Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
 
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock


[Illustration]

Pigeon houses of the upper Nile.

Photo by J. H. Comstock.

Pigeons

Teacher's Story

dropcap image HERE is a mention of domesticated pigeons by writers three thousand years ago; and Pliny relates that the Romans were fervent pigeon fanciers at the beginning of the Christian era. All of our domestic varieties of pigeons have been developed from the Rock pigeon, a wild species common in Europe and Asia. The carrier pigeon was probably the first to be specially developed because of its usefulness; its love and devotion to mate and young and its homesickness when separated from them were used by man for his own interests. When a knight of old started off on a Crusade or to other wars, he took with him several pigeons from the home cote; and after riding many days he wrote a letter and tied it to the neck or under the wing of one of his birds, which he then set free, and it flew home with its message; later he would set free another in like manner. The drawback to this correspondence was that it went only in one direction; no bird from home brought message of cheer to the wandering knight. Now-a-days mail routes, telegraph wires and wireless currents enmesh our globe and the pigeon as a carrier is out-of-date; but fanciers still perfect the homer breed and train pigeons for very difficult flight competitions, some of them a distance of hundreds of miles. Recently a homer made one thousand miles in two days, five hours and fifty minutes. Read to the pupils "Arnaux" in Animal Heroes by Thompson Seton to give them an idea of the life of a homing pigeon.

The natural food of pigeons is grain; we feed them cracked corn, wheat, peas, Kafir corn, millet and occasionally hemp seed; it is best to feed mixed rations as the birds tire of the monotonous diet. Pigeons should be fed twice a day; the pigeon is the only bird which can drink like a horse, that is, with the head lowered. The walk of a pigeon is accompanied by a peculiar nodding as if the head were in some way attached to the feet, and this movement sends waves of iridescent colors over the bird's plumage. The flight of the pigeon is direct without soaring, the wings move rapidly and steadily, the birds circling and sailing as they start or alight. The crow flaps hard and then sails for a distance when it is inspecting the ground, while the hawk soars on motionless wings. It requires closer attention to understand the language of the pigeon than that of the hen, nor has it so wide a range of expression as the latter; however, some emotions are voiced in the cooing, which the children will understand.

The nest is built of grass and twigs; the mother pigeon lays two eggs for a sitting; but in some breeds a pair will raise from seven to twelve broods per year. The eggs hatch in from sixteen to eighteen days, and both parents share the labors of incubating. In the case of the homer the father bird sits from 10 A. M. to 4 P. M. and the mother the remainder of the day and night. The devotion of pigeons to their mates and to their young is great, and has been sung by the poets and praised by the philosophers during many ages; some breeds mate for life. The young pigeons or squabs are fed in a peculiar manner; in the crops of both parents is secreted a cheesy substance, known as pigeon milk. The parent seizes the beak of the squab in its own and pumps the food from its own crop into the stomach of the young. This nutritious food is given to the squab for about five days and then replaced by grain which is softened in the parents' stomachs, until the squabs are old enough to feed themselves. Rats, mice, weasels, and hawks are the chief enemies of the pigeons; since pigeons cannot fight, their only safety lies in flight.


[Illustration]

"Game Leg" a homer pigeon of notable achievement.

Courtesy of Country Life in America.

As the original Rock pigeon built in caves, our domesticated varieties naturally build in the houses we provide for them. A pigeon house should not be built for more than fifty pairs; it should be well ventilated and kept clean; it should face the south or east and be near a shallow, running stream if possible. The nest boxes should be twelve inches square and nine inches in height with a door at one side, so that the nest may remain hidden. In front of each door there should be a little shelf to act as a balcony on which the resting parent bird may sit and coo to relieve the monotony of the sitter. Some breeders make a double compartment instead of providing a balcony, while in Egypt branches are inserted in the wall just below the doors of the very ornamental pigeon houses. The houses should be kept clean and whitewashed with lime to which carbolic acid is added in the proportion of one tea-spoonful of acid to two gallons of the wash; the leaf stems of tobacco should be given to the pigeons as material for building their nests, so as to help keep in check the bird lice. There should be near the pigeon house plenty of fresh water for drinking and bathing; also a box of table salt, and another of cracked oyster shell and another of charcoal as fine as ground coffee. Salt is very essential to the health of pigeons. The house should be high enough from the ground to keep the inmates safe from rats and weasels.


[Illustration]

Pouter pigeons.

Photo by J. Demary.


Lesson VIII

Pigeons

Leading thought—The pigeons differ in appearance from other birds and also in their actions. Their nesting habits are very interesting and there are many things that may be done to make the pigeons comfortable. They were, in ancient days, used as letter carriers.


Methods—If there are pigeons kept in the neighborhood, it is best to encourage the pupils to observe these birds out-of-doors. Begin the work with an interesting story and with a few questions which will arouse the pupils' interest in the birds. A pigeon in a cage in the schoolroom for a special lesson on the bird's appearance, is desirable but not necessary.


Observations—

1. For an out-of-door exercise during recess let the pupils observe the pigeon and tell the colors of the beak, eyes, top of the head, back, breast, wings, tail, feet and claws. This exercise is excellent training to fit the pupils to note quickly the colors of the wild birds.

2. On what do pigeons feed? Are they fond of salt?

3. Describe how a pigeon drinks. How does it differ in this respect from other birds?

4. Describe the peculiar movement of the pigeon when walking.

5. Describe the pigeon's flight. Is it rapid, high in the air, do the wings flap constantly, etc? What is the chief difference between the flight of pigeons, crows or hawks?

6. Listen to the cooing of a pigeon and see if you can understand the different notes.

7. Describe the pigeon's nest. How many eggs are laid at a time?

8. Describe how the parents share the labors in hatching the eggs, and how long after the eggs are laid before the young hatch?

9. How do the parents feed their young and on what material?

10. What are the enemies of pigeons and how do they escape from them? How can we protect them?

11. Describe how a pigeon house should be built.

12. What must you do for pigeons to keep them healthy and comfortable?

13. How many breeds of pigeons do you know? Describe them.


Supplementary reading—"Arnaux" in Animal Heroes, Thompson Seton; Audubon Leaflet, Nos. 2 and 6; Neighbors with Wings and Fins Ch. XV; Noah and the Dove, The Bible; Daddy Darwin's Dove Cote, Mrs. Ewing; Squab Raising, Bul. of U. S. Dept. Agr.


For my own part I readily concur with you in supposing that housedoves are derived from the small blue rock-pigeon, Columba livia, for many reasons. * * * But what is worth a hundred arguments is, the instance you give in Sir Roger Mostyn's housedoves in Cærnarvonshire; which, though tempted by plenty of food and gentle treatment, can never be prevailed on to inhabit their cote for any time; but as soon as they begin to breed, betake themselves to the fastnesses of Ormshead, and deposit their young in safety amidst the inaccessible caverns and precipices of that stupendous promontory. "You may drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she will always return:"

"Naturam expellas furca * * * tamen usque recurret."

Virgil, as a familiar occurrence, by way of simile, describes a dove haunting the cavern of a rock in such engaging numbers, that I cannot refrain from quoting the passage.

"Qualis spelunca subito commota Columba,

Cui domus, et dulces latebroso in pumice nidi,

Fertul in arva volans, plausumque exterrita pennis

Dat tecto ingentem, mox aere lapsa quieto,

Radit iter liquidum, celeres neque commovet alas."

(Virg. Aen. V. 213-217).


"As when a dove her rocky hold forsakes,

Roused, in a fright her sounding wings she shakes;

The cavern rings with clattering:—out she flies,

And leaves her callow care, and cleaves the skies;

At first she flutters:—but at length she springs

To smoother flight, and shoots upon her wings."

(Dryden's Translation).

White of Selbourne.


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