Josh Fowler suggests the pigeon as both the victim and the villain of the Anthropocene, acting at different times as symbols of colonialist extinction, of mass warfare and of relentless urbanisation and its aesthetics. A benefit when we needed them, a pest to be cast out now that we don’t.
Museum of the Anthropocene: The Pigeon
Despite their stable existence for over 145 million years, the pigeon (or specifically, the 344 species in the Columbidae family) has been shocked by the Anthropocene phenomenon. Through the many ways natural systems have been altered in the Anthropocene, the pigeon stands out as a unique symbol of this era…
The pigeon has become both the victim and the villain of the Anthropocene.
The species known as the Passenger Pigeon is a prime example of how historically humanity has affected bird life, and natural systems as a whole. Distributed across parts of Canada and the USA, Passenger Pigeons lived stably with only marginal hunting from Native Americans. It wasn’t until the expansion of European colonial forces that population numbers dramatically declined as a result of unsustainable hunting and habitat loss. Despite populations potentially reaching 5 billion in the 18th century, the Passenger Pigeon became officially extinct in 1914, when the last-of-her-kind ‘Martha the Pigeon’ died, poignantly, surrounded by humans in Cincinnati Zoo.
1914 is also an important year in the history of pigeons because it marks the outbreak of the First World War. The homing pigeon had been used extensively during both World Wars to communicate messages for the benefit of the conflicting parties. The homing pigeon was so integral to Allied communications that birds of prey were culled along the South English coast, an insight into how natural systems can be altered to our Anthropocentric benefit. Ultimately, the pigeon was recognised as a ‘hero’ of both World Wars, and many were awarded with accolades such as the Dickin medal for bravery. It seems ironic that the white dove that historically symbolised peace was ultimately weaponised for our wars.
Most recently, however, pigeons have come to symbolise the city and specifically perceptions of dirtiness and pollution. Pigeons are sometimes upheld as cultural icons of some urban places such as London’s Trafalgar Square and Venice, often to the annoyance of their human cohabitants. Yet the ‘problem’ of pigeons in cities stems from our own creation: the tall buildings that dominate the cityscape mimic the cliffs that rock pigeons call home, encouraging the growth of urban pigeon populations. Their droppings once praised for fertilising our land are now condemned for spreading disease. The acceptance of pigeons in our societies has always been framed by their usefulness to the development of said society.
The general decline in the pigeon’s image has contributed to a ‘war on pigeons’. Spikes now line every exposed surface capable of pigeon perching, bird feeders are now marketed as anti-pigeon, birds of prey are used at sporting events and airfields to deter and kill pigeons (how the tables have turned). Despite being part of the environment, there is now an organised effort to push out pigeons from our landscapes; pigeons don’t fit the Anthropocene aesthetic.
It’s hard to totally comprehend the effect of the Anthropocene on the pigeon. We have drastically changed their living environments and way of life, we have used them to our benefit when we needed them, and pushed them out when we don’t. Once a highly respected creature, the pigeon is now looked down upon whilst they fly above our skies. The pigeon is both the victim and the villain of the Anthropocene.
The pigeon was contributed by Josh Fowler, who says “I thoroughly enjoyed taking Martin’s Human Geography in the Anthropocene module, which inspired me to explore how the Pigeon relates to the Anthropocene in greater depth. Since graduating from UEA with BA Geography, I’ve been exploring conservation opportunities in London where I now have a newfound respect for pigeons.”