Species: Rock pigeon (also known as rock dove)
Scientific name: Columba livia
Claim to fame: Rock pigeons, which most people simply call pigeons, are well-known urban birds. Human opinions and tolerance levels of pigeons vary. Some people enjoy watching and feeding pigeons and listening to their cooing. Others view pigeons as nuisances whose droppings are unsightly and can sometimes pose health hazards. Many people don’t realize the rock pigeons they see on buildings and city parking lots are descendants of the famous “homing pigeons” used by humans for communication purposes from ancient times up through World War II. Rock pigeons are not native to North America; they were intentionally introduced to the continent by European settlers in the 1600s.
Species status: Rock pigeons are thriving in cities in Missouri and throughout North America.
First discovered: The first scientific description of the rock pigeon (which until recently was known as the rock dove) was by Johann Friedrich Gemelin in 1789, but it was known to humans long before this. Some theorize pigeons were the first birds to be domesticated by humans (around 4500 B.C.) Although it was probably first domesticated for food, humans noticed and began to utilize the bird’s amazing homing characteristics for communication purposes. For centuries, sending a message by pigeon was the fastest form of communication in the Old World.
Family matters: Rock pigeons belong to the bird family Columbidae. The rock pigeon’s original range was Europe, Asia and Africa. North America’s rock pigeons are “feral pigeons;” wild birds descended from domestic stock. Though the bulk of many of these feral birds’ genetic history can be traced to the rock pigeon, some are very likely mixes of several species.
Length: 13 to 14 inches
Diet: In the wild, rock pigeons would eat seeds and grains. However, due to their urban setting, the pigeons we see eat bread, popcorn, French fries and other types of discarded food.
Weight: between one and one-and-a-half pounds
Distinguishing characteristics: A rock pigeon has a dark bluish-gray head, neck and chest. This is accented by a glossy yellowish, greenish and reddish-purple iridescence along its neck and wings. Two dark bands on the wings are seen on most pigeons, and many have bluish-gray bands across their tails. Rock pigeons can fly up to 82 miles per hour. The bird’s most amazing trait is its “homing” characteristic; the ability to return to the site where it was born, raised or for some other reason, has determined that location to be home. How the bird does this is still not entirely understood. It’s theorized instinct, intelligence, good vision and good hearing all play a role. It’s also thought pigeons may use the geomagnetic field of the earth and sun to assist them.
Life span: three to four years in the wild, up to 30 in captivity
Habitat: In their native range of Europe, Africa and Asia; rock pigeons preferred cliffs and ledges of mountainous areas. However, in North America, they have completely adapted to buildings and other artificial structures. That’s because pigeons have become entirely dependent on humans and, as a result, few (if any) North American pigeons are found in truly wild settings.
Life cycle: Rock pigeons usually build flimsy nests of sticks and weed stems in sheltered places on artificial structures. Typically, two white eggs are laid and hatch in 17 to 19 days. Offspring are fed “pigeon milk,” a derivative of the mucous that lines the adults’ crops. Both the male and female feed the young this substance which is rich in fat and protein. The young become independent in 30 to 35 days.