Of dovecotes and pigeonholes and ortolans and extinction

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:

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in architecture, Food, History, Milwaukee and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Of dovecotes and pigeonholes and ortolans and extinction

  1. Sally Cissna says:

    Loved this post. As you know, I’m working on a book that begins in 1900 and your post reminded me of something I found in my newspaper research. This is from The Woodstock (Illinois) Sentinel, May 31, 1900 under the title “A Flight of Pigeons.”

    “On Tuesday evening Express Agent Wyant received two cases of carrier pigeons from the Excelsior Homing club, of Milwaukee. On Wednesday morning they were taken to the street at the northeast corner of the square where quite a crowd gathered to witness their flight. At 6:57 the covers were lifted from the cases and the birds arose as if expecting release and started in a Northwesterly direction over the Hoy block, but, after semi-circling through the air for several seconds, changed their course and made off in the direction of their home – Milwaukee. The vacillated somewhat in their course as far as the eye could follow them, but they kept in a northeasterly direction until will out of site. There were about 200 birds in the lot, of many colors, and they were given this test to try them and drill them for future usefulness.”

    There was a lot of talk about “homing” pigeons in the years from 1880-1920. Pigeons were used in WWI and again in WWII to get messages through the lines without them being heard or intercepted by the enemy. Today, it seems so “iffy” to send a pigeon to do a electron’s work, but I have a feeling with everything we are learning about hackers and holes in security, it might be nice to cultivate a nice roost of homing pigeons.


  2. Pingback: Pigeons and People 1880-1910 – Sally Cissna

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