Does Familiarity Really Breed Contempt?

By Rob

I don’t think the old phrase, “familiarity breeds contempt” applies to nature conservation.  If anything, it’s the opposite.  Years ago, when I had first moved from the suburbs to the city for college, I often saw pigeons congregating in disorganized flocks.  They strutted around, not even caring about cars barreling down the street.  Once they did become bored and decided to move on, they often left a mess behind.  I heard quite a few other folks refer to them as “rats with wings.”  Yes, they are indeed as ubiquitous in a city as the rodents that people fear will infiltrate their food cupboards.  They’re brazen, willing to swoop around an unsuspecting tourist like mosquitoes seeking a quick blood meal.  They’re unwanted, with the only way to keep them off historic landmarks is by placing sharp metal spikes.  Why should anyone care for these messy, bothersome birds that probably harbor mites?


By Andreas Trepte – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

I came to change my mind in stages.  The first thing I noticed about the seemingly lowly city pigeon is that they have an iridescent purple and green bands on their neck.  Much as I can’t truly hate invasive Japanese honeysuckle because of the flower’s perfume, I couldn’t truly despise a bird with such vibrant colors.  I also found their song to be soothing.  Within their low-pitched cooing, there’s nothing that is uncouth or rude.  You can’t vulgarly swear in such a deep, slow song, unlike the severe cry of the blue jay (yet a bird I also enjoy seeing).

The next fact I learned was that they have another name, the rock dove.  The name ‘dove’ has many cultural meanings, from the sign of peace to the sad demise of the entire species of passenger pigeon which once numbered in the billions.  Another member of the family, the mourning dove, is one of the first birds of whom many of us learn its song.  It just feels much harder to loath a dove.

This was followed by learning the answer to a question I found myself having- why do none of the pigeons in a flock look alike?  From white, to charcoal to red, there seem to be as many variations to their feathers as the tulips grown in many gardens.  The answer to that is people bred these birds for these specific colors.  What’s more, we’ve also bred variations specifically for meals, for competitive speed flying, and the heroic homing pigeons who dodged bullets to deliver army messages during wars.  Therefore, how can we detest something that us humans have put so much time and energy into perfecting?  Another tidbit is from Charles Darwin, about whom every biology student learned of his inspirations on the Galapagos Islands.  However, Mr. Darwin was also a devoted pigeon fancier and bred many species, which likely informed his scientific work.

In addition to tinkering with the birds’ genetics, it was also us humans who created the urban habitat, and into it released these pigeons, even if it was inadvertent.  They then proved quite proficient at adapting to cities.  Adaptability is a trait that most people even prize so they deserve a bit of respect as well.  Also, since we had a major hand in their growth, ethically we shouldn’t just dismiss them as a nuisance to be swept away.

Indeed, there are problems that these birds can cause.  They become a nuisance when their flocks mob public areas and their droppings leave a mess.  Their numbers could overwhelm the delicate balances in diversity of urban bird species.  However, now that we have become familiar with the rock dove, and the role we ourselves played in its population explosion, we must now treat it with at least curiosity if not respect as we encounter them in our daily urban lives. This is only one example, but shows how once we delve into the life and history of an animal or plant which we formally dismiss as unimportant, we begin to see them as a constituent of our overall environment.  This doesn’t mean that wildlife management has no place in ensuring our ecosystems are able to maintain diversity, resilience to stress, and a vigorous production.

However, it does mean that we need to revise how we think of “pests” as we oversee our environments.  While we still need to control overly large populations, this reframing of what was an adversary can lead us to more humane solutions.  For example, instead of shooting or poisoning can be replaced with contraceptive treatments.  Regardless if our aims are management or just understanding our environments, I don’t think the old phrase, “familiarity breeds contempt” applies to nature conservation.  If anything, learning about nature will make us more willing to preserve the life that we have.

Further Reading:

“What is a healthy ecosystem?”

Click to access 1999_J_CostanzaMageau.pdf

“Feral pigeon:  flying rat or urban hero?”

“Darwin’s Other Bird—The Domestic Pigeon”

“A Tale of Three Superdoves: the Dodo, the Rock Pigeon, and the Passenger Pigeon”

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