Domestic pigeon

Domestic pigeon

Domestic rock pigeon
Red Sheffield domestic homing pigeon
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Columbiformes
Family: Columbidae
Genus: Columba
Species: C. livia
Subspecies: C. l. domestica
Trinomial name
Columba livia domestica
Gmelin, 1789[1]
Columba domestica Columba livia rustica

The domestic pigeon (Columba livia domestica) is a pigeon that was derived from the rock pigeon. The rock pigeon is the world's oldest domesticated bird. Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets mention the domestication of pigeons more than 5,000 years ago, as do Egyptian hieroglyphics.[2] Research suggests that domestication of pigeons occurred as early as 10,000 years ago.[2] People who keep domestic pigeons are generally called pigeon fanciers.[3] Domestic pigeons can often be distinguished from feral pigeons because they usually have a metal or plastic band around one (sometimes both) legs which shows, by a number on it, that they are registered to an owner.[4]

Pigeons have made contributions of considerable importance to humanity, especially in times of war.[3] In war the homing ability of pigeons has been put to use by making them messengers. So-called war pigeons have carried many vital messages and some have been decorated for their services. Medals such as the Croix de guerre, awarded to Cher Ami, and the Dickin Medal awarded to the pigeons G.I. Joe and Paddy, amongst 32 others, have been awarded to pigeons for their services in saving human lives. Some people living in Urban areas consider pigeons to be pests. Domestic pigeons are sometimes called "thoroughbreds of the air," while feral pigeons are sometimes called "rats with wings."[5] A group of pigeons flying together is called a "kit".[6]


  • Reproduction 1
  • Homing pigeons 2
  • Other purposes of pigeon breeding 3
    • For food 3.1
    • Exhibition breeds 3.2
    • Flying/Sporting 3.3
  • Experimentation 4
    • Cognitive science 4.1
  • Illegal predator killing by enthusiasts 5
  • Pigeon related illness 6
  • Feral pigeons 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10


Domestic pigeons reproduce in a similar way to the wild rock pigeon. Generally humans will select breeding partners. Crop milk produced by parent birds may occasionally be replaced with artificial substitutes. Baby pigeons are called squeakers or squabs.[7]

Homing pigeons

Dovecote at Nymans Gardens, West Sussex, England
Group of pigeons

Trained domestic pigeons are able to return to the home loft if released at a location that they have never visited before and that may be up to 1000 km away. A special breed, called homing pigeons has been developed through selective breeding to carry messages and members of this variety of pigeon are still being used in the sport of pigeon racing and the white release dove ceremony at weddings and funerals.

The ability a pigeon has to return home from a strange location necessitates two sorts of information. The first, called "map sense" is their geographic location. The second, "compass sense" is the bearing they need to fly from their new location in order to reach their home. Both of these senses, however, respond to a number of different cues in different situations. The most popular conception of how pigeons are able to do this is that they are able to sense the Earth's magnetic field[8][9][10] with tiny magnetic tissues in their head (magnetoception). This is all the more surprising as they are not a migratory species, which is a fact used by some ornithologists to dispute this theory. Another theory is that pigeons have compass sense, which uses the position of the sun, along with an internal clock, to work out direction. However, studies have shown that if magnetic disruption or clock changes disrupt these senses, the pigeon can still manage to get home. The variability in the effects of manipulations to these sense of the pigeons indicates that there is more than one cue on which navigation is based and that map sense appears to rely on a comparison of available cues[11]

Other potential cues used include:

  • The use of a sun compass[12]
  • Nocturnal navigate by stars[13]
  • Visual landmark map[14][15]
  • Navigation by infrasound map[16]
  • Polarised light compass[17]
  • Olfactory stimuli[18]
see: Olfactory navigation

Other purposes of pigeon breeding

For food

Pigeons are also bred for meat, generally called squab and harvested from young birds. Pigeons grow to a very large size in the nest before they are fledged and able to fly, and in this stage of their development (when they are called squabs) they are prized as food. For commercial meat production a breed of large white pigeon, named "King pigeon," has been developed by selective breeding. Breeds of pigeons developed for their meat are collectively known as utility pigeons.

Exhibition breeds

Pigeon fanciers developed many exotic forms of pigeon. These are generally classed as fancy pigeons. The Fanciers compete against each other at exhibitions or shows and the different forms or breeds are judged to a standard to decide who has the best bird. Among those breeds are the English carrier pigeons, a variety of pigeon with wattles and a unique, almost vertical, stance (pictures). There are many ornamental breeds of pigeons, including the "Duchess" breed, which has as a prominent characteristic feet that are completely covered by a sort of fan of feathers. The fantail pigeons are also very ornamental with their fan-shaped tail feathers.


Domestic pigeons in flight

Pigeons are also kept by enthusiasts for the enjoyment of Flying/Sporting competitions. Breeds such as tipplers are flown in endurance contests by their owners.


Domestic pigeons are also commonly used in laboratory experiments in biology, medicine and cognitive science.

Cognitive science

Pigeons have been trained to distinguish between cubist and impressionist paintings, for instance. In Project Sea Hunt, a US coast guard search and rescue project in the 1970s/1980s, pigeons were shown to be more effective than humans in spotting shipwreck victims at sea.[19] Research in pigeons is widespread, encompassing shape and texture perception, exemplar and prototype memory, category-based and associative concepts, and many more unlisted here (see pigeon intelligence and discrimination abilities of pigeons).

Illegal predator killing by enthusiasts

In the Oregon and Washington, and that 1,000–2,000 are killed in southern California annually. In June 2007, three Oregon men were indicted with misdemeanour violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for killing birds of prey. Seven Californians and a Texan were also charged in the case.

In the West Midlands region of the United Kingdom pigeon fanciers have been blamed for a trap campaign to kill peregrine falcons. Eight illegal spring-loaded traps were found close to peregrine nests and at least one of the protected birds died. The steel traps are thought to have been set as part of a “concerted campaign” to kill as many of the birds as possible in the West Midlands.[21]

Pigeon related illness

Columba livia domestica

Pigeon breeders sometimes suffer from an ailment known as bird fancier's lung or pigeon lung. A form of hypersensitivity pneumonitis, pigeon lung is caused by the inhalation of the avian proteins found in feathers and dung. It can sometimes be combated by wearing a filtered mask.[22] Other pigeon related pathogens causing lung disease are psittacosis, histoplasmosis and cryptococcus neoformans.

Feral pigeons

Feral rock pigeons commonly show a very wide range of plumage variation

Many domestic birds have escaped or been released over the years, and have given rise to the feral pigeon. These show a variety of plumages, although some look very like the pure rock pigeons. The scarcity of the pure wild species is partly due to interbreeding with feral birds.

See also


  1. ^ "Columba livia Gmelin, 1789" (Web data). ITIS Report. Retrieved 2008-02-26. 
  2. ^ a b Blechman, Andrew (2007). Pigeons-The fascinating saga of the world's most revered and reviled bird. St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press.  
  3. ^ a b Levi, Wendell (1977). The Pigeon. Sumter, S.C.: Levi Publishing Co, Inc.  
  4. ^ Porter, Cynthya. "Goodview man finds racing pigeon". Winona Post. Retrieved 2008-07-15. 
  5. ^ Allmendinger, Lisa. "Pigeons gain in popularity as pets". The Ann Arbor News. Retrieved 2008-06-21. 
  6. ^ List of collective nouns#P
  7. ^ Gorman, Kate. "Bird lady of Haslet helps to elevate occasions". Star Telegram (Jun 15, 2008). Retrieved 2008-06-25. 
  8. ^ Von Middendorff, A. (1859). "Die Isepiptesen Rußlands". Mem. Acad. Sci. St Petersbourg VI, Ser. Tome 8: 1–143. 
  9. ^ VIGUIER, C. (1882). "Le sens de l’orientation et ses organes chez les animaux et chez l’homme". Rev. phil. France Etranger 14: 1–36. 
  10. ^ Wiltschko, W. and Wiltschko, R. (1996). Magnetic Orientation in Birds. J.Exp.Biology, 199, 29-38.
  11. ^ Wiltschko, W. and Wiltschko, R. (2003) Avian navigation: from historical to modern concepts. ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR. 65, 257–272.
  12. ^ Wallraff, HG et al. (1999). The roles of the sun and the landscape in pigeon homing. Journal of Experimental Biology, Vol 202, Issue 16 2121-2126.
  13. ^ Kramer, G. (1952). Experiments in bird orientation. Ibis, 94: 265–285.
  14. ^ Baker, R. R. (1984). Bird Navigation: The Solution of a Mystery?London: Hodder & Stoughton.
  15. ^ Kamil, A. C. & Cheng, K. (2001). Way-finding and landmarks: the multiple-bearing hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Biology, 204, 103–113.
  16. ^ Hagstrum, J. T. (2001). Infrasound and the avian navigational map. In: Orientation and Navigation: Birds, Humans and other Animals. Paper 43. Oxford: Royal Institute of Navigation.
  17. ^ Able, K. P. & Able, M. A. (1993). Daytime calibration of magnetic orientation in a migratory bird requires a view of skylight polarization. Nature, 364, 523–525.
  18. ^ Papi, F. (1986). Pigeon navigation: solved problems and open questions. Monitore Zoologico Italiano, 20, 471–517.
  19. ^ "Pigeon Search and Rescue Project (PROJECT SEA HUNT)". United States Coast Guard. 28 May 2009. Retrieved 12 January 2010. 
  20. ^ Milstein, Michael (2007-06-09). "Fight pits pigeon, hawk lovers". The Oregonian. Retrieved 2007-06-11. 
  21. ^ Smith, Lewis (2008-05-30). "Pigeon fanciers blamed for trap campaign to kill peregrine falcons" (Online news). London: Times Online. Retrieved 2008-06-20. 
  22. ^ Boyd, Gavin; Din Ismail; Philip Lynch; Charles McSharry. "Process Of Pigeon Fancier's Allergic Alveolitis.Current research activity into Pigeon Lung in Scotland: Epidemiological Studies." (Web article). British Pigeon Fanciers Medical Research. Retrieved 2008-01-22. 

External links

  • National Pigeon Association (USA)
  • National Pigeon Association (Great Britain)
  • The Canadian Pigeon Fanciers Association
  • Australian National Pigeon Association
  • Nepal Pigeon Keeper's Association
  • Wysinfo A web documentary on pigeons and doves