If I could have any supernatural wish, it would be for animals to talk in human languages, preferably the same language as the people around them. No dead languages or cats in France speaking Japanese or dogs in Canada speaking Swedish. Unless of course the French cats were part of Japanese households or the Canadian dogs lived with Swedish exchange students. Or if a linguist studying Aramaic had a parrot that spoke Aramaic, that would be ok. I would wish for that.
Tonight I looked at my pets and really, really, really wished they could talk. Matt and I tried to imagine their voices and how their vocal personalities would match what we make of their gestural personalities. Adelina the semi-shy, hyper guinea pig would sound like the girl with the low self-esteem in the fashion club in the tv show Daria. Penelope the cool, calm guinea pig would be Daria. Ivan would sound dignified, said Matt, but would say undignified things. He would be like the dwarf guy in Game of Thrones. Ivan and the dwarf guy are both hedonists, Matt explained.
Then I realized that if all animals could talk, maybe people would feel bad about eating Henrietta the kind-hearted chicken or castrating Jimmy the wise-cracking but vulnerable bull calf. Wouldn’t everyone just turn vegetarian. Matt said that there would be some real asshole animals so people would still eat animals to make them shut up.
Today is a historic day for me. I updated my first Wikipedia page with a citation. Yes, you can read all about it on the page for Norway’s Lofoten Islands, in the wildlife section. My addition is the last sentence there. I am proud of knowing little weird facts like that. I am sure the historical society there has a section devoted to these lone WWII nine penguins.
Courtney Humphries writes it better than I can retell it:
Thom Verhave, a psychologist working at a pharmaceutical company in the 1950s, tried to apply pigeons to an onerous aspect of commercial production: quality-control inspection. Touring the area where capsules were manufactured, he watched as about seventy women examined each capsule one by one on conveyor belts, discarding the “skags,” capsules that were dented, misshapen, or discoloured. Figuring that pigeons could do the same task, Verhave proposed the idea to the director of research, who had just managed an expensive but failed attempt to use a machine to inspect capsules. Verhave was given permission to develop a demonstration device, and he trained two pigeons to recognize common defects and report if they spotted one. Within one week of training, both birds were inspecting capsules with 99 percent accuracy. Their performance garnered visits from higher-ups at the company, but soon the board of directors quashed the project. Even if it worked, who would buy drugs from a company that used pigeons for quality control?
As I continue reading Superdove, there are more great pigeon trivia tidbits I will be using to impress family members at Christmas dinner:
Squab meat is low in fat and rich in iron. (Turns out I have a squab recipe I clipped out from a cooking magazine article called “The Twelve Days of Christmas” – I wish I kept the recipes for the drumming drummers, piping pipers, a-leaping lords, dancing ladies and a-milking maids.)
When precocial birds like chickens, turkeys and geese hatch, they are immediately mobile. Altricial birds like pigeons are born weak, naked and blind.
Pigeon fathers and mothers both secrete crop milk to feed baby pigeons.
Pigeons as supermarket meat never really took off because pigeons can procreate about twelve times a year. Compare that to the 200 plus eggs a chicken can lay in a year.
According to British historian Joan Thirsk, alternative crops and livestock rise in popularity during periods of excess cereals. In post-Black Death Europe, the smaller human population meant grains could be put aside for feeding birds; similarly, the low grain prices in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries also translated into increases of raising pigeons.
Fancy pigeons like the English short-faced tumbler have such short beaks that foster parent pigeons must feed their young.
Pigeons don’t have X and Y chromosomes; just one sex chromosome, with females having one chromosome and males having two copies.
The skin around a pigeon’s eye is called a cere.
Pigeons cannot fly at night because they have terrible night vision.
Pigeons will return to a home loft even after years (hence their use as messenger pigeons – “one-way communicators” as Humphries calls them. Pigeon racing, where pigeons are timed on how long it takes them to return home, “is the ultimate test of the bonds between people and domestic animals” (page 66).
Noah sent out a raven from the ark before he sent out the dove/pigeon. The raven never bothered returning.
Messenger pigeons were used in ancient Egypt to tell the downriver dwellers when the flood waters arrived; Julius Caesar may have used them in his Gaul campaign; the Crusaders used them; and during the 1870 siege of Paris, refugees escaping with their pigeons sent messages back to those still in the city on waxed paper attached to tail feathers.
During WWI and WWII, military pigeons were divided into their own companies and even received medals for bravery (established in Britain in 1943). Some brave pigeons were Flying Dutchman, Beachcomber, Commando, William of Orange, Billy, Princess, and GI Joe (his stuffed body is now at the U.S. Army Communications Electronics Museum at Fort Monmouth, NJ).
Two-way communicating pigeons travel between home lofts and food locations.
*The Palmetto Pigeon Plant has a pigeon cursor that freaked me out the first time I went to the site. As for the “House for Forced Matings,” why didn’t they just call it the “House for Non-consensual Pigeon Sex” or the “House for Pigeon Rape”? The company has diversified since 1989, now raising cornish hens, silkie chickens and poussin chickens.
One night many years ago*, I was in the hostel by the Paris Opera and one of my dorm-mates had researched pigeon behaviour as part of a study on brains. “Pigeons are smarter than chimps,” she told us. “We taught the pigeons to use a computer to speak to us. They pecked at a keyboard to spell out words. They talked up a storm.”
I liked pigeons before I met the pigeon scientist in Paris. I like their cooing sounds on spring mornings. I appreciate their resourcefulness. Plus, feeding them is the only thing I can ever afford when I visit the Piazza San Marco.
Turns out pigeons are not the only avian urban warriors. With starlings and sparrows, pigeons are a new arrival to North America. I’d known about the Central Park Shakespearean bird project in the 1850s, when a literature fan tried to populate the park with all the Bard’s birds, including the now ubiquitous starling. I didn’t know that sparrows immigrated to this continent only from 1851.
I’m only on page 15 of the book and Humphries provides some amusing trivia so far:
The standard Italian villa has a small belvedere or tower for the pigeons.
In the 1700s, pigeons as food were in decline in England, but dovecotes remained a part of architecture: near Wroxton Abbey in Oxfordshire, there was a gothic-style dovecote, outfitted with battlements and “slits for shooting arrows at imaginary enemies” (page 11).
The now extinct passenger pigeon made up 25-40% of the total US bird population. (While domesticated animals are killed sustainably, the passenger pigeon “belonged to no one” so “it was no one person’s responsibility to care for their welfare” (also page 11).
Squabs are 4-5 week old pigeons. I see them in my local supermarket but I had no idea they were pigeons.
Pigeons in Persian dovecotes served mostly as poop producers. Their waste made good fertilizer.
Pigeon poop can also tan leather.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, pigeon dung provided the saltpeter for gunpowder, which was then used at least some of the time for shooting pigeons.
Pigeons were also a popular sport bird: “they maneuvered adroitly in the air and made challenging targets” (page 15).**
*It was 1996, Matt.
**No word about Dutch parrots, Matt.
Even better than Tintin is this seventeenth century castle’s dogs. It’s la soupe des chiens, or the feeding of the dogs that happens at 5 pm every day during tourist season (when the tourists visit, not when they are hunted, the former from April 1 to September 15, or at 3 pm the rest of the year).
The Huraults, who still live on the third floor of their castle, keep about 70 dogs, each part English foxhound and part French Poitou. The trainers dump a line of dog food and horse and chicken meat before the dogs and, showing off their manners in front of the tourists, the dogs impatiently wait for the signal that they can scramble for a scrap.
From Flanders: A Cultural History by Andre de Vries (page 96-97):
One of the world’s most unlikely episodes took place in Ghent: the filming of a version of Romeo and Juliet – acted entirely by cats. This 1970 oddity was the brainchild of Armando Acosta, a Spanish-American director and son of Hollywood scriptwriter Mercedes Acosta. Acosta Jr., who also runs a religious sect and has taken the name of Ganapati (after the Indian elephant god) after spending time in the 1960s following a Hindu guru, used his disciples to produce the film. The only human actor, meanwhile, was John Hurt, cast in the unlikely role of “La Dame aux Chats,” an eccentric boatwoman. (In an understatement Hurt later described it as “a fairly extraordinary film.”) The feline cast was voiced by actors, including Ben Kingsley, Quentin Crisp, Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave.
Even without special effects, the cats put in a remarkably good performance, especially when at one point two hundred of them were released across the Sint-Michiels Bridge in the direction of the Belfry. They had been kept indoors for the winter to be trained as extras and half of them did not bother to return. According to the director’s wishes, the film can only be shown to the accompaniment of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet with a live symphony orchestra. After the release, there was a tour of world capitals, but the film has rarely been shown since.
IMDB says it’s a 1990 movie (typo in my book). Such a rare movie none of us can dream of seeing it. If your town’s orchestra will play along with it, let me know what it’s like.
Ionut* (pronounced “yo-noots”) was my grandmother’s canary. He came to live with her thirteen years ago and only left her during this last year, when she moved to a hospital, then one care home and then another. We brought her over to see her little roommate, but there were not so many words between them.
I once asked my grandmother why she didn’t get Ionut a little female canary to keep him company. Most birds are social: a canary in a cage with a good friend might make the cage more bearable. My grandmother shook her head. She explained that once a male canary has a mate, he stops singing. By denying Ionut the companionship of his own kind, he would never stop singing.
Sometime this morning, a family friend came over for a cup of coffee and, as a fellow caregiver for my grandmother, asked to listen to little Ionut sing again. My mom and our friend went into the parlour. There lay Ionut, at the bottom of the cage.
Whenever I saw Ionut, I felt bad for this poor lonely little canary. I discovered that, if I chirp, Ionut answered in his much sweeter singing voice. Ionut and I made up a game. We chirped back and forth at each other, sometimes chirping singly or sneaking out a second chirp quickly after the first one. I guess I had my last chirping game with him last week, when I was a little impatient, stopped playing and went to the kitchen, leaving Ionut chirping once or twice more to get my attention.
After work, I got a message from my sister across the country. At the end of her message, she remarked that Ionut died this morning. I wished we could have a funeral. I wished that I could have one last, good, long look at him. He moved so quickly when he was alive, I never had a chance to really study him.
But my parents are not the funeral types, especially not for pets. When my little handsome dogs died, one by one in 2003, there were no funerals nor even any last viewings. My mother said I was crazy to even have funerals for my hamsters. “You’ll have to take them out of my rose garden one day,” she told me.
I phoned them on my way to work to ask if they had still not thrown Ionut away. I was prepared with a sort of plan that perhaps I could whisk Ionut out of the trash can, take him home and bury him near Lucian.
My parents, in particular my father, when I asked, were horrified that I should think of them as people who simply throw away the corpses of friends. They said I will see what happened when I got to their house.
They found him a little plastic coffin, maybe a plastic box. “Like a glass coffin for a princess,” said my mother.
My dad built a gravemarker.
Ionut was laid to rest along the garden path, under a tree.
My mother worried that she would pass by him every day and think of him. She worried this would remind of her of her sadness.
But isn’t it better to remember the dead? To not let them drift off and be forgotten, as if their presence while here was of no worth? There’s so little meaning to our lives, and we atheists don’t have the fantasy of heaven to pamper our moods. There is no god to give life meaning, as hard as some people try to convince themselves – deep down, they know, otherwise they wouldn’t be so afraid to die when their time comes. If we remember our beloved dead, toss them a scrap of memory every now and then, we honour them and make their lives worthwhile.
* I would spell his name correctly if WordPress would let use accent markings. I was stupid for moving over from Blogger. WordPress sucks.
From the October 5, 1935 issue of Woman’s Own magazine.
The fine print reads:
Allenburys Humanized Milk Foods Nos. 1 and 2 are made from fresh cows’ milk by an exclusive process which renders them almost identical with mothers’ milk. They contain added Vitamin D to prevent any possibility of rickets and to ensure the formation of healthy bones and teeth.
Human milk – except one’s own mother’s milk until a reasonable age – sounds as repulsive as other body secretions. (Except perhaps for lactation fetishists, I suppose.) For that matter, even drinking anything but cow milk (or goat or horse milk, depending on your geographic location) sounds just as blech. Which is why one of my favourite practical jokes is when I tried to convince my sister that this:
was milked by little milkmaids yanking on cat nipples.