Sympathy for Synthanthropes
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates a sibling, they are a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a sibling who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen. ~ 1 John 4:20
Some bird species are inextricably connected to humans. House Sparrows, House Finches, and House Wrens all have an affinity for nesting on, in, or near...you guessed it...our houses. Chimney Swifts are rarely, if ever, found nesting in natural cavities ever since they discovered our chimneys. Purple Martins may have gone extinct by now except for the gourds that people put out for them in ancient times creating a partnership that effectively tamed them to the point that in most locations the only place they nest is in human-provided structures.
The term for species like these that exist in close relationship with, even reliance on humans is synthanthrope, literally with humans. This is a broader term than domestication. Farm animals and pets are examples of species tamed and bred by humans for the service and companionship. Chickens are so far removed from their ancestral roots, that we really can’t picture them as feral, i.e. living in the wild. The differences between the rotund white turkeys raised for food and their wild cousins couldn’t be more striking. Wild Turkeys are wily and strong fliers. Domestic turkeys are not exactly a flight risk and have been known to drown in the rain because they aren’t clever enough to stop looking up!
Pigeons are perhaps the most curious synthanthropes. Clearly they had been domesticated but now have mostly outlived their usefulness. Yes, some people keep them for racing and others breed fanciful ones for show. Probably the last time their ability to carry messages was important was World War 1. Along the way, humans gradually stopped caring for pigeons and now their descendants have gone feral, filling our cityscapes. Scientific classification has been tricky for this species. Just looking at a typical flock in a park will illustrate a long history of breeding for color variety. The typical gray with black stripes is considered the ancestral form, and they are presumed to have nested on cliffs and ledges. That is why they have the name Rock Pigeon. But unless you find a pair nesting far from civilization on a rocky outcropping, you better check “Rock Pigeon (feral)” on your eBird list or it will be flagged and require an explanation.
The story of the lowly pigeon is a sorry tale of how we too often neglect the gifts of others, particular the other-than-human, instead valuing only transactional relationships. Thankfully, not everyone considers pigeons to be “flying rats.” One friend in Portland feeds them and shows playful love to his “sky muffins.” At minimum, we have a responsibility to this species we have manipulated over centuries, but shouldn’t we also appreciate these winged siblings simply for being present in creation with us?
Prayer: Unseen Creator, help us to see your reflection in all creatures, loving even the ones we sometimes find messy and annoying Amen.