Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 18
25 October 1999

K A L E I D O S C O P E:

Vaclav Pinkava

Our house has been adopted by Columbidae. They fly in before dusk to roost under the eaves. I never asked to have them, I don't feed them, they're (at least from a distance,) decorative. In some ways I quite enjoy their rustic company, the cooing and scratching on the rafters. Ours are mostly the white, domestic sort, with the fanlike tails - doves. There are one or two grey and motley throwbacks and their hybridised offspring. Their strutting about with that kind of nodding neck action reminiscent of the orthodox at prayer is riveting to watch against the dramatic evening sky.

My father's most recently published satirical book, Dum, mravoucna bajka (The House, a moralistic fable), although written in 1993, describes present-day Czech society all too well. In the book, all the characters are zoomorphic, and the two protagonists are evidently pigeons, returning emigres, who end up leaving the country again at the end. I sort of took it into my mind that a couple of my pigeons are very special that way, and I did not want them to leave, because when they do, I should follow suit. I guess I am as superstitious as the next person.

But then, my son got allergic to something. It started with conjunctivitis, which just would not clear up completely, and got worse toward evening. My wife came up with the brilliantly simple thought that the pigeons were to blame. It was the summer, we were keeping the windows open, you see, and the pigeons' evening flurries were sending clouds of powdered irritant straight at my son's eyes. That, at least is our theory.

Once we decided that was the cause of the problem, we found lots of other reasons to get rid of the pigeons. Pigeon droppings, most notably. Pigeons are not very healthy company judging by the stuff I found on the Internet. (I hope mine have not been near the nuclear-contaminated pigeons of Sellafield.)

I spent a whole day putting coils of wire on their perches. It was hard work, balancing atop a ladder, holding a wooden pole with a notch cut at the end, loosely holding the wire coil. Nevertheless, the birds kept trying to land where they couldn't - until nightfall, when they simply had to. They then perched alongside my wire, then, presumably, worked it loose with their beaks overnight, because by morning, they were sitting comfortably in one or two places.

'Plan B' : Near-life-size silhouettes of birds of prey which I cut out of black sticky-back plastic and stuck on the adjoining picture window in the upstairs studio. It looks very realistic to me, it must be said - but the pigeons don't think so.

'Plan-C' : Plastic snakes laid along the rafters. 24 hours later, one pigeon is blithely roosting on top of a plastic snake realistic enough to scare a baby.

Pigeons are certainly damnfool persistent creatures.

I remember reading some interesting stuff about pigeons when I was a student. There were B. F. Skinner's ping-pong-pigeons; Superstition in pigeons - i. e., if you feed caged pigeons at random intervals, they each develop their own behavioural 'tick', like persistently standing on one leg, or preening their left wing, or going round in circles. Every pigeon has his own 'explanation', his own personal philosophy of how the world works, for him.

Whatever the last thing was that the pigeon was doing just before the food came down the chute, gets to be repeated more often, so a correlation develops between that behaviour and the next dose of food. If you are a behaviourist, sorry, behaviorist, the explanation is simple associative learning in the "birdbrain" bird brain. For a cognitive psychologist, the explanation is that the pigeon has formed a hypothesis, a belief that he has hit upon the cause of what makes the food come along. He then tests the hypothesis, and makes a statistical judgement. In a sense a sort of reverse knee-jerk reaction occurs, if you like -- I mean if the pigeon happened to be jerking his knee before the food came, that will be his preferred behaviour. We are all like pigeons in that respect. The compulsive 'lucky' behaviour of gamblers is just one example.

I am reminded of the joke where the man on the train carefully peels an orange, dices it small, puts salt on every square of orange peel and at one minute intervals drops a piece out of the window. The boy opposite watches with interest and asks the man why. "To keep the tigers away, of course," comes the reply. "But there aren't any tigers out there," says the boy. "See, it never fails".

As Tomas Pecina mentioned in a recent CER article, Czechs have a nickname, the "dove-like nation" (holubicci narod) - which unfortunately also goes with the white feathers symbolism. That kind of cowardly white is the very kind of pigeon squatting under my eaves on top of a realistic looking plastic snake. Cowardly, but observant. Or maybe not cowardly at all, just devious and deceptive. A hawk in dove feathers. In English, there are many kinds of birds in the pigeon family which are called somethingorother dove, and some are quite vicious, in fact, like the collared dove ("hrdlicka" in Czech), yet doves are taken to symbolise gentleness, innocence, purity, loyalty.

In fact, what would we do for symbols, object lessons, and the odd lunch without the humble pigeon?

  • The dove with the olive branch as an emblem of peace and good tidings, dating back to the legend of Noah's ark.
  • Pigeon post, making a big comeback in India.
  • The homing pigeon as a useful creature to navigate by, thanks to the tiny magnetic crystals in its neck muscles, and to propel science where no man has gone before.
  • If you believe web advertising, "http://pigeons.net is the best freeware site on the world wide web".
  • There's the carpenter's dovetail joint, of course
  • There's the lovey-dovey icing on your wedding cake, or the symbolic release of real doves, who mate for life (!)
  • There's the 'final journey home memorial dove', or the poignant decorative rendition for your gravestone
  • There's the 'hawks and doves' terminology so useful to sociobiologists and journalists.

There's the Notorious Ecological Lesson. The Passenger Pigeon, the archetypal example of man's extermination of an entire species, is reportedly making a comeback - at least as a joke. Pigeons hitch rides on London underground trains, apparently. Smart? No, just human.

I used to think pigeons were stupid. Yes, I refuse to believe they are smart, but they are so stupid it comes full circle. Faced with my superior intellect, they look back stoically, and carry on being creatures of habit, oblivious of their fate if they do not take the hint. Once they have developed their superstitions, their associative logic, they stick to their naivity. I wonder who they'd vote for. Communist, I shouldn't wonder. How dare they perch on my house, the smallminded sneaky acquisitive collectivists. And yet I can't face shooting them, like my neigbours glibly suggest I should.

I'm game to try a few more wacky ideas. Whatever works. (I guess I am pigeon headed, too.)

Oh, since my son's conjunctivitis is clearing up now, with some pigeons still remaining I am convinced that my climbing ladders behaviour has done the trick.

I'll keep climbing, just to prove my superstition works.

Vaclav Pinkava, 25 October 1999



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