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John Doyle: For emotional impact, meet the pigeons

No, I don't understand where the CBC is going with its new direction on documentaries.

Far as I can tell, Doc Zone, the Thursday night showcase, will end after this season. The Nature of Things will continue next season, but a number of the program's staff have been let go. The documentary unit, it seems, is toast. CBC will continue to air docs but will not make them in-house. Something called the factual department will commission feature-length independent documentaries by Canadian filmmakers.

It's bewildering but somewhere, somebody has figured out how much money is being saved. You can bet on that. What you cannot bet on is the long-term future of the strand of public-service broadcasting that is epitomized by tonight's wonderful, witty and enlightening look at pigeons. Yes, pigeons.

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The Secret Life of Pigeons (CBC, 8 p.m. on The Nature of Things) is highly entertaining, slightly daft and rather sweet. Some of The Nature of Things docs go awry. The recent one about animals and sexual desire was really about female sexual desire under the guise of cute stuff about voles and monkeys, and didn't quite click.

This one clicks. When you meet the charmingly eccentric Canadian pigeon-racing community at the end, you will be smitten.

Okay, so you're probably thinking, "Why should I watch some stuff about freakin' pigeons when I could enjoy the brilliant banter on 2 Broke Girls?" (Tonight, FYI – Max accompanies Caroline on a trip to a white-collar prison to see Caroline's father.) Or you're wondering why you should pay attention when there is the highly charged drama machine that is Grey's Anatomy? (Tonight – FYI, "a routine procedure leads to something unexpected.") Well, I'll tell you why.

Pigeons lead really rough lives. And yet they are highly intelligent, organized and clever critters. They have been good to humanity over the centuries, becoming useful in circumstances that only pigeons could manage. They've been heroic and yet most of us think of them now as mere pests.

It was news to me that a gang of pigeons hanging out somewhere have several lookouts who can recognize the walk and facial features of people who feed them. They also operate under a system of communism, dividing up a city into areas for a certain number of pigeons who can get enough to eat in that area. It's called "ideal free distribution," or something. It's like somebody explained Marxism to them and they all went, "It works for us!"

One of the highlights of the program, made by Scott Harper, is the pigeon-cam. We get to soar with the birds and witness their view of the urban environment. Also their highly intricate methods of staying safe.

As well, we are reminded that "the glory days of pigeons are long gone." How quickly we have forgotten that pigeons delivered messages and medicine when no person or other creature could. They did it, of course, because of their extraordinary directional sense and ability to find their way home over vast and confusing terrain. How they do it is the subject of a chunk of the program. I'm not giving it away.

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It's when we meet the pigeon-racing community that, you know, things get eccentric. They're an odd bunch and proud if it. We are assured that while there have been scandals in the pigeon-racing world – steroids! doping! – it doesn't happen in Canada. As a chap insists with some passion, what the racing-pigeon owner wants, mainly, is "a good-looking pigeon." Then we see 1,500 racing pigeons being released at the same time. And it is awesome.

You should know, too, that pigeons encode spatial information the way we do. That makes them invaluable in the search for a cure for Alzheimer's. In fact there is a ton you should know, so just watch it. I did and part of the impact was personal. When I bought my wee house in downtown Toronto some years ago, there was a pigeon coop out back. Tore it down. At the time I felt a bit guilty. The Portuguese family who had lived in the house for decades had enjoyed the pigeons. Now I don't just feel guilty, I feel terrible.

If you want emotional impact tonight – open your heart to the pigeons.

Also airing tonight

How to Get Away with Murder (ABC, CTV, 10 p.m.) reaches its fall-season conclusion. A batch of new episodes will arrive in the new year. Tonight's episode is tantalizingly called "Kill me, Kill me, Kill me" and it promises, "The events of Sam's death on the night of the bonfire." Good.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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