Pigeons are divisive creatures. For some, pigeons are treasured pets; for others, they’re troublesome pests. Whether it’s ‘rats of the sky’ or ‘rats with wings’, the sentiment in these nicknames is clear. Apart from pigeon fanciers or mediocre tourists in the main square of [insert any capital city], most of us have very little time for these birds. They are seen as dull, dirty and even diseased.
Doves, by contrast, are seen in a very different light. These ‘pure’, white birds are symbols of peace, love and magic. Instead of being shooed away by angry passers-by, doves are revered, ceremoniously released into the air in times of celebration.
Why should this come of any surprise? Well, because doves are pigeons and pigeons are doves. They are one of the same, both belonging to Columbidae family, which contains around 300 different species. But, besides colour, the distinction between these two birds is quite inconsistent. In fact, the species most commonly referred to as ‘pigeon’ is known by scientists as the ‘rock dove’. A far more appealing name, I’m sure you’ll agree!
From the cliffs to the cities
As this name would suggest, in the wild, roosting and breeding takes place along cliffs and rock ledges with populations originally spanning Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia. As modern cities began to rise up across these regions, pigeons readily moved in. They adapted quickly and set up home in this new, vertical, urban environment.
The similarity between pigeons’ natural habitat and modern cityscapes is not the only reason for their spread. Pigeons are highly intelligent. Despite their relatively small brains, they are able to carry out certain cognitive tasks on a par with primates.
The animosity that they receive from city-dwellers around the world is surely down to their abundance. That and the 10 kg of poo each of them leaves in our streets each year! They are victims of their own undeniable success.
But the Columbidae family has not always been held in such low regard. Quite the opposite, in the 16th and 17th centuries having your own pigeons was a notable status symbol. The crème de la crème of French and British societies built beautiful towers to house their prized, winged possessions. Known as ‘dovecotes’ or ‘colombiers’, these buildings were decorative, as well as serving the more practical purpose of accommodating large numbers of pigeons. This popularity, however, came at a cost. Pigeons were bred for their meat, to keep the nobility well-fed during the lean winter months.
Their popularity was not limited to these countries. Dovecotes can be found across other parts of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, such as this clay structure in Doha, Qatar.
Three impressive pigeon powers
Domestic pigeons are bred for endurance and speed. Flights as long as 1,100 miles have been recorded by competitive racing pigeons and, over shorter distances, they can reach over 90 miles/hour. For a pigeon to survive, speed is an absolute must. One of their main predators is the peregrine falcon, the fastest bird in the world.
Co-parenting and ‘pigeon milk’
Pigeons mate for life, which can be up to 15 years in captivity, but rarely more than 3-4 years for urban birds. In this time, pigeon parents share responsibility for rearing chicks. In fact, both males and females are able to produce a milk-like substance. Rich in fat and protein, this ‘pigeon milk’ is regurgitated by the adult and fed to offspring. The only other birds to display this behaviour are emperor penguins and flamingos.
They are renowned for their navigational skills, but how do pigeons do it? There are two main theories and they’re equally fascinating! The first is that they have some kind of cognitive compass. Thanks to a magnet located in their beaks and nerve cells that respond to changes in magnetic fields they are able to create a mental map. The second theory, is that they follow a scent map. They rely on their sense of smell, following significant landmarks, to chart flight routes and find their way home.
With any luck, next time you see these flying rats in the street, you’ll see them in a slightly different light!