On my way to the North End last week, I saw a bald eagle fly over the Slaw Rebchuk Bridge.
A philosophical person might ponder the meaning of a majestic raptor soaring over the bleak, industrial Canadian Pacific Railway Yards.
But I’m nowhere near that deep. I simply wondered what an eagle would eat at a time of year when there’s very little open water in Winnipeg.
Ducks are out of the question. Mallards don’t overwinter in rail yards. Mice and rabbits probably don’t poke around the industrial wastes in sufficient numbers, at least not when there’s snow to hide beneath.
But there are plenty of pigeons populating old structures in the centre of this city. The flying rats are pretty much everywhere.
So by the time I reached Dufferin Avenue, I decided the eagles were eating pigeons, with no real evidence to back up that conclusion besides the vague knowledge that peregrine falcons — a much smaller and more agile raptor — chow down on the avian pests during the summer.
Somehow, it doesn’t seem right for bald eagles to dine on lowly pigeons. But I’m not sure what I have against these creatures.
Property managers hate pigeons because they get into vacant buildings and start nesting. Pigeon poop is annoying to remove, though the chances of catching serious diseases from the guano is no better than winning a vehicle from a Tim Hortons cup.
Pigeons could carry avian flu, but haven’t been known to do so. They’re also not considered a big factor in the spread of West Nile virus. They’re noisy when they nest in large numbers. But I’ll take the subtle annoyance of constant pigeon-cooing over the infuriating evil of the impromptu drum circles that occasionally form on summer evenings near my home.
Hippies with no rhythm deserve to die. I’m not so sure about pigeons, though.
The deal is, it’s sort of odd to call pigeons "flying rats" when these birds actually belong to the dove family, a group of animals with entirely positive connotations.
The dove is the bird of peace. The pigeon is the bird of pestilence. The dove gets to carry around an olive branch. The pigeon gets the mouldy remains of a Big Mac bun blowing around a parking lot.
It just isn’t fair, especially when the birds that most of us call pigeons are actually members of a species known as the rock dove.
According The Birds of Manitoba, the big bible compiled by the Manitoba Naturalists Society, the rock dove was domesticated in ancient times and has served humanity as "a message carrier, racer, pet, symbol of peace and love (and) game bird for gourmets."
Game bird? Yep, there’s no real difference between a pigeon and a squab, other than the fact that you hire Poulin’s to kill the former and pay big bucks to eat the latter.
While trendy restaurants are far more likely to serve quail in Winnipeg, I’ve occasionally seen squab appear on menus in other cities.
Presumably, the birds are bred for culinary purposes and are not simply captured from the rooftops by exterminators.
Personally, I’ve never had the pleasure of eating pigeon. But I’ve always been curious about travellers’ accounts of eating pastilla, a flaky North African pastry traditionally prepared with onion, hard-boiled eggs, almonds, honey, cinnamon and shredded pigeon flesh.
In Africa, the rock dove’s ancestral home, the pigeon doesn’t carry so much of a stigma. In fact, the wild ancestors of the domesticated rock doves that spawned the feral pigeons we call flying rats are actually dwindling due to habitat loss.
"Ironically, the truly wild ancestral rock dove is a declining species, largely restricted to remote mountains, deserts and sea-cliffs in Eurasia and North Africa," writes Gene Walz in The Birds of Manitoba.
So you can add "save the pigeon" to your repertoire of T-shirt and bumper-sticker slogans. After all, we don’t have a fantastic track record with their relatives.
Two centuries ago, the passenger pigeon — a related species — flew across southern Manitoba in such large numbers they were reputed to darken the sky. But they were tasty and easy to kill. They were gone from the province by 1898 and extinct across North America by 1914.
Killing off such a plentiful creature was an act of definitively human stupidity.
So forget those clucking, cooing bluish-grey creatures your kids chase across the park. We’re the only species that deserves to be compared to rats... except, of course, the rats themselves.