Whether you’ve noticed or not (and whether you like them or not), there have been several pigeon nests on campus recently, baby pigeons included. Julia Kite gives the scoop on this campus bird trend — and includes cute pictures!

It’s understandable if you’ve never seen a baby pigeon. Formally known as “rock doves,” parents build their nests on small ledges, just as their wild ancestors constructed them in crevices on the cliffs of Europe. In the urban environment, this usually means a window ledge, underneath an air conditioner, or anywhere else they can find a stable platform and shelter from the elements.

When it comes to nest-building, pigeons don’t pay much attention to aesthetics. They typically throw a few dead pine needles and small twigs into a pile and let that suffice. Their own droppings, and later those of the chicks, bind this material together — not a pretty sight, and certainly not something you’d want to touch, so if you see a nest, leave it alone. An interesting fact is that pigeons almost always lay two eggs per clutch — never more. The male and female, who are closely bonded, will take turns sitting on the nest for about eighteen days.

Unless you’re very lucky, you probably won’t know there are hatchlings around until you hear the unmistakable, high-pitched, whiny squeaking of the babies. They make this noise the get the attention of their parents, who regurgitate food into their open beaks. This food, known as “pigeon milk,” is the thick, protein-rich secretion from the lining of the parent’s crop (a part of the bird digestive tract). Both males and females produce pigeon milk.

For the first few days of life, the baby’s eyes are shut. Without feathers, the beak looks much too big for the head. They are naked except for a covering of yellow down. When feathers finally poke through, they resemble hard spikes which later open to reveal the soft feather typically associated with a pigeon. Nature helps the squabs (baby pigeons) survive by allowing them to grow very quickly. By about one month of age, the baby will be nearly as large and fully-feathered as its parents. Chances are, you’ve actually seen loads of baby pigeons, you just didn’t recognize them because they were almost identical to adults.

So how do you recognize a baby pigeon? First of all, the eyes have it — an adult bird’s eyes will be orange with a black pupil, but babies (and some all-white adults) have completely black eyes. The beak will be a soft peach color, not black. The nostrils will not  be as crusty and hard as those of an adult, and the baby’s feel tend to be smoother and lighter-colored. Younger fledglings may still have some thin yellow down poking through their larger feathers, especially on their heads.

Around Columbia in the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a surprising number of baby pigeons. From the size of them, I would guess they hatched during the period of warm weather at the end of winter break. One nest is located on the side of Dodge Hall, facing College Walk. There’s also a nest on the Law School which is easily visible from the library. But my favorite baby pigeon has to be the one I watched grow up behind the window bars of Low Library in November. The little guy (or girl — there’s no way to tell the sex of a pigeon until they start displaying mating behavior) was the only baby in his clutch, and was unusual in that he was a completely white pigeon born to a black-and- white mother and dark-gray, wild-type father. On my way to class, I would stop to check on the baby, throwing little scraps of food to the parents.

The security guards at Low started noticing me, and one day, to my shock, the baby was gone. I knew it wasn’t old enough to fledge (take flight), and I had seen it being harrassed by other territorial pigeons, so I feared the worst. Suddenly, a security guard appeared. “You looking for your little bird? He’s in my office, behind my computer. It’s nice and warm back there. He won’t leave. I tried feeding him bread and milk, but he won’t take it.”

Armed with a massive roll of paper towels, I crawled underneath the desk in the Public Safety Office, and lo and behold, the baby was sitting there looking quite pleased with himself. Unfortunately, if he stayed there, he’d starve as he was not old enough for solid foods. I grabbed the little thing with the paper towels and carried it, shrieking and flapping, back outside. I climbed up on the ledge and plopped him back down on his nest between the wall and an air conditioner, then retreated to wash my hands five times.

On that note, while pigeons are often referred to as “rats with wings” and are certainly not the cleanest creatures around, much of their bad reputation is undeserved, and even diseases spread by pigeon dropping are very rare in New York. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reports that while histoplasmosis, cryptococcosis, and psittacosis can be spread by pigeon droppings, there is typically only one case of psittacosis reported each year. 70% of the time, the cause is a pet bird, not a feral pigeon.

People with compromised immune systems should not clean pigeon droppings, but the average New Yorker’s risk of contracting those  diseases is slim to none. It’s also important to note that the reason they breed so prolifically is because we, as humans, provide them with plenty of food in the form of our own trash. Pigeons were brought over to America by European settlers, and they have only thrived because we have created the proper conditions for them to do so.

Because pigeons choose sheltered places for their nests, it’s difficult to get clear pictures, but here’s the best I have. Better pictures of captive-bred racing pigeons are at http://www.speedpigeon.com/baby_racing_pigeon.htm.