A lot of birds come into the garden. Some visit only seasonally, others are here all year round. At the moment two couples of collared doves honour us with their presence and one pair has nested high in an old elm in the back garden.
My grandfather kept pigeons or “doos” as they are called in Scotland, which he also raced. His pigeon loft was neat and practical but a far cry from the beautiful dovecots in the “chocolate box” pictures of an English country garden. I prefer my pigeons and doves free but they have been associated with man from the beginning of civilisation and have been housed in varieties of different structures all over the world. I have admired many dovecotes in beautiful gardens in the UK and seen pigeonnières and colombiers in France. “La pigeonnière” is usually associated with other buildings such as a château whilst “le colombier” is more frequently an isolated structure or dovecot , the columbine being French for dove.
It was only recently that I was able to go into the ruins of a seventeenth century pigeonnière near here at the Domaine de Seudre (http://www.domaineduseudre.com/). Previous visits to their restaurant had been in the evening and I was impatient to see what the inside of the pigeonnière looked like.
It was not at all what I had imagined.
When I saw the terracotta jars (cruches) I wondered if I had mistaken the purpose of the tower. I had expected to see ledges or little boxes.
I asked the Mme. Cardineau, the proprietor, about the pigeonnière and she assured me that it was a traditional style, built using the terracotta pots for the pigeons to nest in and that although they were deep the pigeons were very clean and would keep their nests clean. The fertiliser that they recovered from the floors of the pigeonnière was very important for the crops of the estate. I have discovered that another word for this fertiliser is “la columbine” which seems such a beautiful word when you compare it with a lot of English words that we might replace it with!
Not everyone was authorised to keep pigeons, it was a right only granted to a noble “lord” or “seigneur” of the correct social standing and who possessed a large estate. It was explained that the right was given to keep one pair of pigeons for every “are” of land in the estate. An “are” was roughly the amount of land one labourer could work in a day .
In addition, the workers on the estate were given a pigeon a week for food. The pigeons were certainly a blessing providing food and fertiliser but they could also ravage the crops in search of food and the pigeonnières were sometimes enclosed to keep the pigeons inside when crops were being sown.
They were also a ready reckoner to calculate the wealth of the nobleman. In the sixteenth century the pigeonnière would still have been under feudal rules which limited the number of pigeons a nobleman could keep according to the size of his land and so the size of the pigeonnière was a direct guide to the wealth and standing of its owner. Of course, the pigeonnières often faired better than the fortunes of their owners and this has given rise to the French expression “se faire pigeoner” which means to be cheated or “conned”. For instance, a prospective suitor might be persuaded that the family he was marrying into was wealthier than he estimated by looking at the size of their pigeonnière.
Today the pigeonnières have fallen into disuse and you are more likely to find tourists living in renovated ones than pigeons living in the real thing.