Field Trip Report: Brussells, May 2019

In this Article I review the pigeon-related highlights from my recent trip to Brussells, Belgium.

Belgians love their pigeons. That much was apparent on our visit to Brussells on a sunny May weekend to the capital of Belgium; home of the modern incarnation of the sport of pigeon racing. In almost every square or open space within the city you can find a flock of feral pigeons, and almost always huddled excitedly around a substantial pile of bread, left by the generous human inhabitants.

If you are keen-eyed, you can spot amongst feral birds tall and small, scruffy and stately; a sleek athlete with dark eyes, white eye ring and 1 or 2 colourful bracelets on its ankles. These beauties are a bird quite apart from their humble street brethren: these are the Ultimate Rock Dove; the trained racing pigeon. Belgium is recognised as producing the world’s best racing birds, and many a fancier from across the world has paid top prices for pigeons of Belgian blood. None more so than the Chinese fancier who recently paid a record-breaking 1.25M Euros for ‘Armando’, a top class long-distance racer of Belgian stock in March 2019.

The sport of pigeon racing evolved from centuries of the use of pigeons as messengers in both peacetime and in war. The World Wars of the 20th Century saw hundreds of thousands of pigeons drafted into service at a time when communications technologies such as radio had not yet evolved enough to provide the fast, effective and reliable transmission of messages over long distances, that were essential to wartime activities. Pigeons proved themselves time and again to be fast, effective and reliable messengers, with their efforts saving many human lives.

Whilst the service of largely British pigeons in the Second World War has been well recognised by the advent of the Dickin Medal; the service of pigeons in the Great War has received less high-profile attention. The pigeon fanciers of Belgium clearly agreed: in the early 1930’s a committee was formed to petition for a monument to the service of war pigeons and their fanciers. They were successful, and the ‘Monument Au Pigeon Soldat‘ (Monument to the Pigeon Soldier) was inaugurated in March 1931.

Located at the end of the Place St-Catherine; the Monument is made of blue stone bedrock with granite pillars and a central statue cast in bronze; a collaboration between the sculptor Victor Voets (1882-1950) and Architect Georges Hano. The bronze statue of a woman represents ‘Motherland’, who holds a pigeon aloft on her outstretched hand, on a plinth bearing the word ‘The Pigeon Soldier’ in Belgian French and Flemish. At each side of the statue the inscriptions, also in both languages translate as: ‘To the Belgian Pigeon-Fanciers, who died for the Fatherland’. The monument is flanked on each side with granite pillars engraved with the years ‘1914’ and ‘1918’ respectively, both topped with a pair of pigeons with wings outstretched back to back, holding a soldier’s helmet aloft.

Ironically for a city monument, the statue is surprisingly free of pigeon dung; perhaps an act of respect by the local pigeons for their heroic ancestors. Their present-day feral cousins were close by however, relaxing on the grass of the nearby park in the afternoon sunshine, having enjoyed a refreshing rain shower earlier in the day. I stood and watched them for a long while just enjoying their antics: two tiny hens sunbathing shyly whilst a handsome cock-bird strutted around endlessly trying to impress the girls, whilst others jostled for the best spots in the sun. I could have watched them for hours! But it was time to move on.

Brussells is home to a plethora of street art, and virtually everywhere we went in the city there was something interesting or colourful to see. I was hoping that the city may be a home to a work by Belgian artist Adele Renault, famous for her huge pigeon murals, but sadly not! However, on our final day and entirely unexpectedly down a quiet street; we came across a work featuring our favourite feathered friends.

The work in spray paint by an unknown artist, depicts a flock of 6 feral pigeons airlifting a man in a high-vis jacket, who himself is desperately lifting an old damaged leather armchair, held by just 2 wires, where he himself is held aloft by six. There is no slogan or statement to hint at the artist’s intended meaning for this image, so the interpretation is down to you. Does the man represent the average worker being dragged from the comfort of the armchair, in some kind of call to action by the ‘common people’ (represented by the pigeons)? Or perhaps the man is not lifting the chair but chained down by it, kept down by the wealthy but crumbling ‘old boys club’ (represented by the chair)? Why not comment below with your thoughts on the meaning of this image – I’d love to hear your ideas!

The final day of our visit included a lovely walk through the Botanic Gardens, largely open to the public, where we found a bench in a nice shady spot next to a river where we were once again entertained by watching the antics of the local pigeons, who had just received a large bonanza of food, dropped by en elderly gentleman just as we arrived. The most intriguing of these birds was a handsome white cock bird, with a unique black and white striped tail which we got plenty of glimpses of as he strutted around the riverbank, trying to woo all the hens!

We finished our visit with a trip to see the European Parliament, which was a hive of activity that day, preparing to announce the results of the European elections. On our way to the Parliament, we passed a colourful monument to the motto of the European Union – ‘United in Diversity’ – a blue globe circled with the stars from the EU flag, held aloft by hands of different colours representing the different cultures and peoples of the EU, the globe crowned by a dove of peace. Which seems a fitting way to end this Article – thank you for reading!

By the Crazy Pigeon Lady