Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Animals of Cottage and Castle Pigeons, Doves and Squab: for food, sport, communications, and as icon

by Katherine Ashe

Common Rock Dove
Pigeons: those annoying fowl who strut about underfoot in most cities have been living cozily with mankind since at least 3,000 BCE, providing food, sport and communications services for most of that time. First, “pigeon” is the common name for what most ornithologists call the “Rock Dove.” The species includes at least a dozen subspecies and these have been multiplied into numerous “races” by mankind’s interests in the creature as food, as messenger, for racing or just for their beauty. Manmade dovecotes dating back 5,000 years have been found in Mesopotamia and Crete, and doves are included in the ritual menu for an Egyptian goddess.

Iron Age Figure of Dove

The fact is squab, fat baby pigeons, are quite delicious – a delicacy that could be enjoyed as readily by the medieval English cottager as by the king. Humble thatched cottages are often pictured with a structure pierced by large holes tucked under the peak of the gable – that’s a dovecote. On the inside there would be a cabinet door giving access to a set of compartments each with an opening to the outside: pigeon holes. The cottager would merely open the door and take out the plump, fattened squab. Feeding needs would be minimal as the parent birds could forage for themselves, although a scattering of grain would help.

Beehive Dovecote
Dovecotes for the aristocracy were much larger, free standing structures; the wealth of a lordly household might be judged by the magnitude of the dovecote. Square or beehive shaped, made of wood or stone, these arose with gallery upon gallery of pigeonholes accessed on the interior through a well-way and a ladder. Since a squab might serve only one person, grand dinners required a cote that could withstand massive raiding.

To make Squab and Pork Pie circa 1380

10” uncooked pie crust, 1 squab plucked, cleaned and cut in 8 pieces, ½ cup flour seasoned with salt and pepper, 2 tbsp oil (chicken fat would be good), 1 lb lean ground pork, 2 eggs, ¼ cup raisins, 10 prunes minced, 1 tsp light brown sugar, ½ tsp ground ginger, ¾ tsp salt, 3/8 tsp saffron, ½ tsp ground anise, 1 tsp ground fennel, ½ tsp. ground cloves.

Bake pie crust at 425 degrees F for 10 min. and let cool (if in a hearth’s oven, test temp by placing arm in oven. If hair is singed off it’s warm enough.) Dredge squab in flour mixture and brown in oil or fat until golden. Separately, combine remaining ingredients and spread 1/3 of mixture in pie crust. Distribute squab pieces evenly on top. Use remaining mixture to cover squab and fill pie shell. Bake at 375 F for 35 min. (your hearth oven may have cooled down to that if you’ve left it open, but keep a good fire going in the hearth.) Pork must be browned throughout. Serves 4-6. From Richard II’s Book of Feasts, adapted for modern cooking by Lorna S. Sass and published as To The King’s Taste, Metropolitan Museum of Art publication, 1975.

Since ancient times the ability, indeed compulsion of some types of pigeons to return to their homes has been used for conveying messages. The Greeks and Romans used these “carrier pigeons” extensively for fast communication over long distances and impassable terrains. Oddly, there is little mention of the use of pigeon messengers in medieval and Renaissance Europe, though in the Arab world the breeding and use of pigeons remained extensive and by the 12th century there were organized pigeon communications systems for Islam. It’s unlikely that Europeans failed to make similar use of the birds that were certainly in abundance among them.

Pigeons are recorded as used extensively in military operations as recently as World Wars I and II. The method of course is to take the bird away from its home roost, then attach a rolled up message to the bird’s leg or put it into a pocket strapped to the bird’s breast or back, and let the bird loose. Small cameras can be attached to a bird’s breast. The birds will fly hundreds of miles and find their way home in a matter of hours or a day.

No doubt as a consequence of this messenger service, birds have been bred for speed and the sport of pigeon racing is ancient. Average speed over a distance of 500 miles is about 50 miles per hour, but speeds of as much as 90 miles per hour have been recorded, and distances of as much as 1,100 miles. In modern use, the birds can carry computer memory sticks and are far less subject to interception than are electronic communications.

Fantailed Pigeon
There is yet another aspect of the dove: its role in religion. Doves were an acceptable sacrifice in ancient Egypt and Judaea. But most strikingly for European history is the image of the white dove as the third member of the Trinity: as God the Holy Spirit in company with God the Father and God the Son, Jesus. What is it about doves that could prompt this association?

Fancy Pigeon
I’ve raised some very beautiful albino Collared Doves of the kind common to the Middle East so I can write from direct observation of their behavior. The male was the loving and cherishing father who nestled and brooded the eggs all day long and when they hatched it’s he who kept his nestlings warm and fed his own digested food into their open mouths.

As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, “…the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with Ah! bright wings.”


Katherine Ashe is the author of the Montfort tetralogy.
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  1. Great post! I hadn't known they ate or raced pigeons. I'd only known they used them for messenger service. Very interesting to know!

  2. My grandmother's youngest sister was in a convent in Poland during WWII. The only food they had was turnips. She got very sick and the other nuns fed her broth made from pigeons. When she came to Canada, she always fed the pigeons and cared for any hurt ones, that she found. She said pigeons saved her life and she would always repay their help, that she received during the war.


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