Whether they’re invading your condo balcony, blocking the sidewalk, ruining lunch on the patio or bombarding your car, there’s not a whole lot of love out there for pigeons.
But director Scott Harper would like to change all those rat-like perceptions of these noble birds.
“They have a varied and amazing story in service of humankind,” he insists.
“What makes them kind of lovable is that they’ve done all this for us and yet, for the most part, they are greeted with contempt.”
Harper’s documentary, The Secret Life of Pigeons, airs Nov. 20 at 8 p.m. ET on CBC’s The Nature of Things.
“We were looking for a nature story that hadn’t been told yet, and their story was just unbelievable,” he says.
“They are the world’s oldest domestic animal. You see them in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, in Mesopotamian tablets,” he notes. “They were the first animals used to communicate. In ancient battles, Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar and the Egyptians used them to send messages across enemy lines.
“They were the first phone service, the first postal service. Before that, they were domesticated as food,” he adds.
“So they’ve been a source of food, they’ve been an amazing source of communication, especially through war, delivering medicines, financial information and, eventually, they also became a source of entertainment; racing the birds, breeding the birds.”
To illustrate the majesty of the city pigeon, Harper strapped a camera on one of them, literally giving us a bird’s eye view of Toronto.
“What you get from that is a perspective on the city, and just how nimble they are.”
Harper’s documentary also profiles Clint Robertson, a Manitoba cattle farmer who has kept birds since he was five, and now has 800 fancy Jacobin pigeons.
His favourite breed is an eccentric-looking bird with “a collar of feathers that grows from the neck and radiates upward, encasing the head. People would not recognize them at all as a pigeon.”
“We don’t know how many varieties there are,” Robertson says. “We are guessing there are in excess of a thousand species of pigeons.”
He notes there are organized pigeon clubs and contests on every continent except Antarctica.
“I’ve judged all over the world. I’ve judged in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. When I go there, it is unbelievable. You walk in and you’re like a rock star. Seven out of 10 men who have hobbies in the Middle East have birds.
Until the early ’80s, worldwide, pigeons were the third-biggest hobby next to stamps and coins.”
Harper isn’t surprised by the popularity of pigeons around the world.
“If you look at them long enough, you’ll see something quite exotic and something quite impressive, as opposed to something dirty.”