and caring for horses has been shown to reduce PTSD symptoms in children. For children with autism, just having a guinea pig in the classroom made them more social and decreased their stress.

Maybe pets are a way for us to hold onto nature. Perhaps we don’t want to be reminded of our time in the wild, that we like to close our eyes and hum so loud the past is blotted out and gone. But maybe pets are a link to some kind of organic singularity, that shared state, all around us if we’d just see it. 

It has been two weeks since my dog died—unseasonably warm for early spring, nearly sixty. In his last days, my dog was violently sick on the sidewalk. It’s still there, these remnants, the guts he spit out. I cry when I pass them, every time. Today, walking to the store, wiping my eyes as I step over the spots, I see the pigeons we once watched roosting under the overpass. There’s a phantom sensation of holding his leash in my hands, a slight tug on it. Above, a constant cooing, feathers ruffling as cars drive by, oblivious. But I’m not thinking about loss and all the beings we’ve made extinct, all that is no longer. I’m thinking about how lucky I am to have shared a space with them at all.