A pigeon spreads its wings wide as it soars through the sky.

Photograph by Klein & Hubert

Keeping the Peace

words by willow defebaugh

Pigeons may be considered commonplace, but they are no less extraordinary.

“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.”

Amelia Earhart

Last week, I was having a stressful day and decided to take myself for a lunchtime walk. As I wandered the sidewalks of Brooklyn, I noticed a man standing in the middle of the street. He wasn’t wearing any kind of uniform, and yet he was diverting traffic. As I got closer, I saw that he was standing guard over a pigeon that seemed unable to move itself out of harm’s way. By the time I emerged from the grocer with my lunch, a crowd of four people were now protecting this bird—this small, wounded thing—alerting cars to the life that still breathed there.


That moment hatched a curiosity in me, an appreciation for these birds that are so commonplace in the ecosystem I call home that I often overlook them. In New York City, there are estimated to be anywhere from half a million to 9 million pigeons, as many as one for every person that roams the city streets. And yet their everyday presence makes them no less awe-inspiring.


Pigeons refer to the several hundred species of birds that make up the family Columbidae. Despite how ordinary we perceive them to be, they are highly intelligent creatures. They are among the only animals capable of self-recognition, meaning that they are able to identify themselves in the mirror. They have also proven themselves capable of recognizing each letter of the English alphabet and even distinguishing between different people in photographs. They are also social birds, living in flocks of 20-30 and choosing mates for life.


A third of a pigeon’s body weight is made up of the muscles it uses to fly. They are among the strongest and fastest avians in the world, capable of flying up to 94 miles per hour and traveling more than 500 miles in a day. Homing or carrier pigeons are especially adept at navigation, using landmarks as visual cues to guide them as well as the Earth’s electromagnetic field. Hence why these animals have been used throughout history to deliver letters across long distances: their incredible ability to find their way


For as common as we find pigeons, they are no different from an animal that has come to serve as a special symbol worldwide: doves. Most often, the larger species within the Columbidae family are simply called pigeons while the smaller ones are called doves—though it is the white domestic pigeon that is typically depicted as the dove of peace. How beautiful is it that such a common creature has come to represent a concept that is both so easy and elusive?


I think of the people who flocked to that pigeon, each of whom undoubtedly had places to be, dramas to their days that they decided were not worth more than that indelible symbol of hope, so precariously positioned on a busy street in Brooklyn. Peace is like that—something we must go out of our way to create and protect, especially in a world where people kill their neighbors. And its feathers fan out in unforeseen directions. Were those people aware that I was watching them help that bird, that their kindness would inspire these words?


It’s easy to only see the worst in our species. Lately, the news has given us plenty of reason to. But there is also goodness to be found for those willing to look for it—and more importantly, create it. They say pigeons pass the mirror test, capable of perceiving their own image. Perhaps they are able to reflect our own humanity back to us as well: our ability to be messengers of peace, if only in our acts of everyday kindness. What, if not that, will guide us home?

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