This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of France’s greatest playwright. Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, he is better known by his stage name of Molière. His career took off in 1650 when he staged a play in Pézenas for the governor of the Languedoc. Today, this modest town midway between Béziers and Montpellier celebrates its thespian connection by staging a Moliére festival every summer.
Pézenas, however, has a pigeon problem. Last year, as the 400th anniversary drew closer, the mayor began to worry about all the deposits these birds left on the town’s statue of the great playwright. Monsieur Colombier and his team came up with a novel solution, and when I visited Pézenas last week, he showed me his contraceptive dovecote, or pigeonnier, and explained the ingenuity of its operation.
The contraceptive pigeonnier is located in the Parc Sans Souci (Carefree Park), a short pigeon flight from the mairie. The birds come and go as they please, and they build their nests inside this odd-looking wooden structure mounted on a central pillar. Once a week or so, a worker goes inside the pigeonnier and shakes each egg for a few seconds before carefully replacing it. He wears a glove to avoid leaving a scent. This shake of the wrist mixes the yolk and the white and prevents the embryo from forming or developing. The female pigeon resumes sitting on her now-sterilised egg, the population declines and the risk of pigeons messing up Molière's stone wig is greatly reduced.
Fiendishly clever though this may be, my main reason for visiting Pézenas was to give a talk to an association called The Tuesday Club which, with the type of Anglo-Saxon reasoning that defies the cartesian logic of any Frenchman, meets on a Wednesday. Obviously my talk was about pigeonniers, and afterwards, a kind gentleman called Mark who belongs to The Tuesday Club took us to his home where he showed us a bijou-pigeonnier which he has restored in his own garden.
In the olden days, the dedicated pigeonnier owner would put scented oil on the openings, hang some aromatic herbs inside, and even offer his birds a goat’s head boiled in water with salt, cumin, hemp and urine. Mark, however, realised that the pigeons of a literary town such as Pézenas would have more cultured tastes, so he turned the ground floor of his pigeonnier into a book exchange.
What’s their favourite book? According to Mark, it is a work by the journalist Gordon Corera, called ‘Operation Columba – The Secret Pigeon Service’ which tells the story of how British intelligence used homing pigeons as part of an espionage operation during World War II.
And if any wise old birds want to go back even further into their history, they will now be able to read my own book, ‘Menu from the Midi’ which Mark kindly bought for them at the end of my talk.
NOTE TO THE READER The date of this post is 1 April, but all the facts are true except: (i) the mayor is called M. Rivière, not M. Colombier/Dovecote; (ii) the contraceptive pigeonnier was installed in 2014 to reduce pigeon mess in the town generally rather than specifically for the statue of Molière; (iii) pigeons are bright birds, but they cannot read.