Lessons two pigeons taught me

Until a few years ago, I had never paid much attention to common pigeons. I’d seen them around, of course, and I’d seen them hump each other in what looked like a fairly random manner. I used to shrug.

Pigeons – colored mostly grey in my mind – had become the sparrows of the first two decades of my life. We chased those away, out of many countries. Pigeons and gulls stepped in to fill their shoes at the tables of our outdoor cafes and eateries.

But unlike gulls and sparrows, pigeons were actually introduced all over the world, by us, humans. We took them from their sea cliffs in much warmer climates. They were rock doves.

Pigeons are much more tolerant than humans, it seems. They happily eat along other species of birds, they pay attention to each others’ alarm calls, particularly those of crows and other corvids (who often act as watchdogs against prowling cats).

Pigeons are smart. They understand, wordlessly. They also have the ability to distinguish between music by different composers and art by different painters. (Can all humans? Has anyone ever tested that?) And they usually mate for life. Racing pigeons are males who hurry home to their mate. Did you know that? I didn’t until one or two years ago.

Why did I start paying attention to pigeons? Well, one day, I was on my way downtown, crossing a very busy intersection, when I heard a woman say “that bird has a death wish” to her partner. I looked at the bird, hung around to observe, and concluded that she was right.

Pigeons know that cars and buses kill and when they know that they are fatally ill, unable to save themselves, and maybe also after their mate has died, they sometimes choose to end things swiftly rather than die a long and painful death, and perhaps even end up as fox food in a shorter but still pretty painful death.

The second pigeon who caught my attention also kept walking into very busy traffic, but kept trying to fly away and only got a few centimetres of lift. It clearly didn’t want to die but felt it had no choice. I stopped traffic, grabbed the bird, took it home and rehabilitated it.

It had very likely accidentally had gotten locked into an enclosure – I think I know where, too – and was mainly dehydrated and also malnourished, but other than that it was perfectly fine. It stayed with me long enough to be able to assess that and its ability to fly again. (It was getting increasingly impatient too!)

That was the occurrence that got me to look into pigeons and changed my mind about these creatures.

Next, in the course of 2016, two pigeons befriended me. I found one of them on my windowsill one day, indoors, studying me calmly as I was sanding a little table. I had been completely unaware of it, looked up at some point and my jaw dropped when I saw that pigeon resting on my windowsill.

Turned out that he had decided that my windowsill would be a perfect place for a nest. In principle, I agreed, but there was one problem. Kitchen windows aren’t always open. This one – dad as it turned out later – is highly inquisitive and likes looking at what I am doing. When I was hand-sewing sleeves for my penny whistles, he watched with great interest. (Whatchadoin’?)

The whole thing puzzled me for a while until it dawned on me, that, of course, birds are far from stupid – heck, they’ve survived on the planet much much much longer than humans – and they’d noticed that I no longer had pet birds in my place. “I wonder if we can nest there now.” I guess they decided that they wanted to become my pets, which several mammals have done before them.

I sort of compromised. I fed them breakfast off and on, or dinner. When they stopped appearing as a pair, I concluded they had a nest somewhere, I fed them more often and made the decision that I had to support them through their nesting period as I might inadvertently have encouraged their nesting (so I thought, but I later found out that it wasn’t the case as I saw many more young pigeons appear in the streets at around the same time).

I asked them whether they had one or two eggs or youngsters and told them I was very curious about their offspring. Eventually, I got the impression that they were merely getting fatter so they probably did not have a nest at all. Also, I didn’t want them to feel too comfy visiting as not everyone around me might like that, and the birds might start leaving droppings (which they had not done so far). So I cut back on my catering service and transitioned to adding some food to a location where all sorts of wildlife already forages and other people provide food too.

(The female pigeon broke my heart once when she showed up half covered in some really disgusting fast food that had been thrown away. Not all fast food is bad but the fast food that is, is also making wildlife less healthy.)

One Sunday evening, I saw the two walk around in an obvious panic and realized that my support for them had cut them off from the intelligence (information) of other pigeons, namely where to find the best stuff and at what time and on what days. They know that schools are closed in the weekend and supermarkets are closed on Sunday mornings here. (Of course they do!) Those are among the places where people often eat hence drop food. Though it isn’t the best kind of bird food, not by a long shot. I had to cue them in, so I did.

It dawned on me that I had introduced inequality among the local group of about ten pigeons and that this was not benefiting my pair.

Then one day, dad stopped by, first with youngster 1 who was still a bit sleepy and the next day, with youngster 2, the older one. (I felt so stupid! They’d had a nest after all. I’d been right.) The two youngsters are each other’s spitting image, except that one is older and bigger. It took me a while to figure it out.

I discovered that mom and dad are a lot like humans. Daddy pigeon thought it was okay to sit on people’s windowsills, but mommy pigeon was teaching her kids to avoid windowsills. Ha ha!

I saw many more young pigeons around at the time, also in other locations in town.

I have seen one who was still quite intimidated by other pigeons. Ha ha! I have seen him fly toward other birds and then off again, repeatedly, which is odd behavior for a pigeon. Then one morning, I saw him or her do it again. Approach, hover, fly off, approach and hover, fly off, repeat, then approach, land and literally jump in, to eat with the other birds. It was perfectly fine. No one shooed him or her off.

(Yes, they do occasionally fight. The males sometimes get into quarrels and the females sometimes have to shoo younger males off. I have seen the female of my friendly pair grab a much younger local male – quite a character, that one – by the bill to make sure he got lost when he was way too pushy.)

I have negotiated with dad and moved the birds back to where they came from. I found them surprisingly easy to work with (which explains why humane pigeon management works much better than the traditional pest control approach, as I wrote in my previous post).

Dad really likes me for some reason, though, and still stops by from time. We mostly just look at each other and enjoy the bond, the trust. He is highly inquisitive, likes watching what I do.

I guess he is a lot like me. I have no idea where these two roost or where their nest was, but I confess that I was quite curious about where they were hiding them when the little squabs were still highly vulnerable and very ugly.

If only humans could be a little more like pigeons…

Thankfully, where I live many people help out the local wildlife, often feeding them high-quality (proper) food too. I think that, in theory, if people see the plights of wildlife, it is easier for them to see the plights of other humans around them too.

On some days, I wish that Julian Savulescu’s solution – feeding all humans oxytocin in pill form – would work and we humans would stop killing other animals, destroying ours and their habitat and foster harmony among all humans and all species on the planet. But to think that this will work is scientifically naïve, although a very useful ethics exercise. (I used to know a woman with a Bachelor’s in psychology who once shocked me by saying that she wished mind control was possible for the entire human population, to make people behave the way she felt they should. I considered that notion highly unethical, though now, many years later, I can also see the other side of that ethical dilemma.)

The solution will probably have to come through a combination of education and voluntary activities – a version of show and tell, of setting good examples – and dogged persistence. We need more Thich Nhat Hahns in the world. But not even Buddhism is free from violence and sexism because Buddhists too are merely human. We humans are so fallible, so liable to make mistakes.

Thankfully, the greatest learning comes from mistakes. Learning is the purpose of life, not only in our own lifetimes, but also from one generation to the next and the next. Life’s lessons are repeated until learned.

Even the oxygen we humans depend on comes from other species.

Below are some photos of dad and the eldest squab, taken on the day dad surprised me when he stopped by to introduce the youngster. (At the time of writing, I haven’t seen any of them for quite some time as they’re way too busy getting on with their lives and enjoying the wonderful weather. Only dad stopped by to say hello a few days ago.)

A certain brand of callousness

In my essay “We need to talk about this” I mention that I have on occasion been shocked by a certain brand of callousness that I have seen (too) often in Britain (both in the media and in real life). Here is one example of what I mean.


You can only justify such occurrences by applying a tweaked form of utilitarian reasoning. One person was suffering, but “wasn’t really harmed” and the number of people who were enjoying what was being done to George Cheese was greater than 1, hence these occurrences “increased overall happiness”.

The fact that utilitarianism was associated with the higher classes may have given this type of reasoning or events an unfortunate aura of “cleverness”. It could also explain why anyone who condemns the sort of things that were being done to George Cheese is seen by some as “naïve” and “not quite with it”.

Utilitarianism also attached little importance to individual persons’ rights. It would have stopped short from, say, stabbing someone like George Cheese as opposed to setting his clothes on fire and stuffing him into the trunk/boot of a car. This is the kind of background, I think, that enabled Simon Wright to say “It did not go too far.”

In reality, abuse targets like George don’t get to LIVE. All they are allowed to do is wait for their natural deaths. George Cheese said “FUCK THAT!” and stood up for himself in the only way he had left.

At least there is an inquest. That’s good.



What do you get if you cross George W. Bush, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Geert Wilders?

What do you get if you cross George W. Bush, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Geert Wilders?

Ehm… an ethics professor at Oxford University???

I have read a few of Julian Savulescu’s papers and they are certainly all very eloquently written. That said, not only did I sense a vague underlying fear as motivation for some views he expressed in a particular article (Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children), those views scared me.

Then I ran into a report of a talk he gave in Japan in 2011 and it provided some clues. It appears that he is worried that the human species won’t survive much longer and believes that the solution lies in (tinkering with genes and also) ensuring that persons with so-called undesirable genes no longer come to life.

He is not wrong regarding his fears for the human species. Unfortunately, some of his argumentation is flawed and resembles the kind of reasoning that is sometimes presented by, say, the Daily Mail or the Daily Express and then attacked by scientists for being biased, incomplete and unbalanced.

This gives some of his argumentation a strongly irrational tinge and that is why some of his views scare me. He works at the University of Oxford (and was previously at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne). I expect a lot more from someone in his position and I certainly expect a lot more from academic papers. He has a responsibility to do much better and is surely capable of it.

For example, eradicating the incidence of asthma by eradicating asthmatics – which he proposed in that paper I refer to above – is like making sure that house fires no longer happen by demolishing all housing.

Bad air quality – one of the factors that play a role in asthma – is generally not caused by asthmatics and so eradicating asthmatics won’t improve air quality. As I am sure he knows, other factors include stress, certain medications, and allergies for wheat and other foods. Poverty – living with mold-covered walls and ceilings – is also a major factor. We should address those issues first, also because they are linked to other negatives and would help ameliorate those as well.

I agree with him that we humans face huge challenges, but I believe that there are currently much better ways of tackling them than eugenics. As two examples, I recommend the TED Talks by his learned colleagues Jane McGonigal and Rutger Bregman. The former has very attractive – and very up-to-date – ideas for how we can boost our problem-solving skills and the latter knows how we can lift the IQs of a very large group of people by roughly 14 points and save a lot of money in the process without too much trouble. It would also help make things better for asthmatics. Both are much more elegant scenarios than the scenario of eugenics (by any name).

His Procreative Beneficence article includes a table that lists 13 traits under the heading “behavioural genetics”:

I feel it is best to refrain from comment on that table. It speaks for itself.

Next, I wanted to take a look at the book he and his Swedish colleague Ingmar Persson published in 2012 (Unfit for the Future) and my jaw dropped when I read the summaries on the Oxford Scholarship site. Literally.

In it, they use the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” many times. They list “weapons of mass destruction” under the heading “catastrophic misuse of science” and combine it with keywords like “xenophobia” and “multiculturalism” but also “biological weapons,” “nuclear weapons” and “terrorism”. They write that “the multiculturalism of current liberal democracies make it likely that they will contain groups of people hostile to their ideology.”

They appear to think that “it might be possible for a well-organized terrorist group” “or even single individuals” to construct “weapons of mass destruction” and that this should be addressed by administering the hormone oxytocin, which they consider a drug. To me, this sounds like a combination of George W. Bush, Nigel Farage, classic Donald Trump and Geert Wilders speaking. I was astonished.

Persson and Savulescu put the cherry on the icing by the following two sentences:

“However, it is admitted that research into biomedical agents of moral enhancement is still in its infancy and that it is too early to judge its fruitfulness. There is also the general difficulty that means of moral enhancement have to be administered by morally imperfect people.”

Will this be developed into the next James Bond film, I wonder?

The book summary starts with the following sentence: “It is easier for us to harm each other than to benefit each other, e.g. easier to kill than to save a life”. That statement does not sound particularly healthy to me and I wonder what a psychologist or psychiatrist might make of it. I see people save other people’s lives on a daily basis and I don’t live that far from Oxford so my environment can’t be that different from Savulescu’s, though there is likely more poverty in my neck of the woods than in and around Oxford. People saving other people’s lives may happen more frequently than he and Persson think, even in countries like Syria.

Thankfully, I found some common ground in half of the chapters. Our planet is in trouble. I agree with that. But is it true that families with babies – young parents tend to produce a lot of oxytocin – are better for the environment than the rest of us?

What would happen if you throw in a bit of extra testosterone, another hormone that seems to be taking the world by storm as a bioenhancer at the moment? Testosterone is linked to aggression, after all. Would that cancel out the effect of the oxytocin? And for women, a bit of progesterone may be better than oxytocin but then again, estrogen is better for memory even though it tends to make women cranky. Less sweet. Testosterone on the other hand generally is not that good for memory.

Coffee is, though, particularly for people at more advanced ages and coffee has a number of other benefits. It is very good for the liver, even helps diseased livers recover, for instance, and it is a mild bronchodilator that works for about four hours after administration.

What does oxytocin do for memory? And, might it cause many women to lactate?

And could the unbridled practice of eugenics negatively influence oxytocin production in parents? Would it pitch hubris (such a powerful word!) and consumerism versus humility and gratitude? Could it push society toward psychopathy on the human diversity spectrum that ranges from extreme altruism to psychopathy?

I don’t think there is a one-pill-fits-all solution for the problems the world faces, with or without administration by morally imperfect people.

I did something similar. I went the other way and wrote a deliberately provocative essay – “We need to talk about this” – that highlights some of the downsides of eugenics. (The booklet has its limitations; I am working on a second edition.) I am just an ordinary educated citizen who believes in embracing (bio)diversity – also because there are good reasons for it – and in inclusive solidarity. I am not a professor at Oxford University. Maybe that’s a good thing.

I have also communicated the above to professor Savulescu. (I don’t expect to hear back from him.)

I would like to add a few words about what the BBC posted on its website on 24 May. Attacks like the one in Manchester – note that this does not involve the biological or nuclear weapons of mass destruction Persson and Savulescu are worried about – take expertise that is difficult to come by and require a lot of planning and preparation, which increases the chance that agencies like MI5 will find out about such plans long before they can be executed, the BBC wrote. The type of individual required– not the type that Persson and Savulescu are concerned about, as that would be much rarer – is “very rare” according to the BBC.