Pigeons are amazing. They are all over the world.

Whenever I see them on my travels to different cities here and abroad, I marvel at their ubiquity. They are in Tokyo and New York, in London and Rome, in Beijing and Lisbon, in Stockholm and Auckland, in Houston, Texas, and Savannah, Georgia. Name any city in the world, East and West, from north to south; you find pigeons. And they look the same everywhere; I'm sure they do even in places where I have never visited and witnessed with my own eyes.

There are no doubt different species of pigeons. I read that there are about 290 species in the family Columbidae and that the pigeon I am familiar with is the street or domestic pigeon, Columba livia, also known as rock dove. This is the species that populate the world's towns and cities and villages, and to my eyes there are no regional variations.

Cats are everywhere in the world, too. But the domestic cat, Felis catus, though relatively uniform in size and shape compared with the canine, shows some variations owing to ancestry and breed. In my first years in America, I found tabbies and calicos oddly long-torsoed. They looked peculiar, especially when they sat up with their front legs upright and produced a prominent hump on the back. Then, I recalled that Japanese cats are characteristically short-torsoed; the cats I had in Japan were short, too, perhaps with shorter legs as well. Later, when I saw carved Egyptian cats, they showed the same hump in seated profile. This made sense; I learned that the European cat descended from the African wildcat, Felis libyca. I have not seen regional variations in pigeons.

When I was in Rome last summer, I observed the pigeons there with some care and I saw no significant difference from the pigeons I am more familiar with in Philadelphia and New York. Pigeons, unlike cats, are much more uniform from region to region. They are have a small round head and big brinking eyes, a small beak, pink shanks, a plump body, and huge wings; and they strut about bobbing their head. They are all alike anywhere. But when you see a swarm of pigeons you begin to see with amazement that no two pigeon are individually alike in their plumage. The color is generally drab gray but the palette ranges from pink and purple to blue and green merging with gray and mixed with black and white and some iridescent patches around the neck; and the pattern is also infinitely varied in the design of streaks and swirls and mottles and dapples in the four regions of the body: the head, the neck, closed wings, and the tail. The diversity, like that of the human face, is interminably interesting to watch. Many of us take no notice of it because pigeons are so commonplace.

Pigeons are city dwellers. They collect where people gather and became urbanized. It is probably for a simple reason that urban inhabitants provide them with food crumbs to which they are drawn and rely on for survival. They are good flyers but they wallk around people, picking feeds from the ground. I know people who despise pigeons as nuisance and health hazards. But they are endearing to me; as a city person I feel close to them -- as fellow citizens.

So, I like pigeons. I always did. I always had as a child a cat or two in the house that I could pet; and there were dogs on the streets I could watch. But pigeons were special. As a toddler, I could watch them close. They come near you, walk around you, and they feed on whatever food you scatter for them. They stay with you and always come back to you if they fly away, surprised or chased off. Like most city kids I came to know pigeons, long before farm animals and animals in the zoo.

In Tokyo, where I grew up, as in other cities in Japan, pigeons gathered in temple precincts. Long eaves provided places for them to perch and the surrounding woods to roost. Moreover, since eating while walking was considered ill-mannered in Japan, streets were stingy with provisions for the birds. Large temples always had visitors -- pilgrims and tourists -- who would buy food from the stalls set up in the precinct and picnicked on the benches, inevitably leaving goodies all over the area. In less visited temples, like the one in our neighborhood, the temple sold peas for feeding pigeons. One of first songs I learned before kindergarten was about pigeons.

Hato-poppo, hato-poppo, poppo poppo to tondekoi. Oterano yanekara oritekoi. Mame-o yarukara mina tabeyo. Tabetemo sugu-ni kaerazuni, poppo poppo to naite asobe.

Poppo pigeons, poppo pigeons, coo, coo, come fly down. Come on down from the temple roof. I'll give you peas, so eat them all. Don't go back afterwards, coo, coo, stay and play with me.

Hato-poppo is a baby talk for pigeons, and poppo was how the pegeon's cooing onomatopoetically sounds to the Japanese ear. Only years later I learned that pigeons are monogamous for life. I once wondered if they ever engage in extramarital affairs; I'm inclined to believe not. Deception is more likely a peculiarly human disposition.

In Europe, too, pigeons gather in public squares and parks where people gather to sit and eat. In American cities pigeons are found today all over the place because Americans, and now more Europeans, too, eat constantly on the street and scatter abundant supply of food for them.

In my weekly commute between New York and Swarthmore, I usually have 40 to 50 minutes between trains at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station. I bring my bag lunch which I eat in the huge concourse, where there are always a handful of pigeons who manage to fly in and linger. They often come near my bench waiting hopefully for some crumbs to fall off my lap or from my hand, more often the latter. They walk gingerly and more awkwardly than usual, because the marble floor is slippery. The claws skid now and then. I know exactly how they feel. On my walk home after rain from Swarthmore Station, there are bluestone pavements, still in place here and there yet to be replaced by concrete; they are very slippery, and I walk just like those pigeons, very gingerly because, having osteoporosis, I cannot afford to take a fall.

At the station, more than anywhere else, I see pigeons limping with a talon or the whole claw missing in one leg, seemingly chewed off or chopped off. Is the injury from fighting, track accident, or some disease and infection, I wonder. They are pitiful. Somehow, they adapt themselves to hopping even on one leg.

There are some on the elevated platforms, too, but fewer now as the station authorities put pins on the rafters to prevent pigeons from perching. Here sparrows compete with pigeons for food. They are little but much more agile and aggressive and hop right into the midst of pigeons, undaunted by their size; and they often succeed flying away with a big morsel in the beak.

It looks like pigeons don't seen to know how to fly with food in the beak unless it is an olive branch.

T. Kaori Kitao, 09.20.03

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