Amazing Facts You Didn’t Know About Pigeons

How old are pigeons?
Pigeons have lived alongside man for thousands of years with the first images of pigeons being found by archaeologists in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and dating back to 3000 BC.  It was the Sumerians in Mesopotamia that first started to breed white doves from the wild pigeon that we see in our towns and cities today and this undoubtedly accounts for the amazing variety of colors that are found in the average flock of urban pigeons.  To ancient peoples a white pigeon would have seemed miraculous and this explains why the bird was widely worshipped and considered to be sacred.  Throughout human history the pigeon has adopted many roles ranging from symbols of gods and goddesses through to sacrificial victims, messengers, pets, food and even war heroes!

Biblical references
The first biblical reference to the pigeon (or dove) was in the Old Testament of the Bible in the first millennium AC and was the story of Noah and the dove of peace.  Later, in the New Testament, the pigeon was first mentioned during the baptism of Christ where the dove descended as the Holy Spirit, an image now used extensively in Christian art.  These early biblical references have paved the way for the many different ways that the urban pigeon is viewed in modern societies worldwide.  Perception of the pigeon through the centuries has changed from God to the devil and from hero to zero!

Pigeon poop – foul or fantastic?
Although pigeon poo is seen as a major problem for property owners in the 21st Century, it was considered to be an invaluable resource in the 16th, 17th and 18th century in Europe.  Pigeon poop was a highly prized fertiliser and considered to be far more potent than farmyard manure.  So prized in fact that armed guards were stationed at the entrances to dovecotes (pigeon houses) to stop thieves stealing it!  Not only this, but in England in the 16th century pigeon poop was the only known source of saltpetre, an essential ingredient of gunpowder and was considered a highly valued commodity as a result.  In Iran, where eating pigeon flesh was forbidden, dovecotes were set up and used simply as a source of fertilizer for melon crops and in France and Italy it was used to fertilize vineyards and hemp crops.

The pigeon as a war hero
In modern times the feral pigeon has been used to great effect during wartime.  In both the first and second World Wars the pigeon saved hundreds of thousands of human lives by carrying messages across enemy lines. Pigeons were carried on ships in convoys and in the event of a U-boat attack a messenger pigeon was released with details of the location of the sinking ship. In many cases this lead to the survivors being rescued and lives saved.  Mobile pigeon lofts were set up behind the trenches in the First World War from which pigeons often had to fly through enemy fire and poison gas to get their messages home. The birds played a vital role in intelligence gathering and were used extensively behind enemy lines where the survival rate was only 10%.  In the Second World War pigeons were used less due to advances in telecommunications, but the birds relayed invaluable information back to the allies about the German V1 and V2 Rocket sites on the other side of the Channel.

The pigeon as a messenger
The earliest large scale communication network using pigeons as messengers was established in Syria and Persia about 5th Century BC.  Much later in the 12th Century AD the city of Baghdad and all the main towns and cities in Syria and Egypt were linked by messages carried by pigeons.  This was the sole source of communication.  In Roman times the pigeon was used to carry results of sporting events such as the Olympic Games and this is why white doves are released at the start of the Olympic Games today.  In England, prior to the days of telegraphs, pigeons were often taken to soccer matches and released to carry home the result of the game.  Their use as a messenger in war time resulted in many pigeons being awarded honors by both the British and French Governments.  Incredibly, the last ‘pigeon post’ service was abandoned in India in 2004 with the birds being retired to live out the rest of their days in peace.

The religious significance of the pigeon
Many religious groups including Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs feed pigeons for religious reasons.  Many older Sikhs feed pigeons ceremoniously to honour the high priest and warrior Guru Govind Singh who was a known friend of the pigeon (or rock dove).  Some Sikhs also feed pigeons because they believe that when they are reincarnated they will never go hungry if they have fed pigeons in their previous life.  Other religious groups in India believe that when a person dies his or her soul assumes the form of a bird (normally a pigeon) and therefore by feeding birds they are caring for the souls of their departed ancestors.  The pigeon is revered in India with huge flocks numbering many thousands of birds being fed daily at Hindu temples in town and city centres throughout the country.  In both eastern and western societies many of the most entrenched pigeon-related problems in urban areas are considered to be caused, certainly in part, by religious feeding of the birds.  In the Christian religion the pigeon is both a symbol of peace and of the Holy Spirit.

Famous pigeons
During the First World War a pigeon named Cher Ami (Dear friend) saved the lives of many French soldiers by carrying a message across enemy lines in the heat of battle.  Cher Ami was shot in the chest and the leg, loosing most of the leg to which the message was attached, but continued the 25 minute flight avoiding shrapnel and poison gas to get the message home.  Cher Ami was awarded the French ‘Croix de Guerre’ for heroic service.  Another heroic pigeon named G.I. Joe saved the lives of a thousand soldiers in World War 2 after British troops had established a position within an Italian town that was due to be bombed by allied planes. Communication equipment was down and the only means of stopping the raid was to attach a hastily written message to G.I. Joe and send him to the HQ.  G.I. Joe flew 20 miles in 20 minutes arriving at the air base whilst the planes were taxiing on the runway.  Disaster was averted with 5 minutes to spare.  G.I. Joe received the ‘Dickin’ medal for his bravery.

‘Rock Dove’ or ‘pigeon’?
The feral pigeon that we see in our towns and cities today is descended from the Rock Dove (Columba livia), a cliff dwelling bird historically found in coastal regions.  The word ‘pigeon’ is actually derived from the Latin word ‘pipio’ which meant ‘young bird’.  The word then passed into Old French as ‘pijon’ and thus the English name ‘pigeon’ was derived and is now used the world over as a common name for the Rock Dove.  Other common names include ‘domestic pigeon’ and the ‘feral pigeon’.  In 2004 British and American Ornithologists officially re-named the bird the Rock Pigeon.

Why do pigeons bob their heads?
The pigeon has side mounted eyes unlike humans and owls which have forward facing eyes.  As a pigeons have monocular vision rather than binocular vision they bob their heads for depth of perception.  The pigeon’s eyes work much better with stationary images and therefore, as the pigeon takes a step forward the head is temporarily left behind.  The next step jerks the head forward again and so on.  This allows the bird to correctly orient itself.

Pigeon-gram Air Mail service
The first organised pigeon air-mail service was started in 1896 between New Zealand and the Great Barrier Reef.  The sinking of the SS Wairarapa off the Great Barrier Reef, with the loss of 134 lives, was a catalyst for the service.  News of the disaster did not reach New Zealand for 3-days and as a direct result a pigeon-gram service was set up between the two islands.  The first message was carried in January 1896 and took less than 1.75 hours to reach Aukland.  Up to 5 messages were carried by each pigeon with the record time for the journey being held by a pigeon called ‘Velocity’ taking only 50 minutes and averaging 125 kmph (only 40% slower than a modern aircraft!).  Special pigeon-gram stamps were issued costing 2/- each (20 cents) with the fee being paid in cash before the pigeon was released.

Pigeons in Wall Street
One of the richest and most famous families in the world amassed its wealth, certainly in part, as a result of exploiting the pigeon.  In the early 1800’s the Rothschild family set up a network of pigeon lofts throughout Europe and used homing pigeons to carry information between its financial houses.  This method proved to be quicker and more efficient than any other means of communication available at the time.  The speed of the service combined with the ability to send and receive information ahead of the competition helped the Rothschild family amass a fortune which still exists today.

Mating habits of the pigeon
The feral pigeon mates for life and can breed up to 8 times a year in optimum conditions, bringing two young into the world each time.  The frequency of breeding is dictated by the abundance of food.  The eggs take 18/19 days to hatch with both parents incubating the eggs.  Young dependant pigeons are commonly known as ‘squabs’.  Both parents feed the young with a special ‘pigeon milk’ that is regurgitated and fed to the squabs.  Each squab can double its birth weight in one day but it takes 4 days for the eyes to open. When squabs are hungry they ‘squeak’ whilst flapping their wings and as a result they are also commonly known as ‘squeakers’.  At approximately 2 months of age the young are ready to fledge and leave the nest.  This much longer than average time spent in the nest ensures that life expectancy of a juvenile pigeon is far greater than that of other fledglings.

Pigeons are big business
We normally think of the pigeon as being an unwelcome guest in our towns and cities but most of us are unaware that racing pigeons can be worth huge sums of money.  One racing pigeon recently sold for a staggering $132,517.00!  The 3-year old bird was a champion racer beating 21,000 other pigeons in one long distance race.  For this reason he was bought by one British company that breeds racing pigeons for ‘stud’.  One very happy pigeon!  The previous record price for a pigeon was $73, 800.00.

How do pigeons navigate?
There are many theories about how pigeons manage to return ‘home’ when released 100’s of miles from their loft.  A champion racing pigeon can be released 400-600 miles away from its home and still return within the day. This amazing feat does not just apply to ‘racing’ or ‘homing’ pigeons, all pigeons have the ability to return to their roost.  A 10-year study carried out by Oxford University concluded that pigeons use roads and freeways to navigate, in some cases even changing direction at freeway junctions.  Other theories include navigation by use of the earth’s magnetic field, visual clues such as landmarks, the sun and even infrasounds (low frequency seismic waves).  Whatever the truth, this unique ability makes the  pigeon a very special bird.

Famous people and pigeons
The humble pigeon has attracted some very famous fans over the last few thousand years ranging from Royalty to rock and roll singers and actors through to fashion designers.  One of the most famous royals is Queen Elizabeth of England who has lofts and pigeon keepers at her estate in Sandringham, Norfolk.  Elvis Presley had a soft spot for pigeons and Mike Tyson is also an enthusiastic pigeon keeper.  Even Maurizzo Gucci the internationally renowned fashion designer is a keen pigeon fancier spending a reputed $10,000 on one American pigeon.  ‘One famous couple, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, are keen pigeon fanciers but after being swamped by autograph hunters at a pigeon show they are apparently less comfortable to show their affection for the birds publicly.’  Last but not least, and probably the most famous of all… Noah!

Pigeon disasters
Probably the greatest disaster to befall the species was the extermination of the passenger pigeon in North America in the early part of the 20th century. It is estimated that there were 3-5 billion passenger pigeons in North America at the time.  Flocks of 100,000’s of the birds would blacken the skies as they flew over but early settlers managed to wipe out every last bird by 1914 through over-hunting.  A more recent, and quite bizarre disaster, befell tens of thousands of racing pigeons released from Nantes in France as part of a race held to celebrate the centenary of the Royal Racing Pigeon Association in England.  60,000 pigeons were released but only a few birds ever arrived back at their lofts throughout southern England.  One theory suggests that the sonic boom created by Concorde as it flew over the English Channel, at the precise time the pigeons would have been at the same point, completely disorientated the birds, compromising their inbuilt navigation system.

Pigeons as lifesavers
Although pigeons are one of the most intelligent of all the bird species man has found limited uses for the birds other than for the purposes of sport, food and as a message carrier.  A team of navy researchers, however, has found that pigeons can be trained to save human lives at sea with high success rates.  Project Sea Hunt has trained a number of pigeons to identify red or yellow life jackets when floating in the water.  The pigeons were not only found to be more reliable than humans but they were also many times quicker than humans when it came to spotting survivors from a capsized or sinking boat.  The pigeon can see color in the same way that humans do but they can also see ultra-violet, a part of the spectrum that humans cannot see, and this is one of the reasons they are so well adapted to lifesaving.

Pigeons in the news
One of the world’s most famous news agencies, Reuters, started its European business by using trained homing pigeons.  The service was started in 1850 with 45 pigeons carrying the latest news and stock prices from Aachen in Germany to Brussels in Belgium.  Although a telegraph service between the two countries existed, numerous gaps in the transmission lines made communication difficult and slow. The birds travelled the 76 miles in a record-breaking two hours beating the railway by four hours.

Why do you never see a baby pigeon?

Most small birds rear and fledge their young in 2/3 weeks with young birds sometimes leaving the nest after only 10 days of life, but pigeons are different, their young remain in the nest for up to 2 months before fledging.  This gives the young pigeon an advantage over many other species of bird. It leaves the nest as a relatively mature juvenile, allowing the bird to cope better in the first few days of its life, a dangerous time for all youngsters.  Juveniles can be told apart from adults but it takes an experienced eye. A juvenile’s beak often appears to be far too long for the size of its body and the cere (the fleshy area at the top of the beak) is white in adults and greyish pink in juveniles.

What is the natural predator of the pigeon?

Although the natural enemy of the feral pigeon is now man, with millions of pigeons being killed in control operations the world over, it is the peregrine falcon that is the pigeons’ real natural predator.  Although a shy and retiring bird that has its natural habitat along rocky coastlines, the peregrine is now being introduced into towns and cities as a ‘natural’ pigeon control.  The peregrine is the fastest bird on the planet when in a dive and can achieve speeds in excess of 200 mph, over 130 mph faster than a pigeon.

Are pigeons intelligent?
Pigeons are considered to be one of the most intelligent birds on the planet with pigeons being able to undertake tasks previously thought to be the sole preserve of humans and primates.  The pigeon has also been found to pass the ‘mirror test’ (being able to recognise its reflection in a mirror) and is one of only 6 species, and the only non-mammal, that has this ability.  The pigeon can also recognise all 26 letters of the English language as well as being able to conceptualise. In scientific tests pigeons have been found to be able to differentiate between photographs and even differentiate between two different human beings in a photograph when rewarded with food for doing so.

Varieties of Pigeons

There are over 200 varieties of pigeons, these come in all sizes, colors and shapes. The ones listed below will be of help to you in your selection of variety or breed.

Antwerp- This bird came from Antwerp in Belgium in the mid 1860’s. These are short, medium or long faced depending on the length of the head from the center of the eye to the top of the upper part of the beak. The face should measure 1 3/8 inches. This is a shapely, broad breasted, deep chested and a large pigeon with a long straight back and broad shoulders having tail feathers that won’t touch the ground. The flight feather should be folded and short to rest on the tail. These come in many colors with red eyes, a black short beak and legs of medium length with crimson feet.

Archangel- Some think this pigeon was originally from Russia others say from Asia. This is a little pigeon, is very alert and small, comes in lots of color varieties. You can breed both the crested and uncreasted varieties. This pigeon will stand erect with its very slender neck and body with beautiful plumage.

Barb- This is a very old breed of domestic pigeons. It was originated from Europe, England and North Africa. This is a medium sized pigeon with short, thick curved beak, long body and a short neck. The knobby flesh around the eyes called the cere is coral red and the eyes are white with black pupils. The colors are white, yellow, dun, black and red.

Carneau- This is a utility pigeon from Belgium and also France. It is also a show bird with a short, compact, heavy-set broad-breast. It has large eyes with a smooth, flesh-colored or well cere and a beak of medium length and stout with a V-shaped wattle. The colors are yellow, red, white, black and dun color and the plumage is close fitting.

Carrier- Originated in Persia, was thought of for years as the “King of Pigeons”. It was bred to carry messages and was raised because of the homing ability but now is just a fancy variety. It has a large body, enormous wattles around the beak and has close fitting plumage and is also tall. The colors are red, yellow, white, dun, blue and black.

Cumulet- This pigeon is originated from France. It is the ancestor of the Racing Homer, is a medium sized pigeon, has a full chest and a well-proportioned body with long wings and short legs. The color is usually only white but some have red flecks on the neck and head.

Dragoon- Originated from English. This is a cross between the Horseman and Tumbler and has a wedge-shaped head, with a short blunt beak and peg-shaped wattle. The colors are a dark reddish-purple in blues, checkers, grizzles, and silvers. This pigeon is poised, has a wedge-shaped boy, short legs and a thick short neck, is actually very heavy weight up to 20 ounces.

Fantail- Originated in India, is known as the broad-tailed shaker. It has a small head, slender neck, fan-shaped tail with a small body and a chest carried upright higher that it’s head which rests on the cushion formed by the tail feathers. The most popular color is white, but other colors are yellow, red, blue, black, silver, dun, checker and saddle. This is one of the most beautiful of all pigeons.

Florentine- Originated in Italy, is called a hen pigeon as the shape is similar to a hen. This is a large pigeon and very striking with a colored head, colored wing coverst and tail and white wings. The colors also include red, yellow, blue, black and black bars.

Homer- There are several varieties of homer pigeons:

Exhibition Homer- Originated in England. It is lighter in weight than the Show Homer, has a straight stout beak.

Genuine Homer- Originated in England and is the exhibition counterpart of the Racing Homer.

German Beauty Homer- Originated from Germany, is an exhibition pigeon much like the Racing Homer but thinner.

Giant Homer- Originated in the United States, for its size and squab-producing ability. It is a good utility pigeon, comes in many colors with blue checks and silver being the most popular.

Racing Homer- Originated from Belgium and England, is bred from the best of flyers from other breeds. These pigeons will vary in appearance and are not always the most beautiful.

Show Homer- Originated in England, is a large pigeon with a head which forms a long unbroken, well-arched curve from the tip of the beak to the back of the head. It is bred in many colors.

Hungarian- Originated from Austria, is a cross between the Florentine, the Swallow and another pigeon. It is a large, handsome hen-type pigeon. These are bred in many colors.

Ice Pigeon- Originated in Germany, has light blue ice-like colors. There are two types and they are called clean-legged and muffed. All have about the same color but some have black or white bars, others are barless.

Jacobin- Originated in Cyprus, has a hood of feathers that resembles hoods worn by the Jacobin order of monks. The colors are yellow, white, black, blue, silver, and red. This is a good feeder and breeder.

King- The colors of this pigeon are red, yellow, dun, white, blue and silver. Originated in the United States and is a cross of the Swiss Mondaine, Dragoon, Duchess and Florentine. It is a medium sized pigeon weighing up to 35 ounces. The cere and legs are bright red, with a chunky build, and a large well-rounded head.

Lahore- Named for the Pakistani city Lahore. It is grouse-legged, has feathers on its legs and feet, is fairly large and is used as a utility breed.

Lark- Originated in Germany, is a large pigeon, broad breasted and long bodied and has two varieties, the Coburg Lark and the Buremberg Lark.

Magpie- Originated in Germany, is a small, graceful, streamlined pigeon with a shallow body, snake neck, small head and has a white body, wings, shoulders, legs, colored head, neck, chest, back tail and rump. Magpies come in colors of blue, silver, black, dun, cream, yellow and red.

Maltese- Originated in Germany and Austria, is a large bird, is now bred as a show bird. It has a hen-shaped body, long neck, long, straight legs, with straight tail feathers. The colors are black, silver, blue, red, white, dun and yellow.

Modena- Originated in Italy, comes in two basic coor patterns in about 150 different colors. The pigeon is about ten inches in length, has a heavy-set or cobby but graceful appearance, and is a good breeder.

Mondaine- Originated from France, is an excellent utility pigeon with a broad back and a long breast. These make good show birds. They are very long birds.

Nun- Originated from Germany, has a shell crest and the markings make it attractive and easy to distinguish from other pigeons. It is a very friendly and easily tamed pigeon and can be allowed to come and go as it pleases.

Oriental Frill- Originated in Turkey and is considered to be a beautiful pigeon, comes in lots of colors, has a frill of feathers on the breast. It has a short beak and peaked crests that rise to the highest point of the head. There are varieties of this pigeon and include: Satinettes, Blondinettes, Turbiteens, and Oriental Turbits.

Owl- Originated in Asia, have clean legs, plain heads, and frills of feathers on the breast. The colors are blue, black, silver, white, yellow and red.

Pouter and Cropper- These make up a very large family, and include: English Pouter, Pigmy Pouter, Dutch Cropper, Old German Cropper, Brunner Pouter, and Holle Cropper. These are very distinctive birds, easily tamed, and the most amusing of all pigeons.

Runt- The largest of all domestic pigeons, can weight up to 2 1/2 pounds, is an excellent utility pigeon, is the oldest of all domestic pigeons. The colors are blue, silver, red, yellow and black.

Scandaroon- Originated in Bagdad, resembles the Carrier in bearing, shape and size, has a long more curved beak more so than any other member of the pigeon family. The colors are blue, white, black, red and yellow with markings similar to the magpie.

Strasser- Originated in Austria as a utility pigeon, is very popular as a fancy breed. It has a colored head, neck, wings, and tail with colored feathers on the back. The rest of the colored feathers on the back. The rest of the body is white. The colors include, black lace, lark colors, blue, blue barred, black or white barred, blue checkered, red or yellow.

Swallow- Originated from Germany, is like a field pigeon with a shell crest and colored head or cap. The colors are black, blue, silver, red and yellow.

Tumbler- Originated in Europe, the varieties include: English Short-Faced Tumbler, Long-Faced Tumblers, Birmingham Roller, Flying Tippler, Parlow Tumbler and German Tumbler. This pigeon was bred for its flying ability and performance.

Turbit- Originated perhaps in England, France or Germany, is one of the more beautiful pigeons, is hardy and is cared for easily. The body is white, with wing feathers in colors of black, red, blue, dun or yellow.

About Pigeons

Pigeons are medium sized birds, with strong bodies and slender beaks and belong to the Columbidae family. They are found almost all over the world and have over 300 species. A young dove or pigeon is known as ‘squab’. Pigeons are known to be very intelligent birds and have a history of being domesticated and trained for taking messages across long distances, till telegraph was invented. The pigeon is known to build a flimsy nest of sticks and twigs and usually lays 2 eggs. These are incubated by both male and female in turns and young chicks are cared for till the time they are ready to fly. Check out some interesting facts and amazing information about pigeons.
Facts About Pigeons
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Columbiformes
Family: Columbidae
Species: 300
Diet: Seeds, Fruits, Insects, etc.
Natural Habitat: All around the earth, except the driest and coldest regions
Number of Offspring: 2 eggs
Age: 10 – 15 years
Age of Sexual Maturity: As early as 6 months of age
Interesting & Amazing Information about Pigeons
  • All domestic pigeons have one common ancestor, which is the Rock Dove Pigeon.
  • Pigeons are known to survive for almost 10-15 years in their natural habitats. The longest recorded life-span of a pigeon was around 33 years!
  • Pigeons and doves are known to produce crop milk, which they use to feed their young ones. It contains a highly nutritious amount of protein and fat and is produced by both male and female.
  • The famous dove of the Noah’s ark was actually a homing pigeon. It has been long since regarded as a symbol of life and is considered to be a religious symbol.
  • Pigeons have been domesticated since times immemorial and have used to transport small messages across long distances. In fact, famous leaders of the past like Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, etc. have used pigeons to get important messages across long distances.
  • Pigeons are also bred for racing and can clock upto speeds ranging between 60 – 80 miles per hour. They can fly upto 80 to 600 miles in one single day.
  • A research recently established that trained pigeons were more than twice as reliable as humans and much swift in spotting red and yellow jackets floating on water and thus could be efficient life-savers.