Sunday, October 21, 2012

What's with all the pigeons?

Pigeons on Waikiki Beach
Anyone who has ever strolled along the beach at Waikiki has probably noticed that they shared the sand with a flock or two of pigeons. Meander down Kalakaua Avenue and you'll see many other flocks, some roosting in the nooks and crannies of the banyan trees, such as the tree near the Duke Kahanamoku statue.

I had noticed the pigeon population on earlier trips to Honolulu, but when I was staying last week at the Outrigger Waikiki I saw a photo which made me wonder who brought pigeons to O'ahu in the first place. The photo was of the Outrigger hotel chain's founder, the late Roy Kelley. His arms were full of white pigeons, the kind that are most prevalent in Waikiki. The caption noted that these were his "beloved pigeons."

Was Kelley the pigeon lover who introduced the now ubiquitous birds to Waikiki?

Not even close. I learned that pigeons first started strutting along Hawaii's beaches in the late 1700's, when Kamehameha was first rising to prominence on the island of Hawai'i.

White Kings roosting in a banyan tree
According to the Bishop Museum's Hawaii Biological Survey, which I found online, gray-colored rock pigeons are thought to have been introduced to Hawai'i in 1788, when a ship from China brought its cargo of wild turkeys and pigeons. Shipping records show that pigeons came from the other direction, from Europe, when a ship brought them to Hawai'i in 1796. Those were thought to be gray, as well. Rock pigeons, also known as rock doves (Columba livia) are native to the Mediterranean.

That accounts for the gray ones, but what about the white ones? They're everywhere. Known as White Kings, they're prized by pigeon fanciers. They are also prized for their meat and raised as squab.

Menus from 'Iolani Palace when Kalakaua was king (1874-1891) show that a popular tidbit at state dinners was pigeon on toast. Kalakaua was a man of prodigious appetites, but he also was a lover of beauty and nature. He loved birds and had his own exotic bird collection, located where the Honolulu Zoo is now.

In a 2004 article in the Honolulu Advertiser, a columnist tackled the subject of Waikiki's pigeons. He unearthed the fact that someone named S.Y. Chun brought four pairs of White Kings from Canada  in 1876 for the dedication of the Kapi'olani Bird Park, which originated as Kalakaua's personal bird collection.

I found other articles about how the city of Honolulu has over the years tried to control the pigeon population, even by feeding the birds birth control grain. The fact is, plenty of other people feed them and accept them as part of the landscape. Whether you regard pigeons as flying rats or as doves of peace and beauty, they're in Waikiki to stay.