Passenger Pigeon

The Passenger Pigeon succumbed to hunting and the wanton destruction of its natural environment by the white settlers of North America. It was not the first and certainly won’t be the last extinction at our hands. How important are Pigeons and do we care??? Not very important if you listen to Ken Livingston, who christened London’s Feral Pigeons ‘Rats with Wings’. But surveys by the RSPB suggest that the average city dweller finds the companionship of wild birds important for their wellbeing.

Rattus Pigineous

Rattus Pigineous

Of course, the truth behind London’s Feral Pigeons is, as usual, exploitation by humans. They are descendents of Rock Doves (still treated as one and the same species by ornithologists) gathered from the cliffs of Northern England (where Rock Doves still live in natural colonies) and domesticated to provide food for the inns and fine houses of London back in the middle ages. The average populace lost the taste for Pigeon Pie a long time ago and the ‘dove cots’ where the birds were kept long since disappeared, leaving a Pigeon population that lives off our detritus – hence ‘Rats with Wings’.

Pigeons are not the sharpest beaks in the bird box… numbers die on the roads and rails every year as their greed makes them linger a bit too long over a feeding opportunity. You won’t find Crows caught the same way – though they’ll happily pile in for fresh squashed Pigeon.

But a few individuals seem to be smarter than the rest. I was somewhat surprised to find a Pigeon on the platforms of Moorgate Station. Not the sub-surface platforms of the Metropolitan Railway but the deeper tube lines of the old Northern Line route from Finsbury Park! This is a land of artificial light and mice. There is no expectation that you would see birds down there. But most London travellers will tell you about the Pigeons that hop on the train at one station and hop off at the next – it’s much more efficient than flying and the ticket inspectors don’t trouble you! I assume that this enterprising Pigeon, having disposed of the bits from someone’s regurgitation, will head back to Finsbury Park, stopping off at Old Street and Essex Road on the way. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a Gooner and will be at the Emirates Stadium every time there’s a home game… A true Passenger Pigeon 😉



  1. Really? Pigeons take tubes? This I must see myself!!

    One of these days they’ll evolve themselves out of the world of flight.

    • Hi Kate, they do indeed! The commonest place to see them riding the rails is around the Paddington, Edgware Road and Baker Street section of the Circle line. But I was a bit surprised to find one so deep under ground!

      • Thanks for the Pingback from Letter from Britain Kate 🙂 You’ll note that some of the shots in the video were at Edgware Road 😉

        ps – in response to the LUL man who said that Pigeons are vermin and should be destroyed… I believe that fare-dodgers are also vermin. I hope the same penalty applies 😉

  2. Commuting pigeons, interesting. Do they just sit on top of the trains or actually wander inside? I love to see birds flying around the neighbourhood. I guess there are public areas where too many pigeons would become a problem

    • Hi Tony – they come inside through the sliding doors and hang around in the area by the doors. If the carriage is largely empty they’ll sometimes wander between the seats to see if anything edible has been dropped.

      I first encountered Pigeons riding the Circle Line quite a few years ago (late 1970’s). They couldn’t do it on mainline trains back then because on the slamdoor stock the doors were opened and closed by people. But the Sub-surface Underground stock has been sliding doors for a very long time and they’ve had time to learn. You usually only see them on sections where the stations are open to the elements, hence my surpise to find one in the darkest depths of Moorgate!

  3. amazing tale martin, what a smart bird … i guess they learn a few tricks to survive!

    • They certainly do Christine – I started putting out seed on my office window a year ago. Initially I used to get the occasional Wood Pigeon but now I have a regular flock of around 15 Feral Pigeons, all very smartly turned out like dapper city gents, who squabble over the seed when I put it out each morning. The bird in the photo is one of my ‘regulars’ 🙂

      Of course, I don’t just feed the Pigeons – the feeding stations attract a wide range of smaller species including 4 species of Tit, 2 species of Finch, Robins and Sparrows. I also get the occasional less common visitor – a Great spotted Woodpecker was visiting for several days in November. There was also an (Un)Welcome visitor in the form of a Sparrowhawk – I thought the feeders had gone a bit quiet… 😉

  4. I was in a floral shop during the holidays and noted Rock Doves in a small aviary. I thought they were beautiful! My husband raised carrier pigeons as a young boy. I suppose that tells you something about our age. Who would do that now? LOL! But we like pigeons and find them interesting. I have never really taken to the “rats with wings” description! 🙂

    • Hi Debra – People still have Pigeon Lofts in the UK and Pigeon Racing is still quite common although it has changed. The Pigeons used to travel by rail in large baskets to a chosen departure station from where a member of station staff would be charged with releasing the birds at a set time. The owners would log the arrival time of each bird as it returned to its home loft and the average speed over the distance from the release point could be calculated – fastest bird wins. Nowadays, the birds travel by car or van to the release point – station staff having become an endangered species on the modern railway! As a Fellow of the RSPB I love all birds and I view the ‘Rats with Wings’ classification as the joke that Ken Livingston never intended it to be 😉 – see my response to Christine above 🙂

  5. Hahaha… I love it! Why not give your wings a bit of a rest if you’ve also got rails!

    • Glad you got a laugh Bob 🙂 Everybody assumes that Pigeons are stupid but I bet they, along with the Ants, will be here long after the Human Race nukes itself 😉

      ps – the reference to being a Gooner refers to the fact that the Line the Pigeon was on calls at Drayton Park, right next to the Arsenal Football Club Stadium. Arsenal are known as The Gunners due to their club badge and fans (including my Son) are jokingly referred to as Gooners. Bound to be lots of left over scraps on the stands there after a Home game 🙂

  6. Perhaps it’s an invasion and a turf war between the pigeons from up there and the rats from down below . . ..

    • LoL – I think the rats have been largely exterminated on the Underground Patti. So perhaps the Pigeons are taking the opportunity to move in on vacant turf 😉

  7. I look forward to the day pigeons fight with humans to get through the closing doors of a rush-hour Piccadilly Line train!

  8. A “passenger” pigeon —
    Just got it! Groan (proper response to outrageous puns).

  9. Su Leslie says:

    Great post. I’m definitely of the “rats with wings” mindset, and you have convinced me I’m being a bit hard – particularly, as with so many things, humans created the problem we now have. I love the idea of commuer pigeons. Never saw one on the Tube but it’s been a while since I was a London commuter. 🙂


  1. […] to Martin at Thoughts From Finchley for a superlative lead and Ian Kitching for this excellent report on the New Scientist […]

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