Pigeons – Could They Get Some Respect?

Photo and text by Dan Gleason, © 2010

Could you blame any pigeon who felt like the late comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, who always proclaimed he got no respect? So far as we know, pigeons don’t really have such feelings, but they are not usually given much attention except by the people who like to feed them.

Oregon has one native pigeon, the Band-tailed Pigeon, but this woodland species is not found in urban environments. Also native to Oregon is the Mourning Dove, a smaller member of the pigeon and dove family. But the pigeon we are most familiar with is the non-native Rock Pigeon, which historically was found in North Africa, Asia and Europe, ranging as far east as India and north to the British Isles. Today, native populations of Rock Pigeons may not exist at all in Europe and limited numbers are found in western Asia. However, feral populations are in cities and agricultural regions nearly worldwide.

The first documented introduction of Rock Pigeons into North America was by the French in Nova Scotia in 1606. Spanish and British settlers soon followed, bringing their own stock of pigeons and other food animals. Many birds escaped and feral populations soon became established, following human expansion.

Rock Pigeons are one of the most-studied of all birds. Much of our knowledge about flight physiology, homing instinct, metabolism, bird senses, etc. has been discovered through the study of pigeons. Although researchers have studied individual birds, populations of pigeons in North America have been frequently ignored, relying on European studies for an understanding of breeding behavior, assuming that there is little difference between European and North American populations.

Charles Darwin studied and wrote much about pigeons, and like many others of his time, he proclaimed them to be models of monogamous fidelity. He was willing to admit that males were occasionally promiscuous, neglecting the fact that a female must also be part of any promiscuity. Victorian standards prevented him from saying so in any public manner. Studies suggest that approximately 1% of pigeons may engage in what is called extra-pair coupling—mating with an individual that is not your mate, when the opportunity arises. Such behavior is common in a majority of birds, especially songbirds, and often at rates much higher than 1%. So, while some infidelity exists, most pigeons do form pair-bonds that are life-long, and matings outside of this pair are unusual.

Pigeons build very flimsy-looking nests, but they are excellent parents and both incubate and tend their young. The female usually lays two eggs which are rarely left uncovered. She incubates through the night until mid-morning, then the male takes his turn, remaining on the nest until afternoon when the female returns. Once hatched, the young are brooded by the male during the day and the female at night. Chicks are given their first meal 1-2 hours after hatching—a milky substance secreted by the crop of both parents.  (Pigeons and doves are best known for this “milk” but it is also found in flamingoes and Emperor Penguins.) After 4 or 5 days, seeds are gradually mixed with the milk and by 9-10 days, both parents bring the same food they eat.

Feral pigeons mostly eat seeds and fruits, but in cities they learn to eat popcorn, peanuts, even cake and a variety of other human foods. Normal feeding time is


early to mid-morning and early evening, but many urban pigeons have learned that the best feeding times are when the most humans are in city parks. There is even evidence that some birds learn to identify individual people who provide food most regularly.

Pigeons have been well-studied and bred for their homing ability, but homing is still not clearly understood. Some studies suggest that they make use of the Earth’s magnetic fields, but a sense of smell has also been suggested as a possible explanation. We know that pigeons can hear very low frequency sounds far below human hearing levels, so could this perhaps explain homing ability? No one yet knows what role, if any, these sounds play in the lives of pigeons.

We do know that pigeons are very strong fliers and can travel about 300 miles per day, maintaining speed of over 40 mph for 7 hours. Of course, not all pigeons fly long distances, as evidenced by the numerous flocks found around towns and farm fields. Individuals often wander from flock to flock, staying with one group for a few days or weeks before moving on to another or returning to their original flock. Wherever they wander, they are often unwelcome due to the mess their droppings can make or the number of fruits and grains they consume. Birders often reluctantly put them on their lists but usually don’t study them long.

So, while not well-respected, we can thank pigeons for strongly contributing to our knowledge of birds, and their proximity to human settlements and relative tameness makes them easy to view and study. In fact, Cornell University has an ongoing study involving school children nationwide in an effort to learn more about the breeding habits of these birds. It is a wonderful way to introduce children, especially in large urban environments, to an aspect of our natural world. What they learn from pigeons can later be applied to understanding some of the other creatures with which we share this world.


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