The Columbidae is one of the most familiar bird families on the planet, and people from all walks of life encounter these birds every day. As one of the world’s first domesticated birds, our association with Pigeons goes back a long way too, although our attitude toward them has changed pretty dramatically in the last century.
You’re probably familiar with a handful of Pigeon and Dove species, but you may be surprised to learn that there are well over 300 species worldwide. While most temperate species are pretty drab, Pigeons can also be incredibly colorful and exotic-looking birds. As diverse as they are, there are several behaviors and adaptations that have made them into the successful group we know today.
In this guide, we’ll discover what makes a Pigeon a Pigeon, including key aspects of their anatomy, behavior, and habitat, and learn about their relationship with man. American and British readers will also learn about the species they are most likely to spot.
Pigeons and Doves are technically two words for the same birds, although the larger species in the Columbidae family are usually called Pigeons.
Apart from some of the physical characteristics discussed a little later in this guide, these birds have some fascinating and unique behaviors that set them apart from other birds.
Read along to learn about three unique Pigeon characteristics.
Most birds regurgitate food for their chicks or bring whole meals back to the nest, where they may pass the food directly to the chick or tear it into smaller pieces. Pigeons differ in producing a substance known as crop milk or Pigeon milk to feed their young.
Pigeon milk is a nutritious substance produced by both male and female Pigeons and fed to their young directly from ‘bill to bill’. It is a whitish or pale yellow substance that is high in protein and fats and also includes minerals and some of the parent bird’s own epithelial cells.
Most birds drink by dipping their beak into the water and tilting their head back to ‘pour’ it down their gullet. However, Pigeons and Doves have a far more efficient way to quench their thirst. These birds dip their bills into a pool or puddle and suck up the water, similar to the way we use a drinking straw!
Check out this interesting guide to learn much more about how birds drink.
If you’ve ever watched a Pigeon walking, you will have noticed the comical way that they bob their heads back and forth. They do this to keep their head stable for longer and avoid blurring their vision. This helps them keep both eyes peeled for predators while on the move.
Read this in-depth guide to learn more fascinating facts about why birds bob their heads.
Pigeons and doves drink differently to other birds, where they can suck up water like having a straw!
Most people can instantly recognize a Pigeon, although pinpointing what sets them apart from other birds is not as easy. Continue reading to learn about some characteristic aspects of Pigeon morphology.
Pigeons vary greatly in size. If you include Doves in the comparison, the smallest species are the Sparrow-sized Doves of the Columbina genus, which weigh as little as an ounce or 28 grams.
The largest surviving species are the Crowned Pigeons of the Goura genus, which can reach over five pounds or 2.3 kilograms. We don’t know exactly how heavy the extinct Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) was, but these massive ground Pigeons could have weighed between 20 and 40 pounds.
Pigeons and Doves are generally drab but attractive birds with earthy, pastel colors. However, many species have iridescent or metallic markings, and some tropical species can be surprisingly colorful. Some also have long tails, crests, and other ornamental feathers.
A pair of Victoria Crowned Pigeons
Pigeons are generally robust but elegantly-built birds with well-developed breast muscles for powerful flight. They have relatively small heads, and their necks appear short at rest but can be extended pretty far. They have strong but short legs for ground foraging and perching, and each foot has one backward and three forward-facing toes.
Most Pigeons have a straight, slender bill with a pointed and slightly downcurved tip that is ideal for collecting small morsels like seeds. Their nares (the bird version of nostrils) are located on a prominent fleshy cere at the base of their bill.
Close up profile of a Mourning Dove
Pigeons and Doves may not seem very exciting at first glance, but these birds have some unique and fascinating habits. Continue reading to learn about some notable Pigeon behaviors.
Male and female Pigeons generally look alike, although some, like the Namaqua Dove (Oena capensis), are sexually dimorphic. Behavioral differences are often the most reliable way to tell between the sexes since males spend much time pursuing females, calling and displaying.
Pigeons and Doves perform fascinating courtship displays both on the ground and in the air. Ground displays include tail-fanning, bowing, circling, and spinning while calling. Flight displays often involve loud wing-clapping and graceful gliding.
Pigeons are fast and agile in flight, capable of taking off rapidly and traveling long distances at high speed. The wild Rock Pigeon typically forages far from where it sleeps and has a natural ability to navigate back to its roost each day. Humans used this homing ability to train Pigeons to race and deliver messages long before modern communication technology was developed.
A pair of Woodpigeons during a courtship ritual
Pigeons and Doves are very vocal birds, and most species produce typical coo-ing calls, often with a rolling and rhythmic quality. Both sexes call and sing, although males are particularly vocal. Some species make completely different sounds, including whistles and harsh, high-pitched yapping sounds.
Pigeons are diurnal birds that forage either on the ground or within trees and other vegetation. Most species are solitary or occur in pairs when breeding, although some are more gregarious. The common Feral Pigeon and its wild counterpart, the Rock Dove (Columba livia), both roost and nest in colonies.
Rock Doves roost and nest in colonies
Pigeons are primarily herbivorous and mainly feed on seeds, grain, and fruit. Many tropical species are frugivores (fruit eaters), and some eat a lot of insects and other invertebrates.
These birds are often seen as pests in agricultural areas because they arrive in large numbers to feed on grain.
Check out this guide to learn more about the Pigeon’s diet.
Pigeons and Doves occur throughout the world, including North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. Some species reach Canada in the north, although most North American species are restricted to the south of the United States and Mexico. The family is more widespread in the British Isles, occurring from the south of England to the north of Scotland.
The Columbidae are an incredibly diverse group of birds that occupy a wide range of habitats. You could spot a Pigeon in practically any habitat, from the canopy of tropical rainforests to the sandy desert floor. Many of the temperate zone Pigeons and Doves are terrestrial foragers that search for food on the ground, while tree-delling fruit-eaters are common in the tropics.
Interestingly, the classic Pigeon body shape has proved suitable for survival in all these habitats, and most species can survive in the same areas throughout the year.
Some, like the Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) of North America and the Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur) of Europe, only occur in the north of their range during summer. These birds migrate south for the winter to avoid food shortages and cold weather.
The striking European Turtle Dove
Pigeons are a diverse group of birds with over 350 species spread across 51 genera. You can spot these birds almost anywhere in the world, including the United States and the United Kingdom.
The United States is not particularly species-rich when it comes to Columbiformes. However, American birdwatchers can see Pigeons and Doves in each of the Lower 48 states, as well as Alaska and Hawaii. There are nine species in the United States, distributed mostly in the South.
Continue reading to learn about some common American Pigeon and Dove species.
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)
The Mourning Dove is the most widespread native Dove species in the United States. They are present across most of the Lower 48 throughout the year, although they migrate south from the Upper West and Midwest each winter.
These small, slender Doves are buffy brown, with distinctive dark spots toward the end of each wing and a single dark mark below each cheek. This common backyard bird is often seen foraging for seeds on the ground.
Band-tailed Pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata)
The Band-tailed Pigeon is a native species that occurs in the Southwest and up to the Pacific Northwest as far as Washington and neighboring British Columbia. This large species is present year-round from Texas to southern California but visits Oregon and Washington in the spring and summer.
Band-tailed Pigeons stand out as the only American Pigeons with yellow legs, but their white neckband and dark-tipped yellow bill are equally distinctive. They are most at home in forest habitats, although they are increasingly common in urban green spaces.
White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica)
The White-winged Dove occurs across the south of the United States from California in the west to Florida in the east. This medium-sized species can be distinguished from the similar Mourning Dove by the broad white margin along the bottom of each wing and the pale blue skin around its eyes and the base of its bill.
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia)
The domesticated form of the Rock Dove, also known as the feral Pigeon, was introduced to the United States in the 17th century and is now widespread across North America, even reaching Alaska along the Pacific Coast. They are one of the most successful birds in the urban landscape and are common in most major cities.
There are five wild Pigeon and Dove species in the United Kingdom, including both resident and migratory species. These birds occur in each major terrestrial habitat in the country, from busy city centers to coastal cliffs and broadleaf woodlands.
Continue reading to learn more about the most common British Pigeons and Doves.
Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus)
The Woodpigeon is the UK’s largest Pigeon species and a common sighting everywhere from city parks to farmland and woodland. They are attractive birds, best identified by their size and the bold white patch on the back of their neck. Woodpigeons may gather in large flocks and make local movements, although UK birdwatchers can spot these Pigeons at any time of the year.
Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)
The Eurasian Collared Dove is a widespread bird in the UK, found in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. They may be familiar now, but these birds first colonized the British Isles in the 1950s after expanding their range into Europe. These common UK garden birds are easily identified by their pinkish-gray plumage and the dark ring around the back half of their neck.
Rock Dove (Columba livia)
Best known as a bird of urban areas and Racing Pigeon lofts, wild Rock Doves continue to live and breed in parts of the United Kingdom, unchanged by domestication and selective breeding. These wild birds are largely restricted to the rocky coastlines of Northern Ireland and northern Scotland.
Pigeons and doves
The Woodpigeon is a conspicuous resident of suburban areas and farmlands across the United Kingdom. These attractive birds are the largest pigeons in the region and the most common in many habitats.
Pigeons and doves
Native to Europe, Southern Asia and the Arabian Peninsula this dove’s rapidly expanding range from the mid 1970s now includes the Caribbean and North America where its numbers continue to increase.
Pigeons and doves
The Rock Dove or Rock Pigeon is one of the world’s most widespread birds and has been valued and cherished by humans for at least five millennia. Domesticated and trained for sport and transporting messages, these birds originated in the wilds of the Old World, where they still live today.
Pigeons and doves
At first glance, it may seem difficult to decide whether the grey pigeon-sized bird youve spotted is a stock dove, woodpigeon or rock dove (feral pigeon). Our guide will help you to identify between the species, based on the appearance and habitat usually associated with stock doves.
Pigeons generally breed in their first year and may produce several broods each year. These birds typically live just a few years in the wild, although they have the potential to live over a decade. In fact, one captive Pigeon lived for an impressive 24 years!
They are monogamous birds and have a reputation for forming close bonds, with both males and females working together to raise their young. Both are involved in collecting material and building the nest, although their roles may vary.
They generally nest in trees and other vegetation, although several species nest in cliffs and rocky areas, and many will use artificial structures like buildings and bridges or simply nest on the ground. What most species have in common are very flimsy nests, and it’s often possible to see their eggs right through the thin platform of twigs when looking from below.
Pigeons produce small clutches of just one or two eggs. Once laid, both parents will incubate the eggs, which generally takes two to four weeks, and their squabs (chicks) fledge after a similar time period. Both parents feed the baby Pigeons, often for days or even weeks after leaving the nest.
Baby pigeons are also known as squabs
Pigeons are familiar because they share our environment, living everywhere from suburban backyards to farmland and city centers. The sight of Pigeons speeding across the skies, the sound of their cooing, and the clatter of their wings are everyday experiences for people all over the world.
We have a long history with these birds too. The Rock Dove was first domesticated an estimated 6,000 years ago, although the process may have begun much earlier. Pigeons and Doves were variously cherished by the ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Romans, and Greeks and feature in the holy books of Islam and Christianity.
Pigeons have provided us with food, sport, and communication, and they have been admired for their beauty and the vast variety of shapes and breeds developed by ‘fanciers’. Pigeon racing is still big business today, with a worldwide following and serious money at stake. They also remain a popular food animal, ranking as China’s fourth most important farmed bird.
A flock of Racing Pigeons in flight
Despite their rich history, Pigeons are now considered pests in many parts of the world, mostly because of the mess they make in the urban environment and our fear of contracting illnesses from them. But do Pigeons really deserve the title of ‘Rats with Wings’?
It may be true that Pigeons can be messy and noisy, and that they are carriers of disease. However, cases of humans contracting anything from Pigeons are very rare, and Pigeons have nothing on us when it comes to environmental degradation and noise pollution.
The major cause for the Feral Pigeon’s success is that we have moved them around the world with us for their food value and for the love of breeding and racing them.
They use our buildings for roosting and nesting in the same way wild populations still use sea cliffs, so we have also changed the environment to suit their needs. An abundance of food scraps and nesting sites with limited competition from other wild birds allowed escaped or released birds to survive and multiply into the thriving populations we see today.
Studies have shown that Pigeons may carry as many as sixty different pathogens that could affect humans, although less than ten of these illnesses seem to be transmitted. Despite our proximity to these birds, cases are sporadic, with less than 200 infections reported in a study spanning over 60 years.
While people with compromised immune systems are reportedly far more likely to contract an illness from Pigeons or their waste, it’s still worth taking precautions regardless of your health if you need to clean up Pigeon poop or handle live birds. However, catching an illness from Pigeons is not something most people need to worry about.
Pigeon in flight, pictured from below
Most of the world’s Pigeon and Dove species are secure, and many have adapted well to agriculture and other modern land use practices. However, habitat degradation and loss, hunting, and the introduction of non-native animals have put serious pressure on many species, and over a third of all Columbidae are now threatened on the IUCN Red List.
Most of the familiar Pigeon and Dove species in North America and the United Kingdom are common within their ranges, although some face serious conservation challenges. The Turtle Dove, a migratory species that visits the south of England each spring, has declined dramatically and is now placed on the red list of conservation concern.
Sadly, it’s already too late for several species, including the American Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) and the Mauritian Dodo, which have already been lost forever.
Like the Dodo, the Socorro Dove (Zenaida graysoni) is a typical example of an island-dwelling bird species with a limited range made extinct by human settlement. However, it’s not too late for these attractive cinnamon-colored birds. Over a hundred individuals live on in captivity, and hopefully, we’ll see them fly free on their Mexican Island homeland someday soon.
Socorro Doves are currently extinct in the wild, but there's hope
The best way to help wild Pigeons and other birds in your immediate environment is to create healthy habitats in your own backyard and around your neighborhood. You can do this by planting a selection of native plants that would have occurred in your area before it was developed.
Providing fresh water and food is also helpful, but be sure to keep things clean and hygienic to avoid spreading disease. Doves and Pigeons are often victims of Domestic Cats, so consider attaching a bell to your pet’s collar to give the birds a fair warning.
Threatened species from far-flung corners of the Earth need our help too, and the best way to assist is to donate to reputable conservation organizations that are actively working to protect and restore natural habitats and the species that rely on them.
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