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The humble pigeon soars into the spotlight

Pigeons are having their own moment in the sun these days, from helping scientists detect lead contamination to Mike Tyson's Animal Planet series. Fanciers have always known they were special birds though.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

When most people think of pigeons, they picture those gray birds pecking at the ground in big cities like New York.

But a new image of the much-maligned species is emerging as pigeons are enjoying a moment in the sun.

Heavyweight champ Mike Tyson has championed the birds, which he credits for helping him get through a tough Brooklyn childhood. His obsession with the intelligent animals even spawned an Animal Planet TV series.

In New York City, where pigeons are often maligned as nuisances, one avian veterinarian is using the birds to detect lead contamination on the sidewalks, reports the New York Daily News. The pigeons aren't harmed, but the study can help protect children and pregnant women from lead poisoning.

Image: Publicity photo shows former boxer Mike Tyson holding a pigeon on the set of his six-part documentary \"Taking on Tyson\"
Former boxer Mike Tyson holds a pigeon on the set of his six-part documentary \"Taking on Tyson\", in this undated publicity photograph. Tyson says pigeons were his first love as a bullied kid on the tough streets of Brooklyn, and later on, birds gave him peace and tranquillity before and after some of his most bruising professional fights. Now, the man nicknamed \"Iron Mike\" for his ferocious boxing style is sharing that passion and showing a gentler side of himself in \"Taking on Tyson\", starting on the Animal Planet cable TV channel on Sunday, March 6, 2011. REUTERS/Animal Planet/? 2010 Discovery Communications/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT SPORT ANIMALS) NO SALES. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO COMMERCIAL USEHO / X80001

And when extraordinary photos emerged from this year's Grand National Pigeon Show, they made waves online. Who knew the birds could be so beautiful? The National Pigeon Association, for one, the organization that throws the annual Pigeon Show. For pigeon fanciers, it's like the Westminster Kennel Dog Show — in other words, a big deal.

Image: Ed Pointer
Ed Pointer with champion African OwlEd Pointer

Ed Pointer is secretary of the National Pigeon Association. Each year, the event appoints pigeon champions that are judged just like cats and dogs are. "For pigeons, you look for structure, how well-defined certain features are," said Pointer. Around 6,300 birds were entered into the latest show, which took place in January.

Pointer owns about 250 pigeons, including several champions, and has been showing pigeons for 25 years. "Every pigeon guy has the same story: He started as a kid. ... It's kind of weird how people grow up with these same stories," he said.

Pointer recalled spending his days as a kid in Oklahoma sitting on a bucket outside, watching the birds fly around. "I was fascinated by them," he said. His mother used to bring him a glass of water and ask why he likes pigeons so much. "I can't explain why," he said then, and he’d still say today if you asked him.

There are more than 300 different kinds of pigeons. There's even one that can't fly, called the parlor roller.

Parlor rollers flip on the ground, Pointer explained, and can roll 300 to 400 feet. They're actually able to fly at birth, but once they take their first flip, that's what they continue to do.

The most common pigeon misconception? That they spread disease, Pointer said. "People call them 'flying rats,' 'filthy.' It's like anything, if it gets out of control, it gets filthy. ... I've been around pigeons all my life and never caught anything."