February 14, 2004

St. Valentine among the pigeons

It seems that we can learn nothing about this day from the life of the saint or saints whose name it bears. According to the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia:

At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under date of 14 February. One is described as a priest at Rome, another as bishop of Interamna (modern Terni), and these two seem both to have suffered in the second half of the third century and to have been buried on the Flaminian Way, but at different distances from the city. ... Of both these St. Valentines some sort of Acta are preserved but they are of relatively late date and of no historical value. Of the third Saint Valentine, who suffered in Africa with a number of companions, nothing further is known.

The article goes on to explain that

The popular customs associated with Saint Valentine's Day undoubtedly had their origin in a conventional belief generally received in England and France during the Middle Ages, that on 14 February, i.e. half way through the second month of the year, the birds began to pair. Thus in Chaucer's Parliament of Foules we read:

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.

For this reason the day was looked upon as specially consecrated to lovers and as a proper occasion for writing love letters and sending lovers' tokens. Both the French and English literatures of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries contain allusions to the practice. Perhaps the earliest to be found is in the 34th and 35th Ballades of the bilingual poet, John Gower, written in French; but Lydgate and Clauvowe supply other examples.

Here in the Quad, the commonest birds are pigeons. The ornithologists at Cornell's Project PigeonWatch have a page on courtship behavior, and ask all of us to "[record] the colors of pairs of pigeons involved in courtship displays" so as to "help Lab of Ornithology scientists to determine what colors of males females choose for mates". Either the scientists are not interested in the colors of females that males choose, or perhaps they believe that male pigeons are not choosy. Given that "once a pair has formed a 'bond' they will stay together for life", it seems evolutionarily unwise for male pigeon love to be blind, doesn't it? I'm sure that the evolutionary psychologists have an explanation, though I suspect that if male pigeons turn out not to be so pathetically accepting after all, there will be an explanation for that as well.

The PigeonWatch scientists have missed the chance to use St. Valentine's Day as a recruiting opportunity, perhaps because they believe that the medieval French were wrong about the timing of bird courtship as about so much else: "feral pigeons display courtship behaviors throughout the year although they are more likely to mate in late winter and spring".

Well, the pigeons in the quad are certainly nothing if not feral. Even the squirrels fear them. Still, I'll keep an eye out on this St. Valentine's Day for billing and cooing (also bowing, tail-dragging, driving and clapping), and if I see any, I'll note the color morphs of both participants, just for the record.

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 14, 2004 07:54 AM