Rats with wings, city chickens, and feathered rodents are just some of the things people call pigeons. But did you know that there is so much more to these birds than humanity’s deeply misguided hatred? Pigeons and doves, their more beloved cousins, are a part of the Columbidae family but for the average person, the differences between the two terms are relatively minor. The most common species thought of when one says pigeon, though, is the rock pigeon, as these birds can often be found in many different cities around the world.

The Different Types of Pigeons

As mentioned, the exact differences between what we colloquially call pigeons and doves are fairly unimportant for most people and can be geographically subjective. The most commonly thought of pigeon is the rock pigeon and these pigeons are a common sight in urban areas around the world. But for ornithologists, there are plenty of variations between the 300 species in the Columbidae family.

There are, for example, several absolutely gorgeous pigeon species that have beautiful or interesting plumage. One magnificent type is the Victoria Crowned Pigeon, aptly named for their beautiful crest of feathers. But their plume isn’t even the most interesting thing about them! Victoria Crowned Pigeons are the largest living pigeons and are the closest remaining relative to the now-extinct dodo. Another gorgeous species is the Nicobar Pigeon. Native to Indonesia, these pigeons have iridescent feathers that shine in a rainbow of green, yellow, copper, and blue.

Fun Facts About Pigeons

These birds are great navigators and have been known to find their way home from 500 miles away! It’s believed that pigeons are able to do so using several navigational instincts, like the position of the sun, the earth’s magnetic fields, and their sense of sound and smell. This ability to navigate helped pigeons carry messages in many situations, including during both World Wars. In fact, carrier pigeons helped save countless lives by delivering messages during World War II and 32 were awarded the Dickin Medal, an award given to animals who have heroically served with the Armed Forces or Civil Defense during a war.

Pigeons even helped Charles Darwin develop his theory of evolution. While the finches and tortoises of the Galapagos Islands are some of the most wildly known parts of Darwin’s work, wild and domestic pigeons also helped this famous scientist formulate his famous theory. Darwin was just one of many people who loved pigeons in Victorian England and he spent a significant amount of time learning and raising these birds.

Cities are perfect habitats for pigeons, as wild pigeons naturally roost on cliffs (particularly coastline cliffs). The ledges, windowsills, and rooftops found in cities are a great stand-in for said cliffs and give pigeons a great vantage point and safe spot to raise their young. Plus, these birds are also consummate scavengers that rely on a granivorous diet made up of seeds, grains, berries, and fruit. Some species have been known to eat different types of insects.

Why Do People Hate Pigeons?

Our relationship with pigeons goes back thousands of years, but only in the last few decades did a general hatred of the bird start to arise. The city pigeons (AKA rock pigeons) you can find in literally any major city are likely descendants of once domesticated birds, making them feral rather than genuinely wild. At one point in history, these birds were generally beloved (or at least tolerated) by most people. They were used as messengers, raised for meat, and their poop served as an excellent fertilizer. Eventually, their usefulness to us diminished and by the mid-20th century, people started to see them as a nuisance. 

Sociologist Colin Jerolmack argued that the things that make pigeons annoying (they poop on everything, carry diseases, are noisy, etc) don’t quite add up to the level of hatred they receive from society. Instead, as Jerolmack theorizes, the level of hatred comes from the fact that pigeons remind us that the environments we build aren’t that separate from nature. No matter how hard we try, our “imaginative geographies” of cities can be easily penetrated by the wilderness. Our attempts at control are failing and pigeons can be a constant reminder of that fact.

Can Pigeons Be Pets?

The short answer is yes! Some dove and pigeon species can make great pets but like any animal, they have their own requirements and care. For their diet, it can depend on what kind of bird you have; however, a diet primarily made up of commercial birdseed, other types of seeds, fruits, leafy greens, and berries is a good place to start. Pigeons are social animals and would prefer to have at least one other bird around. However, even with their own flock, these birds have been known to bond with their humans! 

Fresh water and daily cleaning of their cage are both important parts of pigeon care. Any sort of outdoor cage should be predator and pest-proof while also providing protection from the weather. If you live in a region with a more extreme climate, having your pet pigeons live indoors can provide a safer living situation. Free flying outside should be avoided if possible, as pet birds can be particularly susceptible to predators. 

There is so much more that goes into caring for these types of birds and doing a ton of research beforehand can help prepare you (or ultimately determine if a pet bird is even right for you!). If you are unable to care for your pigeon for any reason, please don’t “set them free”! Releasing any type of pet into the wild can have profoundly negative effects on the pets, the local ecosystem, and different types of wildlife. Instead, contact your local animal rescue/shelter to see if they’re able to help. At the very least, they might be able to point you in the right direction!

Do You Want To Learn More?

There are some truly wonderful books about pigeons! 

What do you think about pigeons? Are they pests or simply misunderstood?

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