Amazing Facts about Pigeons
Pigeons are incredibly complex and intelligent animals. They are one of only a small number of species to pass the ‘mirror test’ – a test of self recognition. Here are some amazing facts about pigeons!
Columba livia (‘dove’ or ‘bird of leaden or blue-grey colour’)
350 recorded varieties.
Feral Pigeon – 10-15 million in Europe.
Europe, North Africa and Asia.
The wild pigeon is found in coastal areas and the feral pigeon is found almost exclusively in areas of human habitation. Worldwide except Sahara Desert, Antarctica and the high Arctic. European population estimated at between 17 and 28 million birds.
Amazing Facts About the Pigeon
- Pigeons are incredibly complex and intelligent animals. They are one of only a small number of species to pass the ‘mirror test’ – a test of self recognition. They can also recognise each letter of the human alphabet, differentiate between photographs, and even distinguish different humans within a photograph.
- Pigeons are renowned for their outstanding navigational abilities. They use a range of skills, such as using the sun as a guide and an internal ‘magnetic compass’. A study at Oxford University found that they will also use landmarks as signposts and will travel along man-made roads and motorways, even changing direction at junctions.
- Pigeons are highly sociable animals. They will often be seen in flocks of 20-30 birds.
- Pigeons mate for life, and tend to raise two chicks at the same time.
- Both female and male pigeons share responsibility of caring for and raising young. Both sexes take turn incubating the eggs and both feed the chicks ‘pigeon milk’ – a special secretion from the lining of the crop which both sexes produce.
- Pigeons have excellent hearing abilities. They can detect sounds at far lower frequencies than humans are able to, and can thus hear distant storms and volcanoes.
- Despite the social perception as dirty and disease-ridden, pigeons are actually very clean animals and there is very little evidence to suggest that they are significant transmitters of disease.
- Pigeons and humans have lived in close proximity for thousands of years. The first recordings of this date back to Mesopotamis, modern Iraq, in 3000bc.
- Although pigeon droppings are seen by some as a problem in modern society, a few centuries ago pigeon guano was seen as extremely valuable. It was viewed as the best available fertiliser and armed guards would even stand by dovecotes (pigeon houses) to stop others taking the droppings.
- Pigeons can fly at altitudes up to and beyond 6000 feet, and at an average speed of 77.6 mph. The fastest recorded speed is 92.5 mph.
- Pigeons are fed by many members of different religions including Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs for spiritual reasons. Some older Sikhs will ceremoniously feed them in honour of Guru Gobind Singh, a high priest who was renowned as a friend to pigeons.
- 32-37 cm long
- 64-72 cm wingspan
- Dark bluish-grey head, neck and chest with glossy greenish and reddish-purple iridescence around the neck and wing feathers
- Orange or red iris with pale inner ring (adult) or brown or greyish brown (juveniles)
- Black bill with off-white cere
- Red feet and legs
- Distinctive twin black wing bars
- White lower back feathers
- Breeds all year round with peak breeding periods in spring and summer
- All columbiformes are monogamous (mate for life)
- Wild birds breed on coastal cliffs and some inland cliffs
- Feral birds breed on or in buildings, usually in urban areas
- Flimsy nest built on rocky shelf (wild) or accessible ledge on a building or in the roof void of a building (feral)
- Two white eggs that are incubated by both parents for 17-19 days
- The squab (chick) has yellow down and a pink bill
- Squabs are fed on ‘crop milk’ by both parents
- Fledging period is approximately 30 days depending on time of year
- Pigeons can breed at 6 months of age
Domestication of the Rock Dove
The first mention of the domestication of the rock dove was found in Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets (pictographical writing on clay tablets) dating back over 5000 years. However, it is likely that rock doves were domesticated by Neolithic man as far back as 10,000 years ago in and around the alluvial plains of the Tigris and Euphrates.
It was at this time that Neolithic man was starting to cultivate cereal crops and domesticate animals for food. In pre-history it is likely that rock doves lived alongside man in caves and on cliff faces.
Images of pigeons were first found on the reconstructed façade of an excavated temple dedicated to the goddess Ninhursag (Queen of Heaven and Earth) at Al’Ubaid in Sumeria in 3000 BC. Many more clay images of pigeons have been found during excavations of sites in Iraq and Crete dating back to 3000 BC.
During the excavation of an Egyptian tomb in 3000 BC, the bones of pigeons were found in what is thought to have been the remains of a funerary meal. Although images of the pigeon have been found dating as far back as 3000 BC, it is not clear what role the pigeon played in these ancient civilisations and to what extent the bird was domesticated.
Later, in 1100 BC, King Rameses III sacrificed 57,000 pigeons to the god Ammon at Thebes, confirming that the pigeon was well on the way to being domesticated not only for food but also for religious purposes. Mention of pigeon sacrifices can also be found in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
The pigeon is probably best known for its ability to return ‘home’ from long distances and has been used extensively by man for this purpose. The earliest reference to the pigeon being used to carry messages dates back to 2500 BC and the tradition has continued throughout history.
The Romans and ancient Greeks used the pigeon extensively for carrying messages and the first sophisticated messaging service was established in Syria and Persia in the 12th century AD, with messages being carried by pigeons from city to city.
Later, in the 19th century, the pigeon was used for commercial purposes, carrying messages for financial institutions and news agencies in Europe and even providing an airmail service in New Zealand. In the 20th century, pigeons were used extensively in both Great Wars to carry messages, and as a result of their bravery and heroism, tens of thousands of human lives were saved. The last messaging service using pigeons was disbanded in 2006 by the police force in the city of Orrisa, India.
However, a detailed and well-preserved Roman mosaic dating from 200 BC shows a dovecote with a thatched roof in which there are numerous flight holes with pigeons perching both on the roof and flying above it. This confirms that the pigeon was being bred in dedicated facilities over 2200 years ago.
The Sicilian historian Diadorous, writing about the period circa 300 BC, also described a mud building with a reed thatched roof that was used to house domesticated pigeons, further confirming that organised domestication had been established in this period.
The dovecote has played an essential role in the domestication of the pigeon throughout history, with facilities ranging from extremely crude early examples in the form of basic clay pots through to highly ornate detached buildings housing many thousands of birds in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
Pigeons were housed and bred within these structures for food, their excrement (which was used as fertiliser and as an ingredient for gunpowder), sport and as messengers. The tradition of housing pigeons in man-made structures continued until the 20th century and is described in more detail in the Dovecotes article.
The pigeon was domesticated not only for its ability to return home and as a source of food and by-products, but also for the purposes of sport. Man has found many sporting uses for the pigeon throughout history, with the earliest known example being the sport of Triganieri. It is unclear when this ancient sport first started, but the early Greeks and Romans are believed to have participated in it.
The sport involves each participant using captive pigeons, released from several pigeon lofts or dovecotes at the same time, and to lure as many birds as possible away from adjoining lofts using specially trained pigeons. The captured birds were either killed or held for ransom. This sport has continued through the centuries and is still played today. In the Turkish city of Urfa the sport involves over 500 flocks in a single event.
Other sporting uses for the pigeon included the use of falconry, known as the ‘Sport of Kings’, where both domesticated and wild pigeons were killed for sport. The sport is believed to have started prior to the 10th century AD. At the end of the 17th century, with the advent of the shotgun, falconry dwindled in popularity, but a new, more deadly sport took its place – pigeon shooting. In the Middle East, domesticated pigeons are still used today as bait for falconers.
Organised pigeon shoots started in the 18th century where huge numbers of domesticated birds were released and shot at point-blank range. Incredibly, the sport continues today in the USA where huge numbers of feral pigeons are cage-trapped by unscrupulous pest controllers and netted by illegal gangs and then sold to shooting clubs. The birds are then released in front of shooters, many with semi-automatic weapons, and shot at point-blank range.
Photo Credit: Unsplash
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