The pigeon in the fireplace

i-32f8c1680e2d4627b39ede5351cf775a-a pigeon 1.jpg

At 12:30am this morning, as I lay on the settee watching Walking With Monsters on the UK History channel, there came an almighty series of loud noises from the fireplace. Like most British homes these days, we retain an open chimney, but the fireplace it's connected to is sealed over with a metal plate. A gas fire is in front of the plate, its flue connected to the chimney via a rectangular opening in the metal plate. From time to time bits of mortar fall down the chimney. But this time, noise continued for many minutes after the first series of big, initial noises. And Tigger Mamum-Ra, our oversized tabby (yes, I have my own mega-cat), was very interested...

Obviously, a bird had fallen down the chimney. A big one, presumably a Wood pigeon Columba palumba. As I crawled up to bed I forgot about it... and it wasn't until this morning, when Will burst into the bedroom* and gleefully spoke of flapping noises in the fireplace, that I remembered what had happened. So I had to remove the fire: I got my dad to help me with this as I didn't know how to safely turn off and disassemble a gas tap and its attached pipe. We couldn't remove the metal plate without a lot of hassle, but with the fire out of the way I could peer in via the rectangular opening. Sure enough, an adult Wood pigeon had fallen down the chimney. It looked healthy, normal and undamaged.

* (to deliver his mother's day gifts)

i-0c0ebc5478c290cda08eb8c890988356-a pigeon 2.jpg

I had decided to try and get the bird out for several reasons. One could, theoretically, just let a trapped bird die in a sealed chimney. After all, a lot of trouble is involved in getting it out, and its corpse will probably dessicate rather than rot and create a stink. But that's not a risk I was willing to take, and the thought of a trapped bird being left to die in a dark prison where escape is impossible is a bit dark for my liking. So I ended up ripping my arms to shreds on the sharp edges of sheet metal, grasping for a frightened pigeon.

As you can see from the photos, I succeeded. I managed to extract the bird via the rectangular opening, and release it. It flew away, minus some rectrices. It might have died minutes later from shock, but to be frank my main concern was extracting it from the house, and not its welfare. Having said that, my actions obviously were to the benefit of the bird as well as to that of my family. On an incidental note - if you're wondering - most people in this country don't exactly worry about the welfare of Wood pigeons. They're a serious agricultural pest that you're allowed to shoot at any time of the year, and there are about 3.2 million pairs of them in the country. They don't really flock, but you might still see over 300 birds feeding on an arable field at any one time.

i-be437b97b47d0f27f7237b77247d99eb-a pigeon 4.jpg

Anyway, a bird falling down a chimney might not sound like a particularly exciting event but, actually, it raises some interesting questions. What the hell is a big diurnal bird doing falling down a chimney at 12:30am in the morning? Wood pigeons roost in trees, sitting on branches 4 m off the ground and higher. If startled during the night (by a person or a predator), they burst loudly from the branches and fly off quickly in panic. I suppose if this happens, a panicked pigeon might end up settling in some stupid and inappropriate place, like on a chimney. It was tremendously windy last night, making sitting on top of a chimney a dangerous thing to do. I wondered if the bird might have tried to hide or take refuge in the chimney pot, only to accidentally fall to danger. After all, a surprising number of birds do actually creep into cover at night, secreting themselves away into crevices or into deep foliage (to see how I know this visit Little birds in crevices). But I don't think pigeons do this. Wood pigeons are way too big to regularly indulge in this behaviour: they're about 40 cm long and 450 g in weight, which is big for a pigeon.

So... quite why the bird fell down the chimney, I don't know. And if you think that this is more interesting than the use of rhinos in combat, or than the newly published, giant, dromaeosaur-eating compsognathid Sinocalliopteryx gigas, then... shame on you! Though feel free to disagree :)

More like this

Regular readers might remember the 'pigeon in the fireplace' incident of March 2007, when a Wood pigeon Columba palumbus fell down my chimney during the small hours of the morning and had to be extricated at great personal cost to my epidermis. As I grabbed the pigeon, I was slightly dismayed that…
Dave Ng over at the World's Fair is at it again, asking what sort of science background Santa Claus has: So the premise is that Santa is at least several hundred years old, and you've got to assume that somewhere along the line, he spent some time in academia and probably got a degree or two. Now,…
Walking to school the other morning: Elder offspring: What's that smell? Is that smoke? Dr. Free-Ride: Yep. Someone has a fire in the fireplace. Look, there's the smoke curling out of the chimney. To me it smells good on a cold morning, but when enough people do it, all the little particles in…
Chinese scientists have made a remote controlled pigeon. By planting micro electrodes in the pigeon's brain, the scientists can make the bird fly up, down, left or right."I'm looking for a boy named John Conner. Have you seen him?" Chief scientist Su Xuecheng explains, ""The implants stimulated…

It might have died minutes later from shock

This has actually been studied in rock pigeons in a city. Their heart rate goes back to normal in no time.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 18 Mar 2007 #permalink

Good on you for extracting the pigeon, for whatever reason. Might I suggest protecting the gaps in the chimney-pot with chicken wire or some such?

Pigeons are tough; I would imagine he's still alive.

Anyhow, this clearly calls for an enlarging and beveling of the fireplace opening. The fireplace could also be sprinkled with birdseed and the chimeny entrence rigged with cameras. All in the name of ornithology.

By R. Arthur Wilderson (not verified) on 18 Mar 2007 #permalink

An interesting historical case involves a House Crow (Corvus splendens) that fell down a footy-feet chimney in a Zanzibari Clove Distillery undergoing construction. The incident was related by Colonel Jack Vincent, a famous ornithologist in Africa during 1930s-1950s, who was in charge of the distillery at the time. Now, a House Crow is a lot smarter than any columbid (as Colonel Vincent noted: Corvus splendens possesses in marked degree all the cunning and thievish impudence so evident in the crow family), so how THIS bird fell down the chimney is also a mite strange.

But, and here it gets more interesting, Vincent deduced from the indescribaly filthy mess of food remains (bits of mango, coconut, crabs etc) at the base of the chimney that a.) the bird had been imprisoned for a "very considerable period", AND that b.) the other crows had not only realised the accident, although it must have been quite impossible for them to see the bird at the foot of the chimeny, but they had also hit upon the amazingly sensible solution of dropping food to the bird down below, hence their persistence in perching head inwards.

Believe it or not!


Vincent, J. 1937. An intelligent alien Corvus splendens splendens in Zanzibar. Ostrich 8(1): 26-30.

By Greg Davies (not verified) on 19 Mar 2007 #permalink

Thanks to all for comments.. especially to Greg for discussing that fantastic Vincent paper. David, do you have a citation for the study you mention?

One time when we lived in Norman a bird came down our chimney. We had a working fireplace so I opened the flue to let the bird out. It zipped right out of the fireplace and started zooming around the living room at a speed that I conservatively estimate at 650 miles per second. We had glass doors off the kitchen and hanging blinds that were missing one slat. The bird eventually spotted this narrow shaft of daylight and rocketed out of the living room, through the kitchen, and straight into the glass door. The collision was beak-breaking and fatal. I popped the dead bird in the freezer. I can't remember what happened to it, but chances are very good that I fed it to my friend's caiman. We had a lot of good Predator Theater in those days.

Gahhhhh! what is this "the newly published, giant, dromaeosaur-eating compsognathid Sinocalliopteryx gigas" you speak of? Where can I see the paper? Help!

David, do you have a citation for the study you mention?

No, but I'll look for it.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 19 Mar 2007 #permalink

I've had woodpigeons fall down the chimney, twice within a few weeks. It may well have been the same bird, since it only happened those two times in the 18 years I lived there.

The fire in this place was a coal-effect thing, so it was largely open at the top. In both cases, I'd noticed a lot of rubble coming down the chimney for several hours before the birds appeared, so I concluded that the birds had been stuck further up the chimney during that time. This could account for the nocturnal timing of your visitor - it had got stuck during daylight hours.

It may also be significant that these events happened in the Spring, when the birds are mating.

So, my humble hypothesis was that a bird and its amour are mating on top of the chimney pot. One or other, during the process, falls partway down the pot. (The mating thing might be a red herring, but the flurry of activity I've noticed when observing pigeons on the job makes it more likely that one or other would fall.)

Once its wings are inside the pot - so it's fallen at least half its body-length down - it can't spread its wings to fly, so it falls down the chimney stack. Usually, the main sections of chimneys are shaped in a kind of inverted Y, front and rear fireplaces connecting to a single stack on the roof.

So, our feathered friend finds itself dropping down to the place where the two branches of the chimney converge, or perhaps somewhere on the slope below that (there's a dogleg where the angles of the Y straighten to the vertical of each branch). The poor thing's trapped, and makes repeated efforts to fly back up, which are futile because its wings cannot spread.

Even perching on the steep slope of the Y requires constant muscular effort, and the bird tires, eventually sliding down into the vertical section and thence to your fireplace.

An odd behaviour I did notice was that, in both cases, the pigeons made no effort to escape into the room, even though they could have. It may have been that it could smell our two cats, or that they would have done that eventually. Instead, they perched on ledges (the fireplace was a converted kitchen range, with two side ledges in the stack just above the fire opening), so I had to reach up and grab them. Both times, the bird(s) survived and were released, although the second time it escaped within the room and had to be recaptured.

And yes, the feathers. All over the room! It's impressive how many feathers a pigeon can lose and still fly away, although the second time the bird lost pretty much all of its tailfeathers when I was trying to recapture it.

By John Hopkin (not verified) on 19 Mar 2007 #permalink

Re: losing feathers. I had the same experience when trying to capture a mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) -- the tail feathers came away in my hand and the bird flew away. A parks naturalist told me that mourning doves have their tail feathers loosely inserted specifically to foil predators. This rather makes sense -- when a bird is flying up from the ground, the tail would be the lowest part (if I'm envisioning this correctly), and therefore what a predator on the ground would be likely to grab. But has anyone confirmed whether rectrices are in fact looser than other feathers? And does this vary from one species of bird to another?

Pigeons are hard to hurt-- I keep them. It survived, I suspect.

I hardly dare mention-- T. H. White's old (1950's) Irish satire "Elephant and Kangaroo"-- pigeon down the chimney as Holy Ghost. My Catholic boy's soul winces, but it's pretty damn funny...

Thanks to all for further comments, good stuff there. John's idea as to why the birds fall down the chimney is a good one, and come to think of it I know that at least one local male pigeon uses/used the chimney as a calling post. It would make sense that, after attracting a female, the pair mated there (I didn't sex the bird that fell down my chimney: wood pigeons do exhibit sexual size dimorphism but this is difficult to judge with just one bird in the hand).

Incidentally, I should have mentioned what amazing show-offs male wood pigeons are: they indulge in a spectacular swoop-and-glide display flight, as you'll know well if one has ever swoopeed right down in front of your car. They regularly hit car windshields and are killed as a result of this risk-taking behaviour.

I too have read that the rectrices of pigeons are especially loosely rooted, and indeed most of the bird's rectrices came out in my hand, and I wasn't grabbing hard. When I removed the rectrices later I was surprised to see that the quill tips had no adhering blood or other soft tissue, indicating that they are very shallowly rooted in the rectricial bulb compared to other birds.

Is it my imagination or are there far more UK woodpigeons now than 20 years ago? As far as i recall back in the 80's you would walk into a field and in the far corner there would be a pair which would immediately disappear. In the last few years I've seen them in large number in parks, gardens and even perched above stage at a pop festival.
They seem to be everywhere and fairly tame.

By James Wood (not verified) on 20 Mar 2007 #permalink

Your right, there does seem to be a lot about.

easily told from Rock dove (or feral pigeon) by larger size and white mark on back of neck.

I hadn't heard about these loose tail feathers, but I am interested in animals that have expendable parts that help them survive encounters with predators. The classic example is tail autotomy in lizards.

A parallel that does not seem to have made much of a splash yet (at least among vertebrate biologists) is weakened areas of the wing in some butterflies. Many tropical butterflies and other insects have conspicuous patches of color on the edges of their wings. It has been hypothesized that these spots draw the attention of predators (mostly birds) toward the wing edge and away from the body, and that the brightly colored patches should tear more easily to allow the butterflies to escape when attacked. Fellow Berkeley grad student Ryan Hill did a cool study on wing strength in Pierella and found that the brightly colored trailing edge of the wing is weaker than the rest of the wing, and thus more likely to break off easily in a bird's beak.

That paper is:
Hill, R.I., and Vaca, J.F. 2004. Differential wing strength in Pierella butterflies (Nymphalidae, Satyrinae) supports the deflection hypothesis. BioTropica 36(3):362-370.

Anyone know of other examples of expendable bits?

Some mice (including some Acomys and Apodemus) and plethodontid salamanders have autotomic tails. Even cooler, there are a bunch of African geckos (the rock geckos Pachydactylus) that, when grabbed, twist so that a huge chunk of epidermis comes off, allowing their escape. They quickly regrow the skin. Other lizards (including lacertids) and some caudates (including salamandrids) regrow limbs that get lost to predators, and of course various arthropods (incl. wolf spiders, crabs and crane flies) practise leg autotomy. There are various Amazonian fish that reportedly have expendable tails (in fact there is a predatory species that specializes on eating the tails) but, being fish, I don't know any more than that. The false 'heads' of various lycaenid butterflies may also be expendable. My god animals are amazing.

My god animals are amazing.

You said it.

Actually, that's what I like best about your blog. I have been interested in animals my entire life, but you still manage to rock my brain on a regular basis.

Keep 'em coming.

I remember many years ago I visited an old castle in Denmark. They had a chimney with the skeletons of several crows at the bottom, which haven been layed there for many decades. Last year I had also a strange enounter when I opened the door of our stokehold and heared a strange sound, like from a mouse. Suddenly a small wren did fly in my direction and landed (for some seconds) on my index finger (!) to make a short cry and fly again in the other direction. This room is not connected by a chimney with the garden, and the wren must have fallen through a wire frame and came through a a window in the room where to oil tanks are, and from there somehow in the stokehold. I dont know if it came out after I removed the wire frame, but I did hear or see it never again.

But to come one the autotomie of vertebrates, I really did not know that there are also reptiles which can regrow their limbs. I know newts and salamanders can do this (like the female alpine newt with a regrown tail, which I´ve seen some years ago in our pond), and also this bizarre self-skinning newts (they looked a bit like fresh-skinned fish when they have lost their skin).
You have very probably read "the beak of the finch" and heard about this strange insects which evolved in the last years as a result of pesticides, which are able to loose their legs when they come on a contaminated surface.

Regarding autotomy, I just remembered the very best case of them all: ducks can regrow their phallus. I shit you not. In one documented case, a mallard's phallus was twice broken off and eaten by a crow. The duck itself was a persistant rapist in a collection of captive wildfowl, but it regrew its member both times.

Darren, that of course requires a reference...

Today I bought a book about the fossils of the famous Posidonien-shale. I really did not know that there are several specimens known of Steneosaurus bollensis, which had regrown caudal vertebrea. In fact this regenerates were no real vertebrea, but an ossified cartilaginous organ. The longest known regenerate was 20cm long. I knew that crocodiles can survive very harmfull amputations, but regeneration of bones was new to me (or was this only knwon from prehistoric genera?).

"ducks can regrow their phallus"

Good lord, that sounds like an infinitely entertaining read. Now the real question is, can the Argentine Blue-bill regrow its, uh, outrageously long member?

Anyone know of other examples of expendable bits?

Sea cucumbers have expendable guts.