Why Birds Attacked the Pope’s Peace Doves

Avian Expert and Audubon Field Editor Kenn Kaufman discusses Sunday's assault.

Pope Francis’ doves did not receive a peaceful welcome in St. Peter’s Square this past Sunday. Immediately after the two birds took flight a yellow-legged gull and a hooded crow descended upon them.

While no one but the attackers knows for certain why they set their sights on the two white doves, there’s no shortage of theories.

Avian expert and Audubon field editor Kenn Kaufman says a number of factors might have contributed to Sunday’s attack.

Both the yellow-legged gull and hooded crow are commonly found in Rome, Kaufman says. They’re both intelligent and adaptable species, and share a penchant for opportunism—they’re largely scavengers, but they’ll take on the role of predator when they happen upon an easy target.

A National Geographic article asserted that the assailants assaulted the doves because they were pure white, unlike most birds found in Rome.

“The color could certainly help draw attention,” says Kaufman. But the pure white feathers likely wasn’t the sole reason for the attacks.

In video coverage of the event, the released doves flutter about, seemingly confused. Bred in captivity, it’s possible that the winged symbols of peace had never been out on their own before and were therefore flustered.

“That helpless behavior, it really sort of makes them a marked individual,” says Kaufman, explaining that it can attract bullying by other birds. “Combining that with the fact that they’re strikingly white,” likely explains why they were targets.

But for what? It’s difficult to say what the aim of the gull and crow was, whether they were after dinner, or just roughhousing. “Crows and gulls do a lot of things they don’t necessarily have to do, just for the fun of picking on the weakling on the playground,” Kaufman says.

As for the claims that the attack on peace doves was an ominous sign that unrest in Ukraine will continue, “I would caution against reading too much symbolism in it,” he said.

Amen to that.

“Birds in the wild constantly interact like this among different species and if you spend time out just watching birds and what they’re doing, one kind of bird harassing another, it’s not a rare thing,” he said.

“It’s just rare this happens in front of a huge crowd of people.”

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”