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Why Is Chicago Filled With Pigeons? Blame Hungry Settlers

By Justin Breen | January 5, 2017 7:30am | Updated on January 6, 2017 11:00am
 Pigeons at the Daley Center Eternal Flame in Downtown Chicago.
Pigeons at the Daley Center Eternal Flame in Downtown Chicago.
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Flickr Creative Commons/Clint McMahon

DOWNTOWN — Ever wonder why there are so many pigeons in Chicago?

You can likely blame Chicago's first settlers for the thousands upon thousands of pigeons flocking Downtown and all over the rest of the city.

And blame their hunger.

"Pigeons have probably been here for as long as the first Europeans," said John Bates, associate curator for birds at Field Museum. "And what Chicago illustrates is that pigeons have been with people for a long time, and they've figured out how to coexist with them."

Pigeons have been domesticated for thousands of years, and Bates cited a 1952 article from "The Auk" — a journal from the American Ornithological Society — that said pigeons first came to North America with French settlers to Nova Scotia in 1606. Wherever Europeans and other settlers went in North America, they brought pigeons with them as a main food source, Bates said.

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Pigeons continued to thrive here — and elsewhere across the continent — even as they became a nuisance and people stopped using them for their meals.

Asked why many Chicagoans don't like pigeons, Bates said: "They're messy and they're just kind of everywhere.

"But it takes a lot to be able to successfully adapt to humans, and they've been able to do that, and they deserve credit for that, even if in many ways, they are flying rats," Bates added.

 Downtown pigeons in Chicago.
Downtown pigeons in Chicago.
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Flickr Creative Commons/Marilee

Since Thursday is "National Bird Day," it's worth noting the pigeons in Chicago are technically "rock doves," with the scientific name Columba Livia. They differ from the wild and extinct passenger pigeons, which were native to North America.

Bates said Chicago's current pigeons are all feral, some ancestors of the very first domesticated pigeons and others to arrive here early in the city's history.

Bates said rock doves are one of three species of birds to thrive in North America since coming from Europe. The others are the house sparrow and European starling, but both of those birds were never domesticated, he said.

While Bates said there is no known population figure of Chicago pigeons, he doesn't expect it to boom or decline any time soon.

"They're doing just fine," he said. "It's an amazing bird when it comes down to it, and they're a pretty hearty bird. ... Pigeons are a lot cooler than you think."

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