Pests or pets: a history of how pigeons took over the Windy City and what organizations are doing about it

By Stephanie Fox
Medill Reports

After spending the day with family celebrating her husband’s birthday, Chava Sonnier received a call that made her heart skip a beat.

“I don’t think he’s going to make it,” her friend said on the other line.

Despite the call coming in at around 10:30 at night, Sonnier hopped in her car with the hope of saving a life.

When she encountered the wounded, he was paralyzed, crippled with his legs bowing out at right angles. Blood oozed from his chest and face. His eyes barely opened.

Despite Sonnier being a certified nurse, her patient that night wasn’t human. He was a pigeon.

Sonnier spent 2 years as a volunteer for the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, an organization of over 200 volunteers working to protect, rescue and rehabilitate injured city birds.

On the night Sonnier saved the pigeon, who would later be named Jonah, a Chicago police officer had been on patrol when he noticed a small object moving slowly along an alleyway. Closer inspection revealed it to be Jonah. Paralysis left the bird no choice but to peck the ground and drag his body by the neck, lacerating his chest and stomach.

“[The police officer] was compassionate enough to google ‘bird rescue,’ and call the hotline,” said Sonnier. The Chicago Bird Collision Monitors have a 24/7 hotline dedicated to responding quickly when a bird is in danger.

Even with Sonnier’s medical experience, she wasn’t sure there was anything she could do to help the bird survive.

“When I picked him up my heart just broke for him. He was just a shell. I could feel every bone. He was just so skinny, and so weak, and so frail,” Sonnier said. “At that point I was not sure if he would make it through the night. He was in such a debilitated state.”

But he did survive, and his paralysis gradually subsided over the next few weeks. Even with his impressive recovery, Sonnier knew Jonah could never return to city-life. So, she did what many would consider the unthinkable—she adopted a pigeon.

That may be counter-intuitive to most, but historically pigeons are a human-dependent species, and they’ve been that way since people decided to capture and breed them thousands of years ago. Before pigeons transformed into the city-savvy birds any toddler could pick out from a police lineup, they were called rock doves, a wild species native to Europe, Northern Africa and India. For generations European civilizations captured and selectively bred the doves, eventually producing the larger, human-dependent rock pigeon. The now domesticated bird proved desirable, first for their meat, then for their compass-like ability to always find their way home.

Rock pigeons are a domestic species, forced to live in the wild by human abandonment. (Zainuzzaman Abdul Samad)

This breed of pigeon (which already has a bizarre organ called a “crop” that allows both female and male birds to produce a milky substance to feed their young—an organ shared only with two other bird species: flamingos and male emperor penguins—contains a unique tiny magnetic organ found in their beak. It allows them to sense the Earth’s magnetic pull and is responsible for half of their strange navigational superpower, according to Cordula Mora, the Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship director at Bowling Green State University, Ohio. During Mora’s research published in 2004, she studied pigeon’s connection to the Earth’s magnetic field by attaching a magnet to their beaks to determine if the addition would throw off their navigational abilities during homing—and it did. There are a few theories about the other half of pigeon’s directional capabilities, but the most common are that the birds can either see and remember locations well, have a heightened sense of smell, or both.

“In order to navigate you have to have a map and a compass because the map only gives you information about your current position and the compass can only give you direction,” Mora said. In this case, the map information is the pigeon’s magnetic sense and their sense of smell, and the compass is the pigeon’s connection to the Earth’s magnetic pull as well as their ability to derive direction from the position of the sun. “When they’re put together it allows you to navigate.”

Though the Europeans who first bred rock doves didn’t understand how the birds were able to navigate, they did recognize that the domesticated rock pigeon could be used as a tool to transport messages. But few suspected when the species was introduced into the eastern United States in the 1600’s, that the bird’s abilities could come in handy during war time.

Thirty-two pigeons were presented with the Dickin Medal, a European award created to celebrate the work done by animals used in World War II. Though the birds weren’t honored with this award until the second world war, rock pigeons were used in both World War I and World War II to transport important messages across enemy lines.

The United States “Signal Corps in the army actually recruited people based on whether or not they had raised pigeons in their civilian life,” explained Elizabeth Dahl, the director of The American Pigeon Museum, Oklahoma. The selected soldiers were sent to special camps where they were taught the most effective ways to train pigeons to return to portable lofts, the shelters domesticated pigeons view as their home.

During World War I, the United States Army Signal Corps, a branch of the army whose mission is to manage all aspects of communications and information systems support, used 600 pigeons in France alone.

But by 1957, the army officially suspended the use of pigeons in the military.

A pigeon stands alone on the sidewalk. (Greg Reese)

Over time, the once beloved war heroes were cast out and forced to fend for themselves. Though it may seem to some as though these pigeons were simply returning to the cageless lives of their ancestors, the reality is that after thousands of years of breeding the birds had changed into a species just as reliant on humans as any common house pet. Because of this, the proper term for the birds roaming the city isn’t “wild,” but “feral.”
The birds that survived being released were forced to adapt. They did this by seeking out those they were bred to rely on: humans. Because even though people were done with pigeons, pigeons were not done with people.

“You see [pigeons] out in urban areas and not in rural areas, because they are at heart and in reality, originally a domestic species. They’re dependent upon humans. Whether it’s picking up after whatever is left behind for them in the city, or whether it’s living as someone’s pet… You could catch a pigeon in the city tomorrow and bring it in your house and it would domesticate fairly quickly and probably consider itself the world’s luckiest pigeon,” explained bird lover Sonnier. And she would know. Within 6 weeks of adopting Jonah, the pigeon had fully bonded with her.

Today feral pigeons born in the wild may have developed the instincts needed to protect themselves from predators and the windshields of double-decker tour buses, but birds currently born domestically don’t stand a chance if they find themselves lost in the urban terrain.

That happens more than you’d think.

About 100 domestically raised pigeons found themselves in this situation on Nov. 28, 2017 after being dumped in a Ravenswood parking lot. An unknown man pulled into the lot and began scooping dozens of birds out of his van and onto the gravel, according to Ravenswood residents. When asked for an explanation for his odd behavior, the man told the residents he was giving his birds a chance to exercise. But when his car was empty, he drove away, leaving the birds on the street to fall prey to hawks and owls.

Domesticated pigeons often wear an ankle band, which specifies their age and hatching location. When the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors arrived on the scene they found that most of the pigeons were wearing bands. Despite this, they were unable to contact the man responsible for the abandonment of the birds.

The pigeons “were banded, but we tried to get in touch with the group of pigeon folks associated with their particular band number and we weren’t able to get a response,” said Katie-Anne O’Neil, a volunteer for the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors.

A couple of days later, the monitors had caught about 60 of the pigeons. Without knowing how to obtain food or water because of their domesticated upbringing, many were famished and dehydrated. Others were diseased and needed immediate medical assistance. Birds identified as rock pigeons were either too malnourished or hadn’t received the training needed to find their way back home.

“It’s just like if you or I were suddenly placed in the wilderness. We wouldn’t necessarily know how to forage and find food for ourselves. And we wouldn’t necessarily have the instinct to hide from things that want to eat us,” Sonnier said.

Fox Valley Wildlife Center, a wildlife refuge in Kane County, which often cares for the injured birds the monitors find, took in the rescued pigeons.

Others weren’t so lucky.

For the next week, Ravenwood’s streets and alleys were littered with the corpses of pigeons that had been picked off by predators. Splattered blood marked the spot of the original dumping. Residents were shocked, but members of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors knew events like the one in Ravenswood are fairly common.

A few months after the incident in Ravenswood, another dumping of more than 30 pigeons occurred in Margaret Park, at 4921 N. Marine Dr., Chicago on Aug. 28, 2018. And just last month 11 domestic pigeons were dumped in an Andersonville driveway on March 21, 2019.

With the dumping of domestic pigeon appearing to be on the rise, a group of monitors recognized a need for a separate organization dedicated to healing, fostering and adopting out rescued pigeons.

The Chicago Bird Collision Monitors “gets called for domestic birds all the time,” said Sonnier. She noted the abundance of well-established rescue organizations in place to take in birds such as parakeets and parrots—the species most commonly thought of as domesticated birds. “But there was not a rescue in place for pigeons.”

Ten monitors, including O’Neil and Sonnier, decided to start a sub-organization, The Chicago Pigeon Pets Rescue, on Sept. 6, 2018 to combat this problem. Still a fledgling organization, the members share responsibilities, which include responding to calls involving pigeons made into the 24/7 monitor hotline, retrieving and transporting pigeons, fundraising to pay for pigeon’s vet visits, fostering the pigeons in Chicago suburbs (a livestock ordinance prevents Chicago residents from owning pigeons within city limits), and adopting out rescued domesticated and non-releasable feral pigeons.

“The team formed in response to a huge glut of rescue pigeons and nowhere to put them,” said O’Neil. Being a new organization means that the Chicago Pigeon Pets Rescue doesn’t currently have enough fosters to take in the pigeons they save. Because of this, they currently rely on members of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors who volunteer their homes. Once fostered to full health the birds become available for adoption. That process includes an application and a $40 adoption fee.

The “two [Chicago] dumps in particular really hit us hard,” O’Neil said.

The amount of pigeon dumpings may surprise those outside the world of feathers and beaks, but it’s not the most common call the Chicago Pigeon Pets Rescue receives involving pigeons. More often, the organization responds to calls about racing pigeons and wedding/funeral “doves.”

The same navigational instincts that turned rock pigeons into war heroes, also make them desirable for competitive racing. The sport, which gained popularity among industrial working men in the early-1900s, involves training rock pigeons to fly hundreds, or even thousands, of miles from a designated releasing point to a finishing destination—demonstrating which trainer reared the fastest and most intelligent bird.

The sport continues to maintain popularity around the world in the twenty-first century. From the Iranian pigeon race that racked up over 14,000 participants this February to the weekly club races that take place each year between April and September in the United Kingdom (with around 42,000 fanciers, or pigeon enthusiast, involved), pigeon racing sustains its global appeal.

Despite the astounding number of participants in the sport, the Chicago Pigeon Pets Rescue has a less favorable view of pigeon racing.

Pigeon racing is a huge industry around the world. (Adina Voicu)

“The biggest contributor to feral pigeons is pigeon racing,” said Sonnier. The pigeons most often picked to race are “married” birds, or pigeons that have chosen a life-long spouse. Specifically, female pigeons, which Sonnier said don’t like to be separated from their mates, are shipped to a releasing point because fanciers know the birds will fly as fast as possible back to their partners.

But many of the birds chosen for longer races never make it home, according to information gathered during a 2012 undercover investigation conducted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

“More than 60 percent of the birds get lost or die as a result of extreme weather, predators, electrical lines, hunters, or exhaustion,” explained the PETA article “Investigation Exposes Pigeon-Racing Cruelty.” PETA is an extremist animal rights organization dedicated to fighting for the welfare of all species.

Fanciers “raise large quantities of [pigeons] because they are intended to be expendable resources,” Sonnier continued. Those blown off course either adapt to life in the wild (usually by marrying a city pigeon) or die. The combination of so many racing pigeons marrying city pigeons and their fast reproductive cycle lends to the huge quantity of feral pigeons in urban settings. Female pigeons reach sexual maturity at 7 months old. They produce around two eggs each mating cycle, which they lay about 10 days after mating. The eggs hatch about 18 days later.

And the birds that do make it home but aren’t fast enough for their owner’s liking are either dumped or killed. The process of exterminating undesirable birds is called “culling,” according to Sonnier. She also mentioned that fanciers who decide “they’re not going to race pigeons anymore usually wind up doing a massive dump.”

This may be the case for some pigeon racing organizations, but Deone Roberts, the Sports Development Manager at the American Racing Pigeon Union, says she’s never witnessed mistreatments of any birds during her 20 years with the organization.

“There’s misinformation about treatment of the birds. I don’t know what to say to that when I see what is required to participate in the hobby,” Roberts said. “It’s an animal-lover organization.”

Roberts also says the members of the American Racing Pigeon Union take extra precautions to ensure the health of their birds.

We look “for hawk migration because hawks are a natural predator. Another precautions [we take is] watching the weather. You don’t deliberately put an animal in a difficult situation,” explained Roberts.

But she also admits that she cannot speak to pigeon racing on a larger scale.

“There might be something for profit. That is different from what we do,” she said. For-profit races, such as the 2012 Diamond Elite Race in China awarded the first prize winner 10 million yuan—an equivalent of $1.5 million—for the pigeon that could cross 300 miles the fastest. Those interested in entering had to pay $8,000 upfront. “We [the American Racing Pigeon Union] do family backyard hobby [racing] for diplomas and trophies and the comradery and friendly competition.”

Members of the Chicago Pigeon Pets Rescue also blame the population of city pigeons on wedding/funeral “dove” releases. According to the rescue, most birds used in the dove release business are all-white pigeons. Birds used for this purpose that are not trained to return to their loft, are easy-pickings for predators.

Pigeons come in a variety of colors, including all-white. (Ambros Kastler)

“Because they’re white there is no camouflaging themselves. So, often if they are not rescued first, they just get eaten by predators,” Sonnier explained. Like the racing pigeons that find themselves lost in the wild, their only chance of survival is to marry a city pigeon. “If you’re downtown and you see spotted pigeons… some that have white on them, they’re probably the offspring of a dumped wedding pigeon who was able to survive and married a city pigeon.”

Debra Hayes, who owns White Water Doves, a business of over 60 all-white rock pigeons, says the training she has picked up over her 10 years in the wedding/funeral dove release business prevents her from losing birds.

“I personally take them out… within the yard where the loft is at and make sure that they’re trained to go back when they’re called. And then after they get good at that, I gradually take them out farther,” said Hayes. No matter the distance, whether it be 2 miles or 200 miles, she said she only rents out her birds after they prove they can confidentially return to the loft. “I am not training for speed but for accuracy so occasionally a bird does not make it home the day of the release but does return in the next few days.”

However, she does recognize that there are dove releases just trying to make a quick buck, without bothering to train their birds, or buy pigeons bred for navigation.

“The year that I started doing this, I got criticized because people thought that I had let my doves go. [Doves] were all over the place, [but they were] not mine,” Hayes said. Someone had released ringed-neck doves in her area, she explained. This species of mostly-white pigeon, which is decorated with a black line behind its neck, is a breed of fancy pigeon, bred for its looks rather than its navigational abilities.

Though, the Chicago Pigeon Pets Rescue does not support any dove release businesses, they are most concerned about scenarios such as the one Hayes described.

“If you google fancy pigeons, you’ll see a whole gamut of unusual looking pigeons that would never be able to survive in the wild because of their coloring,” Sonnier said. “A lot of fancy pigeons are white, and a white bird can’t survive in the wild because Chicago only has snow part of the year. They can’t camouflage in with the buildings.”

In the months since the Chicago Pigeon Pets Rescue’s advent, members have rescued a slew of Chicago pigeons. From lost, white wedding/funeral doves to dumped fancy pigeons that get called into the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors’ hotline as “I don’t know what this is, but I’ve never seen one in Chicago before,” the organization is reassured every day that a group such as theirs is needed in the city.

“I would like people to know that we exist,” said O’Neil. “And I would ask that people take a second look at pigeons, because I think that they’re so much more than what they appear to be at a first glance.”

Photo at top: Pigeons perch atop a telephone wire. (Dimitris Vetsikas)