There are a few classic story lines of Sesame Street that you never forget: Cookie Monster can’t control his appetite, Oscar the Grouch doesn’t like to socialize, and Bert loves two things: oatmeal and pigeons.
Bert loved the bird so much that he had a pet pigeon named Bernice who often appeared at his side to join him in counting to ten and reciting the alphabet (number seven always tripped her up and she couldn’t really get past the letter “c”). Bert even made the classic dance video “Doin’ The Pigeon” in honor of his avian friend. (If you have five minutes, check it out on YouTube and be transported back to your childhood). Before he busts a move, Bert exclaims, “Now watch how these pigeons move…look at the neck, look at ‘em move, look at those feet! I feel these pigeons are really unusually intelligent birds.”
Bert’s unwavering devotion to the bird family Columbidae (pigeons and doves, of which there are over 300 species) was charming when you were dancing along with him as a kid in your footie pajamas, but now that you’ve grown up and have to encounter pigeons on a daily basis in the park, on the street and maybe, if you are incredibly unlucky, in and around your building, you realize Bert was unusually strange for having such an affection for these sometimes messy creatures.
Pigeons weren’t always city-dwellers. Joshua Engel, a research assistant in the Integrative Research Center at Chicago’s Field Museum explains, “Pigeons evolved to nest on cliffs, which helped them adapt to nesting on pseudo-cliffs, places like bridges, underpasses, and buildings. The pigeons that we have in the United States are a domesticated breed of pigeon, so they are well-suited to live around people.”
And, as Vanessa A. Williams, scientific media coordinator, zoologist and animal behavior specialist at Wild Goose Chase Migratory Bird Management of Chicago Ridge, Illinois and Brookfield, Wisconsin explains, “Pigeons have been co-evolving with humans for thousands of years. They are extremely adaptable and can easily live off of our garbage and leavings. In addition to being kept captive for messenger and food purposes, feeding 'wild' pigeons is an activity that has been around for centuries. These birds have been tamed, and possibly even changed as a species, by these actions and they have learned that people provide a bountiful food source.”