Rock Pigeon

Rock Pigeon Carcassone France 2015 ENL
Rock Pigeons nesting in the rock walls of the medieval city of Carcassonne, France. All pigeons and doves originated with the rock pigeon that shared habitats with Neolithic farmers.

Common Name: Pigeon, Rock Pigeon – The word pigeon originates from the Latin verb pipire, meaning ‘to chirp’ which became the French pijon and then pigeon – ‘a young bird.’ The word was imported to England with the French-Norman linguistic invasion of the 11th century, supplanting the Germanic word dove; it is now applied more generally to the larger birds of the Pigeon and Dove Family. Rock refers to the pigeon’s preferential nesting site on rocky cliffs.

Scientific Name: Columba livia – The generic name is the Latin word for dove; the French word for dove is columbe. The specific name is from livor, the Latin word for ‘blue’ in reference to the gray-blue hue of the original rock pigeons, now much hybridized.

Potpourri: There is no taxonomic difference between a pigeon and a dove; they are monophyletic in having a common ancestor. The semantics of language provides a distinction between the larger, stouter pigeon and the sleek, svelte dove and there is a cultural chasm between the pestiferous pigeon “rat-birds” and the cooing peace-bird doves. The Pigeon and Dove Family Columbidae is comprised of some 310 species in 40 genera on every continent except Antarctica; the North American variants have recently been separated into a separate genus Patagionenas to account for accumulated genetic differences. The global presence of the ubiquitous city pigeon is a direct result of human intervention; the original rock-dwelling wild birds were domesticated as food fowl and transported for this reason across oceans with the tides of civilization. The primeval rock pigeon was similar to the modern variant with gray body plumage, a head of darker gray, black striping on the wings and tail, a white rump and a green and purple iridescent sheen about the neck. The multi-colored variants that have proliferated consist of twelve subspecies that range from pure white to red or blue barred. [1]

Charles Darwin maintained a flock of every pigeon breed that he could obtain in his native England; his interest extended to the acquisition of pigeon skins sent to him by colleagues in India and Persia. He was a member of not one but two of London’s pigeon clubs and associated with several eminent pigeon fanciers – he considered himself one. It was for this reason that he chose pigeons as the focal point of his deliberations about inheritance in the very first chapter entitled ‘Variation under Domestication’ of the seminal book On the Origin of Species. In noting the wide disparity in the attributes of different breeds – the giant nostrils of the common English carrier pigeon and the enormous crop of the pouter pigeon – he concluded that “all of our domestic breeds are descended from the rock-pigeon or Columba livia.” He noted, among other things, that “pigeons have been watched and tended with the utmost care, and loved by many people.” [2] While it may have been the variation in the finches of the Galapagos Islands that inspired the theory of evolution, it was the pigeons that nailed it.

The domestication of the rock pigeon by Neolithic farmers was more quid pro quo than coincidence. As the nomadic hunter-gatherers settled down to grow seed-bearing grain and build rock-walled huts, they created a made-to-order habitat for the seed-eating, rock-dwelling pigeons. Over time the nesting birds became established as monogamous couples that produced a dozen squabs a year as a human protein food source in trade for their free lunch life, perhaps giving rise to the use of the term pigeon for one who is duped. According to the doyen of pigeon aficionados Wendell Levi “All available evidence shows that from the time primitive man first domesticated animals, the pigeon was regarded as the highest of all speechless creatures and was an integral part of the life of man.” [3] This thesis is supported by an archaeological record that includes 12,000 year old pigeon bones in Palestinian cave dwellings and 5,000 year old terra cotta pigeon figurines from Anatolia. The mutualistic association of pigeons and people is manifest in the adobe-like mud brick houses of Egypt and Turkey made of individual holes for each pigeon family; the dove-cote is literally pigeon-holed (an interesting note is that the storage vaults for cremated remains in cemeteries are called columbaria due to their dove-cote appearance). The pigeons not only provided their chicks called squabs as food but they were instrumental in seed-grain crop growth – pigeon guano is a nutrient rich fertilizer that was gathered and spread over farmed fields. [4] It is ironic that the Neolithic farmers also domesticated feral cats to control the rodents that were drawn to the same grains as the pigeons to become the nemesis of most avian species.

The rock pigeon cum dove was equally integrated into the spiritual allegories of the pantheistic cultures that arose in Mesopotamia. The biblical account of Noah’s Arc is a retelling of the great flood from The Epic of Gilgamesh written on Sumerian clay tablets circa 2,500 BCE. In it, the flood lasts for only seven days when “Utnapishtim’s boat comes to rest on the top of Mount Nimush” where he “released a dove from the boat. It flew off, but circled around and returned, for it could find no perch.” [5] Apparently even then, everyone knew what a dove was and that it would come home to roost. The dove-pigeon became associated with ‘earth mother’ deities that evolved from Astarte of the Phoenicians to become the Greek Aphrodite. Extolled by the Greek poet Anacreon in Tell Me Why, My Sweetest Dove: “From Anacreon’s hand I eat foods delicious viands sweet, Flutter O’er his goblet’s brim, sip the foamy wine with him,” the pigeon had become pet. [6] In the New Testament book of Luke, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord with an offer of sacrifice consisting of “a pair of doves and two young pigeons,” as they were too poor to offer the traditional lamb. [7] By the dawn of civilization, the pigeon had become man’s best feathered friend.

The Class Aves commonly called birds emanated from the survivors of the Cretaceous -Paleogene extinction caused by a meteor impact near Chicxulub on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico 66 million years ago; all other dinosaurs perished. Avian resilience was aided by flight transport away from the worst of the devastation and abetted by monogamy; most birds raise their chicks with careful and dual parental oversight. The Pigeon – Dove Family took this one step further, producing a milk-like fluid to feed their squab offspring, a trait shared only with the lactating mammals whose proliferation across the globe is testimony to its efficacy. Milk is the elixir of life for newborn babies, providing for nutrition and the under armor of immune protection in a bacterial world; it is equally the first course of microbiota that reside within the body as life-long companions – the colonial you. Pigeon milk is similarly comprised of 60 percent protein, 35 percent fat with the balance in carbohydrates, minerals, antibodies and microbes – everything needed to grow a hatchling to a squab. Its efficacy has been validated experimentally – chickens fed with pigeon milk for a week were 12.5 percent heavier with enhanced immune systems and gut microbe diversity. [8]

The pigeon as pest results from the pigeon as success. The squatty-body that waddles on two short legs across the ground belies the muscled streamlined missile of a rock pigeon in flight. The pigeon’s genteel good nature was only enhanced by their association with humans, who provided food and shelter; no clothing required. Pigeons pair off in twos for life according to a ritual of male strutting and pirouetting to win the favors of a female who follows her mate choice to a preselected site where the male gathers materials and the female builds the nest. After the cloacal kiss of avian insemination, two eggs are laid over a four day period to be incubated equally by the cock and hen, the former usually on duty from 1000 to 1600 hours. Both parents feed the naked and helpless – altricial – hatched squabs the milk generated in the crop from a mostly seed diet of up to 100 grams hydrated with 60 milliliters of water as daily input. Pigeons are unique among the birds in sucking through their nostrils to imbibe; all other birds take up water in their beaks and tilt the head back to swallow. Squabs will double their birth weight in two days and reach full size in eight weeks; they can be weaned and butchered at four weeks for those inclined to consume teenaged doves. The dove-cote pair will continue to lay two eggs at 5 week intervals to produce up to 20 squabs a year; commercial squab operations must provide a second nest as a second brood will be incubated while the first pair is still being nursed. [9] One would have to conclude that pigeons are highly adept at making pigeons.

Rock Pigeon, Passenger Smithsonian 200106
Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum

From their probable origin in south Eurasia, the rock pigeons spread over the earth in a diaspora of feathered flight, gradually evolving into different species as varied as the massive droves of passenger pigeons in North America and the dodos of Mauritius, case studies of extinction. The passenger pigeon was the most prolific bird on earth in the 19th century, numbering between 3 and 5 billion. As the word pigeon is of French origin, it is apropos that the name passenger, for ‘passing by’ is also French, likely assigned by the early French explorers in Canada; the birds could hardly be missed. John Jacob Audubon observed in the 19th century that the “… air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse” and that they were “…passing in undiminished numbers and continued to do so for three days in succession.” [10] It has long been a matter of folklore supposition that they were bludgeoned to death by rapacious hunters; the last survivor was Martha, who died in the Cincinnati zoo in 1914 and is on display at the Smithsonian Museum. Recent DNA analysis has revealed that this may not be the case; passenger pigeons lacked genetic diversity and were subject to atypical thousand-fold variations in population size. While human predation certainly played a role in their extirpation, climate and food fluctuations may have been the key factors. [11] [12] On the other hand, the columbine dodo migrated to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean to become large, plump and flightless; it was wiped several decades after the first visit to the island by Dutch sailors in the 17th century. [13] Not so the rock pigeon, whose role as companion only enhanced its standing as one of the world’s preeminent bird species, sometimes with troubling consequence.

Like cats, dogs, and rats, the pigeon’s intercontinental travels were as shipboard companions to the seafarers of the 17th century. They were introduced to North America multiple times starting with the French at Port Royal in 1606, probably on the ship Jonas under the command of Poutrincourt [14] and subsequently by the English at Jamestown in 1621 and at Boston in 1642. [15] There are now about 10 million rock pigeons in North America, which is roughly 10 percent of the global population. In spite of their ubiquity, their numbers are in decline, having fallen by almost half between 1966 and 2015. [16] While there is no reason to believe that the extinctive fate of the passenger pigeon is inevitable, the decline of bird populations in general is of concern; a recent study found that the bird population in North America had declined by 3 billion, 30 percent of the total, since 1970. [17] Pigeons in cities can be pestilential as buildings afford rock ledge homes and people provide provender; Saint Mark’s Square in Venice is one of their iconic epicenters. The roosting sites are subject to the bombardment of guano that is no longer collected as fertilizer. When a ceiling painting from one of the churches in Venice was removed in 1967, it had more than 1,000 pounds on the roof side. [18] That is the downside to pigeons. The upside is that they have saved lives and heralded the news of battles – because they always fly home.

The homing instincts of animals, notably those that fly or swim, has long been the matter of wonderment to humans who used stars, then compasses with maps, and now satellites to navigate from one point to another. Migratory birds stand out as imbued with supernatural perspicacity and enduring stamina to travel thousands of miles, frequently over open ocean at night and then back again on an annual basis with pinpoint accuracy. Many experiments have been conducted over the last century to gain some insight into the nature of their sensory dashboard; fitting opaque contact lenses on pigeons to render landmarks invisible and placing indigo buntings in a planetarium to alter observed star patterns artificially among many others. The results have been revealing but ambiguous; bird navigation involves some combination of the orientation of the sun, the arrangement of the stars, and variance of the magnetic field with both latitude and longitude. We still don’t really understand how they do it, but they surely do. The homing instinct of birds has been exploited since at least 218 BCE; Roman soldiers brought swallows from their headquarters to report on the progress of their field campaign activities with coded messages affixed to their legs before release. [19] The rock pigeon eventually became the winged Hermes of choice due to speed, reliability, and domestication.

Rock Pigeon Cher Ami Smithsonian 2020 (2)
Cher Ami at the Smithsonian American History Museum (note missing leg)

The etiology of pigeon homing for human communication is shrouded in the mists of unrecorded history but may well have begun with the Phoenicians of Mesopotamia as they began to explore the Mediterranean Sea; the tendency of the rock pigeon to fly toward its rock home would have provided a landfall vector for the wayward mariner. The domestication of the pigeon for food and fertilizer was certainly a contributing factor to messaging as a collateral duty; a bird in the hand is worth two on the lam. There is ample evidence that they were employed for regular reporting of the annual Nile flooding to the Pharaohs in ancient Egypt and by Genghis Khan to his satraps as he crossed the vast steppes of Eurasia. The rock pigeon was a propitious choice for a more practical reason; they are strong fliers and obsessive in destination. The stout breast muscles that provide the meat of the squab dinner are, if left on the wing, powerful engines of endurance; they can reach speeds of up to 110 mph sustained for several hours. [20] Even with the advent of the telegraph and radio to transmit messages instantaneously over long distance, the carrier pigeon remained crucial to critical battlefield directives, notably in World War I during which approximately 100,000 pigeons were used on both sides with an estimated success rate of 95 percent. Cher Ami (dear friend) was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for delivering a message that saved 200 soldiers after having been shot down by the Germans, losing a leg in the process. [21] Was this merely an act of instinctual behavior?

The epithet bird-brained is both hackneyed and wrong. Recent research has revealed that avian neural networks are quite similar to mammals and that smarter birds like corvids are “on par, both in magnitude and in breadth, with that of nonhuman primates.” Pigeons, while not quite as gifted, demonstrated the ability to make comparisons among 725 different memorized patterns in laboratory testing and to understand series of four letter words “using spelling strategies akin to those practiced by primary school students.” [22] The revelation that birds are dinosaur relicts has now come full circle; they are coevals of the more advanced mammals in talent and tenacity. The noted psychologist B. F. Skinner did much of his behavioral research on pigeons, a penchant that began early in his career when he launched “Project Pigeon” during World War II; the demonstration was to direct an experimental projectile called the pelican to home in on a selected target by pecking on a directional control lever – a pigeon-guided missile. In a summary of his work that spanned decades, Skinner suggested that pigeons could be cross-bred to enhance lever pecking performance, used for life-time memory studies, fed selectively for the study of diet deficiencies, and used for visual acuity assessments. His work, much of it based on testing with pigeons, was foundational to the study of behavior in psychology; he is considered one of the most preeminent psychologists of the 20th century.

Pigeons are the best of birds and the worst of birds. Pigeons are symbols of peace that serve as occasional war correspondents. Pigeons are bird-brained but very clever. Pigeons mate for life, building a home together to raise their young on milk provided by both parents even when the resultant squabs end up on the menu. Metaphorically a pigeon is a dupe, pigeon-hearted is timid, pigeon-toed is awkward, and pigeon-holed is forgotten. The domesticated dove once nurtured as companion has become the feral feathered fiend of the city. Streaks of pigeon poop festoon the monuments surrounded by man-made rock walls that are their homestead. The waddling flocks on sidewalks and plazas are sustained by the waste food stream that accumulates wherever humans gather. One can’t help but be impressed by the wary watchfulness of the urbane pigeon, dodging the occasional pedestrian fleeing only when necessary from the wayward toddler fascinated by their random walks. And all of that with a quiescent pigeon coo of acknowledgement; Darwin’s birds indeed.


1. McCaskie, G. “Pigeons and Doves” National Geographic Complete Birds of North America, Alderfer. J. ed., National Geographic, Washington, D. C. pp. 296-306.
2. Darwin, C. On the Origin of Species, The Easton Press, Norwalk, Connecticut, 1976 pp. 11-18 Originally published in London, England 24 November. 1859
3. Levi, W. The Pigeon, Wendell Levi Publishing Company, Sumter, South Carolina, 2013. p. 13
4. Jerolmack, C. “Animal archeology: Domestic pigeons and the nature-culture dialectic” Qualitative Sociology Review Volume III Issue I April 2007 CUNY available at:
5. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 11 available at
7. Ryrie. C. The Ryrie Study Bible, New International Version, Moody Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1986, p. 1405 (Luke 2:22-24)
8. Gould, S. “How to Milk a Pigeon” Scientific American 4 November 2012
9. The website of the Canadian Council of Animal Care (CCAC) has excellent information on raising pigeons for food as an alternative to chicken.
10. Audubon, J. J. Ornithological biography, or, an account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America. Volume 1. A. Black, Edinburgh, 1835. pp. 319–327
11. Williams, S, “Humans not solely to blame for passenger pigeon extinction” Science, 16 June 2014.
12. Murray, G. et al “Natural selection shaped the rise and fall of passenger pigeon genomic diversity” Science 17 November 2017: Volume 358, Issue 6365, pp. 951-954.
13. Graham, S. “DNA Divulges Dodo Ancestry” Scientific American 4 March 2002.
14. Landry, P. The Lion and the Lily – Book #1: Acadia. “Early Settlement & Baronial Battles: 1605-90.” available at
15. The web site of the Province of Quebec Society for the Protection of Birds.
17. Pennisi, E. “Three billion North American birds have vanished since 1970, surveys show” Science, 19 September 2019
18. “Venice,” Encyclopedia Britannica, Macropedia, University of Chicago, 1974 Vol. 19 p.74
19. Heinrich, B. The Homing Instinct, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, Boston, 2014 pp. 63-94.
20. Blechman, A. Pigeons, The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird, Grove Atlantic Press, New York, 2006, pp. 1-15.
22. Güntürkün, O. “The Surprising Power of the Avian Mind” Scientific American, Volume 322, Number 1 January 2020, pp. 48-55.
23. Skinner, B. F. “Some Thoughts on the Future” Journal f the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, Volume 45, Number 2, March 1986, pp. 229-235.