In reading a novel set in England around 1815 this past week, I followed two characters into a “dovecote” that had fallen into disrepair.
I’d heard that term before and vaguely associated it with some kind of architectural feature similar to a cupola. I probably would have glossed right over it, as I’ve been doing with unfamiliar words in novels my entire life (and which, ironically, is how I’ve built up a pretty strong vocabulary), except that one of the characters looked up and commented on how the thick walls were full of pigeonholes going all the way up to the roof.
Like the pigeonholes in desks? Yes, but the actual originals upon which the desks’ tiny compartments for storing papers are based. I like pigeonholes in desks, but I don’t like to be “pigeonholed,” that is, labeled/categorized in such a way that my opportunities are limited. Beyond the desk cubbies and the labeling, though, I’ve never really considered what a pigeonhole actually is.
So I did a little quick background reading and found some cool info on dovecotes. Basically they were medieval chicken coops, except for doves and pigeons. Birds like these were an important food source centuries ago. For example, “squab,” which I sort of knew was some kind of game bird dish, is actually a young pigeon. Similar, I guess, to the way a chicken can be a broiler/fryer (young), a roaster (older), or a stewer (even older).
Anyway, the dovecotes were often built as towers with an opening in the roof. The birds would go off on their own to forage during the day and then come home to roost at night, sleeping in their little pigeonholes, safe and sound from predators. Until the day came for them to make a menu appearance, of course.
Oh, yuck. I just remembered that scene in Gigi where Leslie Caron has to learn how to eat ortolans correctly. You eat the whole bird apparently (except the feet). The whole bird. I guess that would be somewhat similar to eating doves and pigeons back in the day. Eating ortolans is illegal now in France, but not because it’s disgusting or inhumane, only because the little birds were so popular a delicacy that they’re endangered as a species.
Now that I think about it, the passenger pigeon became extinct in America because it was hunted in such massive numbers as a commercial food source (and also apparently for recreational target shooting, trapshooting with real birds instead of clay pigeons). Passenger pigeons as a food item were shot in the Midwest and shipped by train to Eastern cities.
Did you know, coincidentally, that one of the last surviving flocks of passenger pigeons was kept by an amateur ornithologist in Milwaukee named David Whittaker? I didn’t, not till I read one of the Slate articles linked to below. Now I have a new little research adventure to tackle. If /when I discover anything more about this flock, I’ll be sure to share 🙂
Meanwhile, here are some links to additional articles on dovecotes and pigeons, in case you’re interested in learning more: