Familiarity breeds contempt, and it's hard to think of a more familiar bird than the common pigeon. Flocks of "rats with wings" infest the buildings and streets of most major cities in America, and the species has long been a symbol of vulgar mediocrity: a trash bird whose adaptation to urban life is a constant reminder of humanity's corruption of the natural world. Courtney Humphries, a Boston-based science writer, would like to change that. To her, the modern pigeon is a success story, thriving proof of Darwin's theory of evolution; if people could get over their contempt, they'd find a lot to admire in the so-called "superdove."
In her new book, Superdove: How The Pigeon Took Manhattan… And The World, Humphries follows the pigeon's development as a game bird, a cheap food source, a highly prized messenger service, and ultimately, a modern-day pest. Brought to America as status symbols and raised as get-rich-quick livestock, the birds had a knack for adaptation that led them to urban environments, where tall structures and easy food access mirrored their original cliff dwellings. Pigeons aren't very bright, but they're still valued by breeders, either for their plumage and wide variety of species, or their ability to return home from far distances. This innate homing sense even attracted the attention of infamous psychologist B.F. Skinner; during World War II, he attempted to train the birds as missile-guidance systems, with limited success.
While Superdove covers the general line of pigeon history, Humphries is just as interested in understanding why people view the birds the way they do. From the not entirely stable Pigeon People who devote their time to "saving" the birds they find injured on the sidewalk to the scientists who dismiss pigeon study out of hand, it seems that individual prejudices take precedence. Humphries argues that pigeons are worthy of interest for the same reason they're often pitied or ignored: They're a perfect example of synanthropy, animals that can co-exist with humans to the point of dependency, while still being wild. Superdove is a slim volume, and some topics, like the idea of pigeons as disease-carriers, could've used some time; but Humphries succeeds in examining something everyone takes for granted, and proving that it's worthy of a second look.