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Today’s post takes a closer look at a troubling tale from Canada.  During the period between 2001 and 2008, as American investors were bilked out of money by Bernie Madoff, a similar Ponzi scheme was taking place in the north.  However, in the northern version, the McGuffin at the heart of the grift wasn’t finance/investing…it was pigeons.  The man behind the scam, the pigeon king himself, was Arlan Galbraith (his business was even named “Pigeon King International”).  In seven years he sold $42 million worth of pigeons and, when his empire collapsed, he was on the hook to buy $356 million worth of breeding pairs of pigeons.  Aside from Mike Tyson’s prize roller pigeons or suchlike fancy birds, pigeons are not really expensive creatures.  The mind shrinks back from imagining how many pigeons one could buy for $356 million dollars.

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The pigeon Ponzi scheme didn’t really make any sense as a business or as a scam. Galbraith sold breeding pigeons to small farmers with a promise to buy back the offspring.  He would then sell the resulting pigeons to other farmers with the same promise.  Since he paid for the fowl (and since farmers are competent at poultry husbandry), the pigeons produced by this scheme burgeoned in population.  Galbraith enticed investors with talk of breeding fancy pigeons to sell to foreign pigeon fanciers, poultry, magnates and Arab sheiks.  He also claimed his program was producing a new sort of meat bird to bring squab to the dinner table everywhere in lieu of chicken and turkey.  Yet the birds in the “program” were just normal garden-variety pigeons. It was a recipe for limitless growth to nowhere.  Hundreds and hundreds of farmers joined Pigeon King International as suppliers/marks.

Except, of course, there is no such thing as limitless growth.  As soon as Galbraith ran out of new investors, he could not pay for all of the pigeons being produced (it is a miracle he dealt with the logistics of this crazy idea for as long as he did).  The end was profoundly sad.  Small farmers across Canada were left with whole barns and aviaries filled with unsaleable mongrel pigeons.  There were no Arab sheiks.  There was no market for squab.   There was nothing but the pigeon king dashing around the country buying pigeons and immediately selling them to others.

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The authorities were left with a situation where broke farmers had hundreds of thousands of worthless pigeons eating them out of house and home.  Releasing the birds into the wild would have been cruel to the pigeons (and dangerous to public health) so the authorities visited the largest barns with carbon monoxide rigs to gas the pigeons. Smaller operations were left euthanizing their stock on their own. Galbraith was arrested and conducted his own defense (in a manner as earnest, incompetent, and peculiar as his business).  He is now in jail and, since he is not young, that is probably the last act of his tale. Innumerable farmers were ruined by this saga.  Hundreds of thousands of pigeons died.  The pigeon king is spending his dotage in prison, and for what?

I have been staring at this story in puzzled wonder trying to determine the lesson (as more than a general cautionary tale against pyramid schemes). Aside from pyramid schemes, there is no precise analogy for the pigeon king’s business plan which leaps to mind…save one. The pigeon scheme required infinite growth to work (and more and more energy to maintain) even though there was no final payoff plan or escape hatch. It reminds me a bit of, well, everything.

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Society requires everyone to buy plastic junk that nobody will want in a year.  The garment industry churns out shirts that disintegrate after we wear them a few times.  The internet mostly consists of website after website of the same listicles and idiotic celebrity folderol.  If we stopped making this stuff and did better things with our time, everyone would go broke and the world economy would break. There are worthwhile things going on and goods and services which people truly need (or really want badly enough to be worthwhile), but beneath it all there is the same impossible promise of endless growth.  If that growth sputters out in any big way, the great international machine which we are all part of breaks.  Even if (human) populations decline, the capitalist system enters a dark feedback loop of too few consumers which is hard to escape.

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Conmen call their targets “pigeons.”  The story has me concerned that we are all pigeons in both a figurative and a literal way.  We are all busy producing pigeons of one sort or another for the Galbraiths of the world and praying that we can keep juggling everything before the Earth’s climate breaks, or we run out of oil, or there are too many bankrupt people to keep the system afloat.  Last week I wrote a post excoriating economists for not understanding primate behavior.  In this post I am begging them to go back into the library and come up with a system that does not rely so utterly on impossible growth targets.  If you walk through my beloved home of New York and look at all the people strutting bipedally in their drab business casual garb I feel like you might be reminded of certain avian colonies.  Take a look at Japan’s demographics, or the projected population of the United States…or the world, then compare those graphs with what companies say they will sell.  Spare a moment of panicky prayer for all the pigeons…and for the pigeon king too.

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It’s been a while since we wrote about pigeons (after all, turkeys take up most of the national bird bandwidth in November).  Let’s get back to the subject with a brief examination of the fanciest of all fancy pigeons–the beautiful fantail pigeons!

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Whereas wild pigeons have about a dozen feathers in their tail, fantail pigeons have thirty to forty feathers in their tail.  As indicated in their name, they can fan these ornamental feathers up in a magnificent ornamental crest–like that of a peacock or a turkey.

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Darwin mentioned fantail pigeons in the first chapter of “On the Origin of Species” as an example of the rapid changes which artificial selection could render to an organism.  Even though fantail pigeons seem to be a human creation, they look like they take a great and justified pride in their splendid appearance.  I think the fantail which is the normal pigeon color of grey with iridescent trim is particularly spectacular!

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Today’s post is about archangels!  Glistening in the sky above us they are the most…wait…archangels the pigeon breed??? Who is choosing these topics? Sigh…ok. Well, in addition to being quasi-divine winged warriors of insane ferocity second in might only to godhead, archangels are also apparently a breed of fancy pigeon.  Germans call them “gimpels” which strikes me as a less dramatic but somehow more appropriate name.

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Like other domesticated pigeons, archangels are descended from the rock pigeon (Columba livia).  The archangel is a small pigeon with featherless legs.  Its claim to distinction is an extremely iridescent head which glistens like burnished metal!  Why does nobody ever say stuff like that about me? In England, “archangel” refers only to black and copper color birds, but here in America we have thrown off such tyrannically narrow definitions and archangels can be any color (and they can have crests or not).

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archangel pigeon (from http://loftone.net/archangels/)

Clearly we are having a bit of fun at the expense of pigeon breeders and the grandiloquent names they give their feathered darlings, but these birds really are cool.  Look at those metallic heads!

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mindanao_bleeding_heart_dov-600x560.jpgIs there such a thing as a Gothic pigeon?  There are a lot of different breeds of pigeond, however the most Medieval-looking member of the Columbidae family was never shaped by human selection. The Luzon bleeding heart pigeon (Gallicolumba luzonica) is a delicate shy bird which lives in tropical forests of Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines.  The birds eat berries and grubs of the forest floor, which they almost never leave except when they are nesting.  They are a mixture of barred gray above and cream color below, except for their distinguishing feature, which sets them apart from all other birds.

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Gallicolombe poignardée. Famille des Columbidés. Ordre : Columbiformes

Bleeding heart pigeons have a group of scarlet feathers at the center of their breast which make it look as though they have a terrible bleeding hole in their chest.  In female birds this feature is somewhat subdued, however in males it glows incarnadine like a lurid painting of a Christian martyr.  Male birds even appear to have droplets of blood running down from the terrible heart wound.

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The first time I encountered this bird was not in a book (or on a random blog written by some weirdo), but in the Bronx zoo.  I saw a glimpse of a male bird at the back of an aviary and I got all afraid that he had been horribly hurt.  Only when I saw the picture on the exhibit were my fears assuaged.  All of this leads up to the question of why these animals look like they have been shot through the heart. There are lots of folklore explanations (of the dogwood religious just-so story variety), but the real answer is that nobody knows. It is a shockingly metal look for such an unassuming and modest bird.

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Sadly the bleeding heart pigeon is growing scarce as its forest home is cut down and made into plywood. Additionally, people capture and sell the birds into the pet and aviary trade. Like the planet Jupiter, it is valued for its lovely and unnerving red spot. With its mild nature, endangered status, and religious martyr good looks, perhaps the bleeding heart dove is a perfect mascot of the terrible plight of animals in our over-burdened Anthropocene world.

Ugly-PigeonAs a city dweller, I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking of pigeons (Columbidae) solely as the rock doves (Columba livia) which are the familiar gray and iridescent birds. Rock Doves originated in North Africa, Central Asia, and Europe.  Humans domesticated these birds in antiquity and carried them everywhere during the age of exploration and colonization.  Like the hero of a dystopian novel, the rock dove then cast off its oppressors (manipulative giant primates who were selectively breeding it to kill it and eat it!) and escaped to freedom and worldwide success.  However the rock dove is not the only pigeon—not at all—there are over 310 species in this family.  They are found everywhere on land except for the polar regions.  Some pigeons are analogous to clever tropical parrots, whereas others live like songbirds, or jungle fowl, or like grouse.  They live in deserts, jungles, forests, sand dunes, scrubland, cropland, caves…pretty much everywhere except for oceans and tundra.  Humankind has destroyed a few species of pigeons like the passenger pigeon, the giant pigeon (A.K.A. the Dodo), and the Socorro dove–an oddity which is extinct in the wild but lives cradled in the arms of pigeon fanciers like former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, however most doves are tough and resilient.  They thrive in our concrete cities.  They make livings as performers in Vegas! They fly into empty niches and expand to fill them out.

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In the Biblical myth of the flood, the first living thing to find habitable land after the flood subsided was a dove—which actually seems right.  Pigeons’ doughty wings have carried them to places where other varieties of bird never reached or colonized.  This omnipresence–combined with a placid temperament and serene beauty–has made the pigeon into a holy bird in both Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian myth. Indeed, the Holy Spirit, the most abstruse god in the Christian trinity (which already has some really weird divinities in it) is generally represented as a dove.

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Depiction of the Christian Holy Spirit as a dove, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, in the apse of Saint Peter’s Basilica

The secret to the widespread success of the Columbidae however does not merely involve their strong flying ability.  They steal a trick from the mammals’ book: pigeons of both genders nurse their developing nestlings with “crop milk” a nutritious (albeit disgusting) foodstuff made of fluid filled cells sloughed off from the lining of the birds’ crops (a crop, by the way, is a digestive apparatus in birds—a sort of muscular pouch at the top of the gullet).  This strategy means that pigeon parents can feed their offspring even if they can’t immediately find food.  While other baby birds can be wiped out by a temporary food disruption, pigeon families have a safety net.

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Pigeons are not technically fowl—which constitutes the galliformes and anseriformes (and most domesticated birds).   It has been a while since I added a new category of animal to Ferrebeekeeper—perhaps I will add pigeons on the side over there.  They are more interesting than I imagined.

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