BY FRED SEITZ — West Hyattsville Metro riders may want to note that their journey from station to street takes them beneath about a hundred of nature’s most revered and reviled avians. Perching on the nearby power lines is a longtime flock of rock doves, also known as pigeons.
Taken for granted (or sometimes with annoyance), these ubiquitous birds have come a long way from their original wild habitats in South Asia, North Africa and Southern Europe. The pigeon was the first bird that white settlers brought to the New World in 1603; now, it can be found wherever there are people.
Egyptians and Mesopotamians domesticated this bird more than 5,000 years ago, and it has become valued for its meat, speed, gentle nature and remarkable ability to find its way home. Both Noah and Gilgamesh employed them to ascertain when their respective floods had receded. And more modern Mesopotamians, members of the Iraqi militia, used pigeons to carry messages as recently as 2008.
Its scientific name is columba livia, but it has many other monikers such as “flying rat” and “dove of peace.” One of nature’s athletes, it can fly at speeds up to 60 miles an hour and travel long distances on limited food. These qualities have made it a perennial sporting bird enjoyed by personalities as diverse as Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin and Mike Tyson. While the sport is denounced by some, modern racing pigeons compete for purses valued up to $250,000. There are at least five such clubs in the Baltimore-Washington area.
The Olympian qualities of the common pigeon far exceed those of the mourning dove (zenaida macroura), a frequent visitor to Hyattsville bird feeders. It’s easy to tell the two species apart; mourning doves are mostly brown and tan, with long, pointed tails, while the more colorful rock doves have tails that are slightly squared or rounded. Our subway friends have such a wide variety of plumage, with colors ranging from iridescent green and purple to a black-and-white checkerboard pattern, that they are sometimes called “checkers,” “red bands” or “blue bands.”
Both the mourning dove and rock dove display similar courtship and territorial displays. Males may exhibit a bow when approaching the female during courtship; if she accepts his advances, she will put her bill inside the male’s. Anthropomorphically speaking, it resembles kissing (but we won’t go there).
When it comes to nesting, males of both species do most of the “heavy lifting” to gather materials and females do the actual construction. Mourning doves nest in trees; rock doves nest on building ledges and under bridges. If there are several nests in the same area, each pigeon couple will try to use partitions on the ledge or under the bridge to separate them.
Both mourning and rock doves lay two eggs and incubation is shared by the parents. Both also eat seeds and fruit, but our “flying rat” friends have diversified palates, enjoying much of whatever humans leave behind.
At the West Hyattsville Metro, the pigeons often display their aerial acrobatics to people coming and going to the station. Perching on the Pepco lines gives the birds good views of predators, and flying in formation may also deter those predators (mostly hawks).
The Metro flock is an enduring (and possibly endearing) representation of an ancient relationship between nature and humanity. While our current text messages and email may move somewhat faster than even the best racing pigeons, their familiar faces and feathers can still be enjoyed today.
For more information on pigeons as well as other birds, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website at www.birds.cornell.edu.