Ahhhhhhh, the pigeon. I feel confident saying that nearly every human on the planet has seen a “pigeon.” These birds are found everywhere across the globe except in the Sahara Desert, Antarctica, and the high Arctic. There are 350 recorded varieties of pigeon and the European population alone is estimated at as many as 28 million birds!
How do you REALLY feel about pigeons?
Having worked with raptors for more than 20 years and earning a degree in Wildlife Biology (which doesn’t hold invasive species in the best light), I have never thought much about pigeons. One day, however, while stuck in traffic under an overpass, I looked out to see a pigeon sitting on the concrete barrier right next to me. She was clearly sitting on an egg. Her “nest” could barely be called that – there were a couple twigs. But I remember thinking that this was a very dedicated parent and I admired her spunk and adaptability. I was in the same spot a few days later and noticed that there was a smashed egg among the twigs and no adult pigeon around. My first thought was how horrible humans are. I didn’t like pigeons but that was no reason to smash her egg. But did I really think any better of her than the person who did this? After all, I was taught that they are just “rats with wings” and a nuisance across the globe. After a little bit of research, though, I discovered they are actually incredible creatures. Perhaps you’ll agree after reading this as well.
What to you actually know about pigeons?
Quick and Crazy Facts
- Pigeons are fast flyers, averaging 77.6 mph but they have been recorded at 92.5 mph.
- Unlike most birds which scoop up water in their beaks and tilt their heads back to move it down their throat, pigeons use their beaks like straws and suck water up.
- Pigeons mate for life and both parents rear the chicks.
- For the first week after hatching, pigeon chicks (called squabs) are fed “crop milk,” a semi-solid secretion from the lining of the crop with protein and fat levels higher than that of human milk.
- Their life span is relatively short, living an average of 3-5 years but it can reach 15 years if the bird is lucky.
The Important Stuff
What IS a pigeon?
Pigeons and doves are members of the family, Columbidae. There are more than 340 species in the family. The bird that most Americans call the “pigeon” is Columba livia, the Rock Pigeon or Rock Dove. Check out Cornell Lab or Ornithology’s info on them here.
Pigeons and Humans
Pigeons have been domesticated for at least 5,000 years. It is believed, however, that it is more likely they have been domesticated for as many as 10,000 years. Humans have used pigeons in many ways: as a food source, for the collection of their feces (which can be used as a fertilizer or to extract saltpeter to use in gunpowder), and various sporting events including falconry (they are the quarry), pigeon racing, pigeon shoots, and Triganieri – a game in which ones captive pigeons are used to lure as many other pigeons as possible away from their roost.
Pigeons are not “Filthy”
Pigeons are no dirtier than any other bird. Due to their social behavior and habit of living in urban areas, however, the mess they leave behind is definitely noticeable to humans. If you’re interested in learning how the pigeon became so hated by humans, check out this article.
Pigeons have saved the lives of countless humans
It is well known that pigeons can be used to carry messages for humans. Due to their incredible ability to find their way home, even at great distances, these sturdy birds have been delivering messages since 2500 BC. They were even used to deliver the mail in remote parts of India. In fact, the last messaging service to use pigeons wasn’t disbanded until 2004! Pigeons were also critical in delivering messages in both World Wars. The birds were so important and heavily used that at least 100,000 birds are thought to have lost their lives in military service. Many also performed so valiantly that they earned medals of honor for their work. A pigeon named “Red Cock” was awarded the Dickin Medal for bravery (the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross) in WWI. He was released from a torpedoed trawler and returned home carrying a message with the grid reference of the sinking ship. His flight and delivery saved the crew. Of the 55 times the Dickin Medal has been awarded, pigeons have been recognized 32 times – more than any other animal. Another famous war pigeon was “Cher Ami,” the pigeon who saved the lost battalion. The full story can be found here.
Pigeons are some of the SMARTEST birds on the planet!
While their homing skills and use in battle are truly impressive, what really blows me away is their intelligence. Having worked with both raptors and parrots over the years, it is very obvious to me that intelligence varies greatly among birds. I have always known that corvids (the family of ravens and crows) and parrots are extremely intelligent. But I had never heard of pigeon intelligence. Turns out, they are smart!
For the last few decades, much research has been done on the intelligence of pigeons. One of the most incredible things is that they pass the “mirror test.” A pigeon can recognize its own reflection. Only a handful species can do this!!!! Pigeons have also shown an ability to count, recognize words, differentiate between humans in photographs, and even detect cancer in radiology images.
The fact that these birds have so much intellectual capacity is astounding! It has given me a new appreciation for these misunderstood and underrated birds. I hope the next time you see a common pigeon you see them in a new light and not as the vermin that they have been made out to be.
General Pigeon Information
Articles on Pigeon Intelligence
Pigeons in War