A pigeon perches briefly on the hat of Jenna Fowler, 18, of Portland, on Thursday at Congress Square Park. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

We noticed a pigeon in our backyard last night and it is still hanging around this morning. It is very unusual for us to see pigeons here and this one has a red band on its left leg so I wondered if there was something I should do or just assume it will return to wherever it came from?
Mary Leighton from Cumberland

Pigeons are really fascinating birds, though many people refer to them as “flying rats.” The truly wild “rock pigeon,” which has also gone by the name “rock dove,” was native to the southwestern Palearctic, east of India, but has been living close to and has been used by humans for thousands of years. These birds were presumably first domesticated as a food source, but thanks to amazing “homing” abilities – their skill of finding their way over vast distances and back to their “home” – they were used for many non-culinary pursuits.

This history of using pigeons to send communications over long distances goes back to the ancient Romans and even Genghis Khan. Birds have amazing navigational skills – from remembering landmarks, using the position of stars, and even being able to detect the earth’s magnetic field.

These assets are just one of the things that has led to the modern hobby of racing pigeons. While not as popular as it once was, it is still alive and well in New England. There are several racing clubs in Maine that still regularly race birds, which typically involves releasing birds at a set location and, you guessed it, seeing which ones make it back first. There is a lot more to the hobby, including different methods and criteria, which is beyond the scope of my expertise. Many of these racing birds are banded, (Mary, you mentioned seeing the red band on one of the legs) and the band is a unique identifier for the bird. So this may have been a racing pigeon.

Another possibility: You may encounter a non-wild pigeon that was released for an event. The practice of releasing doves “into the wild” is done for symbolic reasons, most commonly at weddings and memorials, despite the fact that those birds, much like the previously mentioned racing birds, are just going to return to their “home.” This seems like a great business model, having a product that you can sell over and over again, but it has brought up some ethical dilemmas about the use and survivability of these birds. An interesting psychological consideration is that we often refer to the birds we see on city streets as “pigeons,” and the birds at ceremonies as peace “doves,” but they are the same species. This discussion can quickly get beyond my expertise. I would argue that I’d rather see a pet pigeon released at a ceremony than a bunch of balloons. Debate amongst yourselves!

No matter how the pigeon ended up in your yard, there are a few things you can do to help. First, I want to emphasize that these recommendations are only for these “owned” pigeons and don’t necessarily apply to wild birds. Whether the pigeon is a little hungover from the wedding reception, or just tired from its long race, it often just needs some rest. You can try putting some water out for it in an open container left on the ground, or some food. Pigeons are grain eaters, so you could offer most bird seeds (don’t feed birds bread) and usually within a day or two (or sometimes longer) they should be on their way!

In Gulf of Maine, more than one good tern

A common tern. Maine Audubon

Whatever happened to the tern studies conducted on Jenny Island off Harpswell for many years?
Nancy from Harpswell

The Gulf of Maine has a really amazing history of bird life, and especially nesting seabirds. Much of this work has been done thanks to National Audubon’s Project Puffin, started by Dr. Stephen Kress in the 1970s, so I want to be sure credit is given where it’s due. Maine Audubon has supported and benefited from this work, but you’ll find us protecting piping plovers and endangered turtles while we leave the seabirds to National.

Project Puffin is most famous for its seabird work on Eastern Egg Rock and Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). But there are research or management projects on lesser-known islands including Jenny Island and Pond Island. These are primarily tern nesting sites for the small seabirds, similar to a slender gull, that nest on some of Maine’s coastal islands. There are several species of terns, all migratory, including the legendary arctic tern, the bird that travels the longest distance – more than 45,000 miles – each year.

The aptly named common tern is the most abundant, while the endangered roseate tern is found in small numbers. These terns, as well as other nesting seabirds, face a number of threats, including habitat loss, human disturbance, and even predation from other birds – not to mention the quickly warming waters in the Gulf of Maine that are impacting the food these birds (and we humans) eat.

The Jenny Island project began in 1991. Many research projects were put on hold this year due to COVID-19, but fortunately Project Puffin was still able to have skeleton crews on seven islands this summer including on Jenny Island. I’ve enjoyed following reports from the islands, especially seeing nesting success reported to the Maine Bird Atlas (maine.gov/birdatlas). Jenny Island even had roseate terns successfully nest this year!

Have you got a nature question of your own? Email questions to [email protected] and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about virtual and backyard birding, online classes, and other programs about Maine wildlife and habitat.

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