Frantic pigeons?
July 15, 2010 11:14 AM   Subscribe

Today I was at Boston Common eating lunch, and observed a fairly large group of pigeons all acting in the same bizarre way. For upwards of half an hour (and despite no obvious bread-throwers), a group of 50 or so pigeons was tearing around the park at great speed and low altitude, stopping for frequent and very intense fights on the ground over nonexistent food.

People were ducking to avoid the birds as they flew over pathways, and the birds were generally acting more brazen around people than usual.

The birds would all land at the same spot and scrabble around presumably for some piece of food, though when they were nearby we could see there wasn't anything more than a stray chip. Thing is, this wasn't the mincing about, bobbing-up-and-down collection of pigeons around a scattering of breadcrumbs (this) - this was a mass pigeons all attempting to be in the same square foot of space, standing on top of each other when necessary. Then they would all take off and fly in chorus to some other very important square foot a half-block away (and also lacking a pile of bread), and repeat the melee.

It made me think that none of them had eaten for several days and were desperate to grab at the food (naturally after 20 minutes or so people started to congregate with bags of bread, which increased the chaos.) I've been in the park about once a week all summer and haven't seen this behavior before. Are the overpopulated and underfed? Did they get overexcited by some earlier bread-thrower? Birds are just weird?
posted by heyforfour to Pets & Animals (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Some kind of weird mating display, maybe?
posted by torisaur at 11:18 AM on July 15, 2010

Was there possibly a hawk in the area? Sometimes flocks of birds show odd behavior when threatened.
posted by The otter lady at 11:56 AM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm pretty sure this is a learned behaviour the pigeons have put together to troll for food. It starts out with one pigeon getting excited about a scrap and then the rest of them must flock in (or go hungry). As the behaviour becomes more extreme, they'll learn that acting crazy and calling attention to themselves with dive bombing and passers-by startling behaviour will net them food -- food they would not get if they were just walking around bobbing their heads.

You provided the evidence yourself: as the "crazy pigeon" display went on, eventually people started to congregate with bags of bread, which is a direct reward for their behaviour.

Busking isn't a purely human activity.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:03 PM on July 15, 2010 [7 favorites]

2nd-ing seanmpuckett -- pigeons are surprisingly intelligent creatures.
posted by kataclysm at 12:14 PM on July 15, 2010

I'm going with the otter lady.

Hawks cannot strike a bird in a closely packed flock because of the danger of breaking a wing on one of the neighboring birds, and hitting a bird near the ground poses a risk of crashing into the ground. The melee on the ground could reflect a desire to be in the absolute center of the flock because a predator can only get at the margins.
posted by jamjam at 1:32 PM on July 15, 2010

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