Birds are fascinating creatures and I never tire of observing them in flight or hopping around on the grass verges of the Paseo Mallorca on my way to the Grup Serra offices.
I am a 100 per cent city man and never make it out into the country or to the sea shores, which is partly why the Wild Majorca feature by Neville James-Davies is essential reading for me: it’s my only contact with birds that aren’t hard-core city dwellers like myself.
The birds I get to see include the ubiquitous pigeons, seagulls screeching on nearby roofs in the early morning as I type my way through a Bulletin article, the blackbird with its bright yellow beak nervously scouring the Paseo Mallorca grass for something to eat, the cheeky sparrows diving in and stealing a crumb or two from pecking pigeons on the pavement, and the ducks in La Riera sedately and effortlessly gliding through the water as if they were battery-operated.
My closest relationship is with the pigeons which I almost stumble over as I walk through central Palma. They congregate where there is an empty space: in squares, street junctions, anything that resembles a little park or garden, and on pavements lined with trees.
They spend a good part of the day secluded on leafy branches, or huddled on the ledges of nearby blocks of flats. But they aren’t asleep or even dosing off as they linger on these lofty urban perches.
They have a veritable bird’s eye view of what’s going on down below and patiently wait for something to happen. The moment they get an inkling that pigeons on the ground have found something to eat, they fly in en masse.
Male pigeons are extremely randy. Every time I pass a group on the ground, which is several times every day, there are always a couple of males trying to court the females.
Their chatting-up technique consists going round in little circles in front of the female, head pushed up as high as possible to make them look taller, and breast inflated to the fullest so that they seem especially large and strong — in other words the ideal mate for a female who wants to start a family.
I’ve been observing this scene for decades and never once have I seen a male get to first base, never mind score a home run…until last week. As I turned into the Paseo Mallorca from the Avenidas at the Instituto bridge, two pigeons on the pavement had their beaks interlocked. I thought they were fighting, as they sometimes do, over something edible on the ground.
But when they fight their wings also flutter like mad and that wasn’t happening: it was just beaks locked together and heads swaying sideways with a swirl-like motion. This went on for 20 seconds (I don’t know when it started) and I immediately thought this must be the pigeon equivalent of a French kiss.
I hit it on the nail. Beaks were disengaged, the female crouched on the pavement, rear end in the air, and the male mounted her. His wings flapped vigorously for literally two seconds and he dismounted.
And that was it. I don’t think he could possibly have penetrated her in just two seconds, so I suppose he must spray the external vagina area with sperm. If so, it’s a reproduction method that works beautifully: pigeon populations all over the world keep increasing. They will never become an endangered species.
Our word pigeon and the Spanish ‘pichón’ are borrowed from the French ‘pigeon’, which has its roots in the Latin ‘piplo’. We sometimes write and say ‘pidgin’, but the word then has a different meaning.
In the 16th century a ‘pigeon’ was a simpleton or a dupe. The term ‘to pluck a pigeon’ meant to fleece someone.
I think of city pigeons as being a bit stupid. Their DNA makes them far too ultra-wary, but also blinds them to dangerous and fatal situations — on several occasions I’ve seen them end up under the wheels of passing car because they waited too long before getting out of the way.
On the other hand, some species can be extremely smart. We have ‘carrier pigeons’ that can be trained to take messages tied to their neck or legs from one place to another.
But ‘pigeon post’ was a late 20th century facetious term used by Post Office workers for air mail letters and parcels.
Then there are ‘homing pigeons’ which are bred for long-distance racing and can be trained to fly home from far-away places thanks to a built-in GPS system provided by Mother Nature.
A ‘pigeon cobber’ was an Australian term in the 1950s for a friend who kept or raced pigeons.
However, ‘pigeon flying’ had nothing to do with flying or racing pigeons. It was a late 19th century term for stealing lead from the roofs on buildings. This was also known as ‘pigeon-cracking.’
A ‘clay pigeon’ is made of clay although it’s not pigeon, but a piece of baked clay thrown up in the air from a trap as a target for shooting.
A ‘pigeon hole’ is a niche in the wall of a pigeonry where pigeons nest. It is also a small place in a cabinet for holding documents and other papers for future use.
In 17th century printers’ slang, a ‘pigeon hole’ was a gap between two words that was too wide. Some printers called this space a ‘rat-hole’.
In the 19th century, ‘pigeon-hole soldiers’ was an Army colloquial term for clerks and orderlies.
When used in the plural, ‘pigeon-holes’ was a 16th-17th century term meaning the stocks: the instrument confining the hands of a prisoner who was being flogged.
A ‘pigeon pair’ is a term long out of use that meant boy or girl twins, or a boy and a girl who were a family’s only children.
Pigeons feed their young with a soft pap of partly digested food that is called ‘pigeon’s milk’. At one time young children, or even unwitting teenagers, were sent on a fool’s errand to get a pint of pigeon’s milk.
Today’s children, even the youngest, are too savvy and none would fall for such an obvious leg-pull.
When we spell pigeon as ‘pidgin’ it is usually an adjective in terms such as ‘pidgin English’ and it originally meant a jargon of words used between Chinese people and Europeans.
Nowadays, however, we use it for people who speak an especially incorrect form of any language. So it can be applied to those of us who have only a smattering of Spanish.
Hands up all those who speak pidgin Spanish.