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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

October 1998

Pigeons. © Robert Queen
© Robert Queen

Bird prejudice

We aspire to soar with the eagles, but it's pigeons we parrot.

Justin Isherwood

People who admire nature have prejudices just as those who do not. Species "bigotry" among nature-watchers is not only visible, it's exalted and unrepentant.

Consider eagles. People of all dispositions and social stripes enjoy eagles; birders watch them and drive long distances to do so because eagles are majestic birds and possess the appointments of sovereignty. Eagles are fashionably dressed with stark contrasting colors and those fabulous yellow talons, not to discount their marvelous wings. It is no wonder eagles are mascots to almost every country, militia, coinage, principality and despot on the planet.

People enjoy watching eagles feed on goods that would be revolting to other animals. Millions know the hush of veneration in watching eagles snatch fish. Any extension of this display to human behavior is less appealing. The fact is, more of us identify with the stunned fish at the bottom of the dam than with the eagle whose spillway profits are as routine as any corporate CEO's.

When knocked from our high perch as nature watchers, our appreciation for natural order instantly collapses. We find ourselves on the losing side, identifying with the morsel about to be eaten. It's no fun being set upon by a well-dressed, well-trained, slick-talking, manicure-nailed, razor-cut bureaucrat of a predator.

Tell me, what nature watcher enjoys watching the pigeon? Never mind that every city can support a flock or two. We don't want pigeons, we want eagles or at least osprey. Many naturalists think of the pigeon as proletarian; a dirty, commonplace, all too chummy unattractive bird without flair and too much a product of the flock. We like our birds more independent than that.

According to the unwritten, aristocratic code of nature-watching, a pigeon is a "noncontender" because it succeeds all too well in the human environment. Nature watchers by the thousands will hide beneath damp burlap sacks on a morning so ugly even the coffee is in a bad mood. Tens of thousands denied safe housing or their constitutional right of free expression willingly hold postures likely to incur blood clots and rheumatism, all to watch the unregulated sexual antics of prairie chickens. Some even pay to do this. Yet not one of these fans of sublime nature would so much as lift an eye to a squad of pigeons flying faster than a Japanese motorcycle above the spires and rooftops of the city.

We do not put pigeons on our coins. The prairie tribes did not wear long headdresses of pigeon feathers. The Luftwaffe didn't bear the pigeon on its insignia. And when Americans went to the moon, the eagle landed, not the pigeon. This, despite the fact that a pigeon can out-fly, out-maneuver, out-navigate and out-survive any eagle, and has done so for millennia. It's as if people who have been watching nature and allocating bits and pieces of it to various symbols, mottoes, stamps and memorabilia really haven't been paying attention.

Why don't we venerate the creatures who are more like us? Have any clans but the ones in the Bible considered the dove as their totem bird? Why not? Because it is numerous, a little too successful and has a waste disposal problem. I ask you, what better recommendation can a creature have? How much more identifiable with human ilk can it be?

Justin Isherwood watches the turtles and the doves near his Plover home.