‘Familiarity breeds contempt’ goes the old and slightly clichéd saying. Unfortunately, this applies to many wild animals who are neither elusive, an occasional migrant or threatened with extinction, yet don’t seem to have an appearance or demeanour that woos themselves poetically to humans seeking to find a connection with nature.
If you wish to see a prime example of this, pity the poor wood pigeon. Taking away any prior knowledge or prejudices, you would have thought with their dumpy frame, beady eyes that give it a permanent glaze of bemused curiosity, and the smattering of iridescent indigo in the collar suggesting of hidden beauty, it should at least gain a lot more public sympathy.
Instead, by being so numerous it is either ignored completely or derided indignantly. We should be admiring it’s success for actually coping so well with our intensive-farming patterns, an achievement any animal deserves a medal for; but does their ubiquity simply remind us of the failures we have seen in most other farmland bird populations? And when some go the next level and call them ‘rats-with-wings’, are they simply thinking more along the lines of their urban cousins, the rock dove or ‘feral pigeon’, and the perceived waste nuisances they cause on our streets?
Whatever the causes, like many I’m guilty of ‘pigeon-dismissal’ despite being a lover of all nature. In fact, the only time I can remember looking twice at them was the occasional sighting in Transylvania, where I suspect the low-impact, medieval farming methods leads to a complete reverse of the densities we find in the UK. Yet there was a moment a couple of days back which changed the very way I perceived them.
It was my first walk back in ‘my’ woods since I left for my third year at university back in the beginning of September – as you can imagine, the seasonal change between the gluttonous green blooms of Summer, and the grey and brown skeletal forms of Winter were incredibly stark. Frequently, my presence resulted in clusters of wood pigeons flapping madly from their roosts, as if each footfall triggered a land mine of birds exploding out of the canopy. This is a common sight at this time of year, as the pigeons roost together for mutual foraging and protection benefit in the colder months.
But as more and more groups erupted from the branches as I progressed, they all began to merge together. Some groups would settle while another took flight as if passing a baton, till eventually I found myself underneath hundreds of the birds. Almost like a starling murmuration, vast walls of pigeons clouded the sky above the woods, circling and diving in repeat, till it looked less a reaction to disturbance and more a performance. The air itself was filled with a whispering roar as they soared, taking precedence over the usual silence of a wood in December.
I wonder if this is what it was like to watch passenger pigeons, I thought to myself. Yes and no. For those who don’t know, the passenger pigeon could form flocks of billions, supposedly blocking the sun and taking three days to pass over one point. The wood pigeons’ effort was therfore a drop in the ocean compared to what passengers could achieve. But this thought, dwelling on just how amazing nature could be, was overshadowed by the simple fact that we had wiped out one of the planet’s most common birds in the space of a few centuries.
It’s an issue I dwelled on last year, on the 100th anniversary of the death of Martha, the very last passenger pigeon. But now I wondered more about how the white settlers to North America, responsible for their extinction, perceived them. Surely there must have been feelings of awe for a billion-strong flock, if pigeons were wowing me in the hundreds alone? Or was it merely seen as just a flying supermarket? Were they ever seen as ‘dirty’ in the same way many people see pigeons of today? I’m sure the guano under their night roosts would’ve been enough to sink the Mary Rose.
Whatever the case, this extremely common bird is now extinct. Could the same happen to the wood pigeon? You may scoff at the notion, and while currently this is highly unlikely, the passenger pigeon proved nothing is ever completely safe.
And if it did become a scarce bird, would it only then start gaining a fan base? Would birders and conservationists suddenly claim they always loved the bird, when hardly an eyelid was batted while it was living at levels those same people would now be battling to bring back? Quite simply, when is our love for an animal determined by its circumstance over intrinsic qualities?
Clearly, the companion statement to ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ – for the sake of all numerous animals that are ignored or demonised – is ‘you don’t know what you have till it’s gone’.