One holiday season as a single parent, I lacked money and only had enough for one “nice” gift for my daughter. After some thought about what sort of present might be enjoyed throughout the year, that year I put up a bird feeding station, complete with mesh walkabout tray lower down the pole for the groundfeeder-sort of birds…all this set up right outside the picture window just by our kitchen/dining table. I’d seen a lot of birds there passing by, and when we put food out, it attracted a lot of lovely “regulars,” especially doves. Their tray was situated right about eye level for us when seated at the table inside, and it was so beautiful having so much winged life only a couple feet away.
This became a favorite place for my daughter and me to get up close and personal with our feathered friends…she’s loved birds ever since.
I especially loved the doves, and their nightly cooing. Wild doves will always be a favorite part of my gardens.
Birds have always been a part of my life in some way. Though I’ve had caged birds before…parakeet, cockatiel (briefly), canaries, finches, I prefer seeing them be able to fly or roam freely.
I think a lot about raising some chickens. And some guineas, and a pair of peafowl, some ducks, maybe a pair of geese…? The list fluctuates, but figures in largely to our Next Phase of homesteading beyond this one. Most of those are nixed from this locale due to zoning regulations, though if we’re here long enough, we’ll likely take those regulations head-on, or “interpret them loosely.” (Goodbye chicken…hello “Florida Ground Parrot”…ha!)
Part of my love of birds may be genetic. My maternal Grandpa loved birds. Some of my best memories (from guess where?) spent at my Grandma and Grandpa’s house were sitting with them during breaks or at the end of the day on the back porch, watching the birds go about their business. There were mockingbirds, blue jays, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, varieties of woodpeckers, thrashers, all the varieties of sparrows and small songbirds, cardinals, bluebirds, robins, and the hummingbirds that came to sip from the heavy trumpet vines that engulfed the T-post at the near end of the clothesline. Their songs were recognizable, too, and even if you couldn’t see them, you often knew they were there…the bobwhites, mourning doves, meadowlarks, redwinged blackbirds, crows, whippoorwills.
For some, birdwatching is a pleasant diversion, and for others, a passionate obsession. For my Grandpa, it was a part of his rural world (the one he chose after retirement), and he “knew” each bird whose territory he shared, and enjoyed their daily antics and personalities. My grandparents seldom fed the birds. They provided for them in different ways. They would never disturb a nest, not even an abandoned one, and left different types of trees and shrubs intact because they knew which birds would be returning to rear their families there…and planted others they knew would be cover for bird feasts and fortresses.
Sitting there as a young girl with my Grandpa, swinging my bare feet back and forth from my perch on the hollow metal folding lawn chair, the plastic webbing crosshatching its design against the backs of my thighs, we were content without much conversation. Grandpa never was much of a talker, but loved having us girls around and just being. We spent a lot of time sitting on that back porch at dusk, in those flimsy lawn chairs. It was there he taught me not to shy away from the dirt daubers (that look a lot like wasps, and that we pronounced “dirt-dobblers”) or granddaddy longlegs spiders. And it was there I once asked him to tell me about his own father.
It turns out my great-grandpa was an interesting man, and one of the things he mentioned about him was that Great-Grandpa Wright kept pigeons.
Kept pigeons? My interest was piqued. Tell me more, Grandpa…
He spoke of his father with much tenderness and respect, and the details of the pigeon-raising are lost to me now, though I did listen intently. It turns out he raised a lot of them. I thought that was the coolest thing I’d heard…both my grandparents were beyond their animal-husbandry days and had downsized along the most simplistic lines, which I thought was a total waste of good land and B-O-R-I-N-G as a child. They had once done some dairying (by hand) in bygone days, including working the fields and gardens with mules, and had chopped cotton for years in their own childhoods. Obviously they had no nostalgia for those particulars left to extend into my own childhood. Finding out that someone in my family had raised any sort of animal was sort an affirmation of my own interests.
It wasn’t until a year or so ago that I thought much about my forbear’s pigeon-raising, till I had a conversation with Jack about his mom and his childhood years in Havana. It seems that despite her busy schedule as a nurse, his mother kept a lot of plants in the walled sideyard of their concrete-and-stucco home, but in addition to that, she kept birds. I was trying to figure out what sort of birds they were, since Jack knew them as “palomas.” He said she kept anywhere from 3 to 15 at any given time, and would use them as a meat bird in soup, especially when anyone would get sick with a cold. They would sometimes lay eggs that would hatch, fledge, and become adults. They were quiet, mostly white but sometimes bicolored, lovely, and had a soft song.
Sopa de Paloma is what he called the soup, and said a lot of people kept palomas in their backyards in Cuba to supplement their meals. The soup would be made like a standard chicken soup of that area, simmering the carcass and meat with salt, garlic, onion, celery, spices, starchy vegetables like potatoes or malangas, sweet potato, calabaza/pumpkin, yuca, and green plantains. He still swears this soup is more healing that most medicines :)
It turns out Palomas are pigeons, and his mom kept them in a long, divided rectangular cage raised off the ground about table-height. They were shaded by the wall and the trees. The droppings would fall through the wire bottom to the plants below, and there were nesting boxes within. Everything worked simply and symbiotically, and was efficiently situated…permaculture before it was a term. Each day when she was home, she would open the door and they’d free range around the walled yard among her plants till she put them back into the cage at the end of the day…she’d trimmed the flight feathers of one wing for each bird.
I asked Jack whether he was sure they were pigeons, or doves, since their description sounded more to me like doves, and this led us both to go online to try to determine what the difference between a pigeon and a dove might be. It turns out they are basically different sizes of the same bird…the doves are the smaller sort and the pigeons are the larger. That’s the short and dirty explanation, though I’m sure experts can go into better detail. Their names in other countries are interchangeable, and they belong to the same “family.”
I’ve been pretty amazed at how Jack’s mom managed to grow so much for herself right in her own backyard, and doves/pigeons are no exception. Jack and I began asking ourselves if this bird could be the exception to the “agricultural animal” umbrella term in our zoning exclusions, and if we might have some “pet” pigeons/doves for our own culinary use.
If we would be raising our own ducks, chickens, geese, why not our own dove/pigeons?
Well, it’s not a popular food these days, but that can’t be said for every area of the world, nor every era. Most people think of pigeons being nasty city-dwelling disease-carriers, and if you’ve seen city pigeons, they do seem to “be what they eat.” But perhaps therein lies the assumption that they’re unfit…clearly animals raised in natural ways or those in the wild are nutritionally and healthwise superior. Can our tastes adjust to the “peasant foods” of our more rural ancestors, even to the degree where we’ll eat pigeon? As we look for affordable options for the livestock portion of the homestead, could these be among other humble foods considered the poor man’s feast? Pigeon, to me, sounds a lot more appealing than the proverbial “four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie.”
Ask dove hunters..there’s not much more than a mouthful to be garnered from the cooked end product, but that doesn’t stop hunters every year from bringing them home and thoroughly enjoying them. A pigeon is a bigger version of dove. The meat is said to be dark and flavorful, and to some tastes this means ” gamey.” This is often minimized by marinating, wrapping with a bacon or substitute bacon product, and grilling or cooking just till done.
Jack said in Cuba, homegrown pigeons are fed grains and allowed to free-range in vegetation, and housed in simple cages such as his mom’s. He believes they were used for making rich soupstocks, utilized whole-carcass, meat and all.
In some places in the world (including some places in the U.S.), young pigeons are harvested after having grown in all their feathers a few days before they’re able to fly, about day 25-30, and are considered a delicacy…squab. At that stage they have only been fed crop-milk from their parents, and have not eaten independently.
I’m not advocating for or against raising pigeons and doves, but we certainly will be investigating this as a supplemental food source for ourselves, especially since Jack and I both seem to come from lineages that utilized these birds in former days. We may very well decide to keep some and see how they do…Cuba’s a semi-tropical climate, as is ours, so I imagine they’d do fine here.
I did find some recipes online for dove and pigeon, several of which sounded delicious…pigeon soup, pigeon pie, grilled, casseroled. It appears to be a food that is considered a hearty “peasant food” in many cultures worldwide.
Inexpensive, easy to raise, beautiful to watch, and musical to listen to…
an asset to the backyard homesteader and larger rural farm alike?
It’s a thought…
The only problem might be how to resist making every one of them a pet instead of dinner :)
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