One of the greatest memories for the 1964 Olympians from the Tokyo Games is the opening ceremonies – the parade of athletes, jets sketching the Olympic rings in the sky, the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. The only event to get lukewarm reviews? The release of the pigeons.
- “The pigeons are the most prolific dropping birds. We all kind of ducked for cover. The droppings from the sky were plentiful.” (British rower, Bill Barry)
- “We all had cowboy hats. When they released the peace pigeons we were protected. Many of our compatriots were not. Our clothes were messed up but our hair wasn’t.” (American Judoka, Jim Bregman)
- “The pigeons were dumping on the Olympians.” (American water polo player, Dan Drown)
Or were they doves?
To be honest, I was confused myself as Olympians, books and articles alike used the words “dove” and “pigeon” interchangeably. But aren’t they completely different birds? Doves are white. They symbolize peace. Pigeons are multi-colored gray. They symbolize disease in the urban environment.
My confusion finally ended when I listened to this episode from one of my favorite podcasts, 99 Percent Invisible, in which producer Roman Mars interviews the author of the book, Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness, Nathanael Johnson. Here is how Johnson described pigeons:
Pigeons are legitimately revolting. All the things we find loathsome are really caused by us, humans. We bred them to be massively productive and then we put them in a situation where we fed them all kinds of food and we created this food waste that they could eat. They reproduce like crazy and so they overpopulate and they’re all squished together and they get all these parasites and diseases. A lot of the things we find disgusting about them is a result of that.
But as Mars explains in his 99 percent invisible site, pigeons have a proud and regal history.
Historically, these were birds of the aristocracy. Researchers believe they were domesticated in the Middle East and then spread around Europe by the Romans. Their habitats were even built into the architecture of Roman houses: one common element of a traditional Tuscan Villa was an integrated lookout tower and pigeon house. In the 1600s, pigeons were brought to Canada from Europe; from there, they spread across the United States. Governors and dignitaries would exchange them as gifts and house them in domestic pigeon roosts. As they became more common and wild, pigeons began to lose their exotic appeal and fell out of favor with the upper class.
Unfortunately, thanks to urbanization and the overpopulated and diseased state of the pigeon, our perception of this bird type has diverged. Mars again explains this quite eloquently:
This change in status is reflected in the evolution of common language as well: for a long time, “pigeon” and “dove” (of the same bird family) were essentially synonyms. Over time, the two diverged: “dove” was increasingly associated with positive things and “pigeon” became associated with the negative. Imagine, for instance, Pigeon Soap beauty bars, silky smooth Pigeon Chocolate, or the Holy Spirit descending from Heaven in the form of a pigeon.
So now I know – a pigeon is a dove, a dove is a pigeon. One, an alter ego to the other, akin to the devil pigeon on one shoulder, and the angel dove on the other.
I’m reminded of Milton and his essay The Areopagitica:
Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed upon Psyche as an incessant labour to cull out and sort asunder, were not more intermixed. It was from out the rind of one apple tasted that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into the world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil.
Yeah, I know. They’re just birds.