Crop milk production in pigeons is stimulated by the hormone prolactin. (This is the same hormone that stimulates milk production in mammals.) Interestingly, prolactin produces an overall calming effect. Which fact leads neatly to a discussion of ‘calming’ and the effects of pigeon cooing on the human mind.
Predicated on the hypothesis that the human mind is pleasantly relaxed by the sound of pigeon cooing, we imagine the following experiment.
A range of volunteers, outfitted with electro-caps, is subjected to alternate recordings of circus music and pigeons cooing in the park. Brain activity is recorded. The simplicity of the data imaging is humble, especially when juxtaposed against the spectacular imaging techniques driving today’s science. However simple, we find it illustrates the point.
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“The pigeon will be doing stuff not just because it’s a pigeon, and it’s a Columbiform, and it’s from a family that has a small brain……It will be doing what it does partly because of that very specific regime of domestication that it went through for thousands of years.”
In other words, the bird that interests us–the urban pigeon or city pigeon or house pigeon or feral pigeon or free-flying domestic or rat of the sky, your choice of street-speak–is a confusion of natural and artificial selection.
Here is a list of quasi-scientific names people have come up with to address this confusion and distinguish the “pigeon” from its wild rock dove (Columba livia) ancestor. All of which by the way are wrong according to the rules of taxonomic structure & biological typology–Columba liviaformaurbana or Columba livia f.domestica or Columba liviavardomestica or simply Columba liviavar.
In New York City pigeons are classified as livestock.
Pigeons are amazing. We still do not know how they manage to navigate home. Sight? Smells? Magnetic fields? All of the above?
This Radiolab podcast: Bird’s-Eye View, includes the story of a pigeon war hero who saved a town and it also explores the variety of experiments scientists have conducted to try to decode this navigational mystery – including putting blinding contact lenses in their eyes, strapping magnetic coils to their heads and transporting them inside smell-controlled boxes.
I wondered what the current state of research is on pigeon navigation and I found a report in the New Scientist about embedding devices in the brain of a pigeon that can record the electrical impulses in the pigeon’s brain at the same time as it records the GPS location. What the researches found is that the pigeon’s brain activity spiked up when they passed over landmarks like highways and coastlines.
Dubbed the Neurologger, this gadget simultaneously captures brain activity and GPS location of homing pigeons as they navigate over land and sea (Image: Alexei Vyssotski, University of Zurich)