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CBC documentary delves into fascinating, astonishing world of pigeons

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/11/2014 (1004 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When someone mentions pigeons, the reaction of most within earshot is more likely to be "rats with wings" than "true marvels of the natural world."

Filmmaker Scott Harper wants to change people's minds with his new documentary The Secret Life of Pigeons, which rejects the prevailing avian-rodent notion and seeks to re-install the lowly pigeon on the much-loftier perches it enjoyed in centuries past.

The Secret Life of Pigeons, which airs Thursday, Nov. 20 at 8 p.m. on CBC's The Nature of Things, is a rather fascinating examination of a creature that was once considered noble and even heroic, but is now more likely to be regarded as a nuisance or simply ignored completely.

Consider the history: it was the pigeon, not the dog or cat, that was the first animal to be domesticated, and this highly intelligent bird has served many important roles in human history. Pigeons were used as messengers in the military campaigns of Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan; they delivered the results of the first Olympic games in Greece; during the 20th century, their keen homing instincts were exploited to transport military intelligence across battlefields, medicines to distant clinics and financial information to Wall Street traders.

These days, however, the urban-pigeon population mostly just takes up space while struggling daily to survive -- a tricky proposition that depends almost exclusively on handouts from humans.

Harper interviews several scientists who have become staunch defenders of pigeons, and their input provides some intriguing revelations about the intelligence and natural gifts of the birds.

Among the information offered is a new understanding of what gives pigeons their unique homing ability, along with first-ever footage of a pigeon's in-flight perspective, thanks to a tiny harness-mounted camera that allows viewers to take to the skies with the bird.

The Secret Life of Pigeons takes its exploration beyond the "lowly" feral-pigeon population, reaching out into realms in which these creatures are beloved rather than detested. Harper visits with several pigeon "fanciers," who raise showbirds with such exotic breed designations as African Owl, Short Faced Helmet, Voorburg Shield, English Trumpeter and German Beauty Homer.

"We've taken it to a whole other level," says Manitoba cattle rancher Clint Robertson, president of the Canadian Pigeon Fanciers Association, "We've developed birds that aren't even close to what the feral pigeon is anymore. This is an intense hobby of selectively bred birds that have evolved over thousands of years into something that has suited the taste of each individual breeder."

Equally passionate about pigeons are the folks who breed them for racing -- a relatively small-scale pastime in Canada, but a huge industry in other parts of the world, where purses can reach the million-dollar mark (in South Africa) and prize birds can sell for hundreds of thousands.

Most impressive, however, are the segments of the film that outline how intelligent and adaptable pigeons are -- Harper includes re-enactments of a couple of scientific studies that show how the birds communicate over vast distances to ensure that available food supplies are distributed equally among the greater pigeon population.

The theory of "ideal free distribution" suggests -- and is backed by solid evidence -- that pigeons will disperse in a manner that guarantees equal access to food sources.

"You can never feed pigeons more," says Luc-Alain Giraldeau, dean of science at the University of Quebec at Montreal. "You can just attract more pigeons."

Rats with wings? Hardly.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Read more by Brad Oswald.

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