I’ll confess; I picked today’s animal from a purely artistic perspective. I just bought a set of grey Prismacolor markers, and want to learn how to use them. So I needed a bird that was primarily grey, and then I thought of pigeons. Perfect! They have the added benefit of being pretty cool birds, with a rich and interesting history.

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A wonderful map depicting the rock dove’s native range (dark red) and introduced range (salmon pink). Image by Viktor Kravtchenko, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pigeons belong to the family Columbidae, which contains 310 species. That’s a lot species to talk about so I’m going to focus on the most common species of pigeon: the rock dove. Yes, doves can be pigeons, and vice versa. There’s no clear distinction between doves and pigeons, and the two terms are inconsistently used throughout the Columbidae family (and I’ll use them interchangeably).

Rock doves originated in Europe, North Africa, and southwest Asia. They have since spread, and now have a worldwide distribution. In a large part, this is thanks to the domestication of rock doves, which began several thousand years ago. The birds were used as pets, for food, and to carry messages. When these pigeons were released, or escaped, they bred with each other and with wild populations, which created feral rock doves.

What a pigeon looks like when humans mess with its genetics. Image by jim gifford, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Feral doves can come in all colours, thanks to the many different types of domestic pigeon. Many feral pigeons live in cities or towns. The preferred habitat of wild rock doves is rocky seaside cliffs, as they nest in crevices in the cliffs. In cities, we have helpfully built giant skyscrapers that have lots of nooks and crannies, and make pretty good cliff substitutes.

You’ve probably seen wild rock doves, or at least feral ones. They’re bluish grey, with two distinct black bars on their wings. They have some pretty green, purple and yellow iridescence along their necks and wings, but otherwise look pretty boring. The same is not true of the so-called fancy pigeon — which encompasses all the domesticated subtypes of the rock dove, including many wacky and wild breed variations. You can check out the Wikipedia page here if you’re interested. In feral rock pigeons, there is some colour variation, as domestic fancy pigeons have escaped and bred with the local populations. However most pigeons have the standard pigeon look, and there’s little difference between males and females.

Again, if you’ve seen rock pigeons in cities, you probably know that they are flocking birds. They stick together while foraging, sunning, and roosting. Wild rock pigeons don’t have a lot of defences, other than flight, so sticking together makes sense. Still, the pigeons fall prey to a number of aerial predators, including peregrine falcons, sparrowhawks, red-tailed hawks, owls and eagles. Rock dove feathers are very loosely attached, so when a pigeon is caught by a predator, all the feathers come out, hopefully distracting the predator long enough for the pigeon to escape.

What a normal pigeon looks like. Image by Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the reasons rock doves are so successful in urban environments is that they can live off a variety of foods. They most often eat seeds, particularly corn, oats and barley, but will eats lots of different things in city environments, such as popcorn, cake, bread, and peanuts. Pigeons need a fair bit of water to properly excrete the byproducts of digesting their diet to maintain a proper osmotic balance. If they can’t find enough water, they will limit their food intake until they can get more.

Rock pigeons can mate at any time, but mating is most frequent during the spring and summer. They form pair bonds that last for life, with both males and females helping raise the young. One to two eggs are laid in a nest constructed by the male, and the eggs hatch after about 19 days. The squabs (yes, a baby pigeon is called a squab) are fed ‘pigeon milk’ from both parents, until they have fledged. Pigeon milk is a lovely substance that is secreted inside the digestive tract of the squab’s parents, and then regurgitated. Yummy!

You may not have thought much about pigeons before, but these are some incredible birds. They have managed to adapt to a rapidly-changing world, fitting seamlessly into human society, so much so that most people barely notice them. So maybe next time you’re strolling through a big city, and see flocks of these amazing birds, you’ll appreciate them a bit more. Or maybe one of them will poop on you, and you’ll hate them forever. Who knows!

Cover image by Alan D. Wilson, www.naturespicsonline.com, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons, cropped to fit