Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan ... And the World by Courtney Humphries








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I never thought I would read an entire book about pigeons. In fact, I opened Courtney Humphries’ new book, Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan ... And the World, fully expecting that it would quickly land on the shelf of ennui. Instead, after a chapter or two, I was hooked, and enjoyed her exploration of how these birds have adapted to urban locations. Here’s an excerpt, pp. 110-111:


We can call pigeons superdoves because of their outstanding success. But although they are "real" birds, every bit as part of nature as any other animal, their success is shaped by people. A super­hero is simply a person who acquires special powers through some transformative event; domestication gave pigeons the ability to become the superpower they are today.

One day I called up Louis Lefebvre, a biologist in Montreal who had studied learning and social behavior in pigeons. More recently, Lefebvre had been studying innovation in birds—how well they learn new tasks and adapt their behavior in order to find food. In addition to studying two wild bird species in Barbados—a grackle and a dove—he had tested street pigeons near his lab. In one experiment, Lefebvre examined whether birds can figure out how to get at seed inside of a transparent Plexiglas box by pulling drawers or removing a lid, a test of how innovative they could be in procuring food in new ways. It was a test that Lefebvre expected feral pigeons to flunk, and he seemed dis­appointed that they did not.

"The average Columbiform—the average bird of their family, pi­geons and doves—is really really dumb at that," he explained. The Bar­bados doves didn't pass the test. But pigeons were much faster than predicted. "The only conclusion is there's something special about pigeons that is different from other Columbiforms," he said, "and the most plausible thing is that they're feral."

Superdoves indeed: Lefebvre believes that their time in captiv­ity may actually have made pigeons more innovative than their wild brethren. They certainly don't follow the usual pattern of innovation in birds. In a previous study, Lefebvre and his colleagues looked at the relative success of introduced bird species, which they compared to the frequency with which the birds try new foods—a measure of in­novation—and their brain size, a measure of intelligence. In general, birds with larger brains tend to try new foods more often, and these birds also prove to be better invaders. Pigeons, with their paltry brain size, were an exception.

The idea that pigeons may have gotten cleverer at finding their way in the world because of domestication is counterintuitive. We usually think of domesticated animals as having lost the wits that wild ani­mals need to stay alive. But with pigeons there's a key difference: the dovecote.

Unlike other domesticated animals, pigeons never relied on humans entirely for their food. People gave pigeons a little food but al­lowed them to fly in and out freely to find the rest on their own. And since pigeons were good at homing, they could be allowed this free­dom and still return to the same nest and the same mate. "We've done something really special with pigeons that we've done with no other animal," Lefebvre said. "We've domesticated them, but we haven't domesticated the foraging behavior." Even sheep and cattle, which also have freedom to roam, are taken to pastures to graze by their caretakers.

At the same time, however, pigeons were selected for an ability to tolerate humans. And this lack of skittishness helps them survive in the crowds of cities. "You've got the best of both worlds in terms of ar­tificial selection," Lefebvre said. Pigeons gained new characteristics, but they never lost their most important survival skill. Though no one can know for sure, Lefebvre believes that the pressures of artificial selection may have even enhanced their capabilities for finding food, which would explain their unexpected success at his test.


Writers who love their subjects tend to write well. Humphries wanted to see pigeons on her honeymoon. That’s just one more reason for you to consider reading Superdove. If you like change, learn from the masters of adaptation: the pigeon.


Steve Hopkins, November 20, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the December 2008 issue of Executive Times


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