With a global population of more than 400 million birds, pigeons are quite literally everywhere. The feral pigeons we see in our city centers always seem to be pecking away at whatever scraps of food they come across on the ground. So in fact, a simpler question might be “What do pigeons not eat?” as they are notoriously unfussy about their diet. Let’s take a look at the foods that should and shouldn’t feature heavily in the diet of pigeons, both in the wild and those kept in captivity.
Although pigeons are naturally herbivores, they have become adapted over the years to eat a wide and diverse range of foods, and rely heavily on food discarded by humans, including bread, rice and meat. Their natural diet includes berries, seeds, fruit, nuts and vegetables.
Pigeons kept as pets or raised in enclosures often have a healthier and more controlled diet than their wild counterparts. This usually consists of a mixture of seeds, fruits, nuts and vegetables.
Baby pigeons are initially fed on a substance known as ‘crop milk’, a secretion produced in the stomach of adult pigeons and regurgitated into the beaks of their young. Crop milk is high in fat and provides squabs (young pigeons) with all the concentrated nutrients they need for rapid growth and healthy early development.
To learn more about foods that pigeons cannot resist, and what they should never be fed, please keep reading.
Wood Pigeon eating berries
Pigeons’ diets vary according to species and habitat. They are omnivorous and are able to eat a range of different foods. Those living in natural environments, for example wood pigeons, forage for seeds, berries, fruit and grains.
Pigeons are frequently seen pecking on lawns and in fields, grazing for seeds and occasionally insects and earthworms, and are not an uncommon sight in backyards, where they are skilled at clearing up any scraps or seeds that have fallen from hanging feeders or tables.
Our city-dwelling pigeons, sometimes referred to as feral pigeons, rely on scraps dropped by humans or food retrieved from bins for much of their food intake. City pigeons never seem to go short of food and have adapted their diets to be able to eat pretty much anything they come across.
Wild pigeons are generally not particularly fussy over what they feed on. Fruits and vegetables are readily taken, as well as seeds and grains. Woodpigeons are especially fond of leafy green vegetables, including lettuces and cabbage, much to the despair of some farmers and gardeners.
Domestic pigeons do not have the same access to the wide range of foods that their wild counterparts enjoy. Grains and vegetables, particularly corn, peas, wheat and sorghum, found in many commercial pigeon seed mixes.
Pigeon foraging on the grass
Domestic pigeons are frequently fed on commercial seed mixes, consisting of grains and seeds, including cracked corn, millet, wheat and sorghum. These are enriched with vitamins and brewer’s yeast.
Additional fresh vegetables and fruits should also be offered, including cabbage and other leafy greens.
Pigeons are especially fond of seeds and grains, and these form the bulk of their natural diet. Grass seeds and sunflower seeds are particularly popular, as are wheat, corn, sorghum, millet, rice and flax.
Insects eaten by pigeons, both in cities and in woodland habitats, include ants, flies, and beetles, as well as spiders and earthworms.
Insects do not form a major part of a pigeon’s diet but they are not picky and if they come across while pecking on a back lawn or foraging on the woodland floor, then they will most likely eat them, and benefit from the proteins and fats they offer.
Close up of a wild Pigeon foraging for food on the ground
Pigeons enjoy fruits, and will eat whatever they come across while scavenging, including grapes, raisins, plums, cherries, and blueberries. Bananas, apples (not the seeds) and pears are also eaten, but need to be chopped into smaller pieces to avoid choking.
Although they are not natural hunters and do seem to prefer grains and seeds to any other types of food, they do require a certain amount of fat and protein in their diets.
Mostly this comes from nuts, but occasionally foods such as earthworms, snails and even small lizards will be eaten. Scavenging feral pigeons in city centers will readily pick at discarded chicken and burger scraps they find.
Pigeons eating seeds from a bird feeder during the winter
Feeding pigeons in public places is often discouraged, as it can attract large flocks, which bring with them the associated public health risks of disease that is spread through their droppings.
If you keep pigeons domestically or choose to offer them food in your backyard, you can’t go wrong with a seed mix, including grains and seeds such as millet, wheat, corn and sorghum. Top this up with fresh leafy vegetables, peas, and berries and nuts and you’ll have happy and healthy birds.
Avocado is toxic to pigeons and should be avoided. The same is true for apple seeds. In general, wild birds should not be given food with a high salt content, anything containing oil, caffeine or chocolate.
Pigeons drink water, and do not need any other liquids to stay hydrated. Doves and pigeons have bills that allow them to drink water using a straw-like mechanism that enables them to swallow continuously without having to tip their heads backwards.
Close up of a pigeon drinking water (Woodpigeon)
You don’t have to try too hard to attract pigeons. Even if you’re hoping to attract other species, the chances are that sooner or later a pigeon or ten will show up and take advantage of any spilled seeds or grains from hanging feeders or bird tables. Any scraps and leftovers will bring pigeons flocking to feast in your yard.
The official line is that pigeons are an invasive species and should not be encouraged, due to the potential danger that their poop carries. Where you have one pigeon, there will be dozens more close behind, particularly if you establish a regular feeding spot or daily routine of leaving food for them, which has the potential of attracting quite a crowd.
Farmers and gardeners tell of large areas of planted crops that are stripped by hungry pigeons, that also leave behind quite a mess with large amounts of potentially toxic droppings.
However, they are an intelligent species and fascinating to watch, so if you choose to attract them to your yard, and can keep the area clean and mess-free, you may quickly get to recognize individual birds by their behavior and feeding routines.
A 'well-fed' rock dove, also known as a feral pigeon
Pigeons are opportunistic feeders and can be observed to spend much of their days feeding, or perching on branches, rooftops or walls waiting for their next meal. On average, adult pigeons eat one-tenth of their body weight every day.
Captive pigeons only need to be fed once a day, but they are natural grazers and will pick at any food supplied throughout the day.
Pigeons are one of the first birds to show up in the morning, gathering underneath hanging feeders or enjoying the offerings on bird tables and other platform-style feeders. They are one of the least fussy birds to show up in your backyard, and will indiscriminately eat whatever they come across.
Pigeons cannot feed from hanging feeders, but that doesn’t stop them from flocking to gardens with feeders and clearing up any seeds or other scraps that may have fallen on the floor. Feeding from tray or platform feeders is more manageable.
Pigeons do not have set feeding times and will opportunistically forage and scavenge all day long, grazing on lawns and pecking at fallen leaves and shrubbery, or around busy urban streets and refuse bins in case something tasty catches their eye.
Wood Pigeon foraging on the ground for food
It’s common to see large flocks of pigeons beneath backyard feeders, hoping to catch any fallen seeds or other scraps. As their diet includes such a wide range of foods, they never have to look too hard to find their next meal. In rural areas, they are a common sight pecking through farmers’ fields for grains and any fresh vegetables that might be growing.
A city-dwelling pigeon’s winter diet is identical to its summer one in that no matter what time of year it is, it will survive by eating anything edible it finds. In cities, there is no major difference in availability in scraps dropped by humans.
Pigeons in rural areas may find their usual food sources of grains and seeds in short supply during the coldest winter months, but they are resourceful birds and survive by eating anything they find, including acorns, leaves and grasses.
In summer, a wider variety of seeds, grains and naturally occurring fruits and berries are available to pigeons, as well as insects and grubs foraged from the ground. Pigeons in cities will continue to scavenge around refuse bins and any areas where humans may drop leftover food. Feral pigeons breed all year round, so there is no urgent extra need for protein during the summer months as in many other bird species.
For the first few days of their life, baby pigeons are weaned on a substance known as ‘crop milk’, a secretion that is rich in fat and protein that is produced in the stomach of both male and female adult pigeons. Parents regurgitate this substance to their young within 2 hours of hatching and it forms their exclusive diet for their first 4 days.
After this, young pigeons continue to be fed crop milk along with seeds for a further 5 days. Once baby pigeons reach 9 days, they are mainly fed on seeds, fruits and occasionally insects and earthworms.
Pigeon milk is extremely high in fat and other concentrated nutrients, which help pigeon chicks grow very quickly. Pigeon milk can be emulated by blending foods like oats with water, or you can use a special baby bird liquid formula.
Baby pigeons can start eating solid food after about three weeks, but their bills won’t be strong and hard enough to consume hard seeds for another two to three months.
Homing Pigeon feeding its baby crop milk
Bread is fine for pigeons to eat in moderation, but it should not form a major part of their regular diet. Although not strictly bad for pigeons in small amounts, filling up on bread may lead to pigeons missing out on the vital balance of nutrients needed from eating a more diverse range of healthier foods.
While it’s not the most nutritious option for a pigeon, there is no reason that a pigeon should avoid eating rice. Both cooked and uncooked rice are safe for pigeons to eat as part of a balanced diet, and wholemeal rice offers more nutrients than white rice.
Despite being exceptionally proficient flyers, pigeons very rarely migrate. In fact, many won’t stray too far from the areas they’re born in.
They’re real homebodies and like to laze around, perch, sit and feed, which is why they’re prone to getting quite plump. A plump pigeon feeding constantly from a garden bird table is quite a common sight, but it’d very rarely be the sign of much of a health issue.
Many birds need high-fat diets anyway - pigeons are just good at fattening themselves up efficiently!
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