From Racing Pigeons to Mourning Doves
For thousands of years, domesticated pigeons have been an integral part of human life. They were exploited by their keepers as symbols of fertility, prosperity and faithfulness, as a sacrifice for religious purposes, as a source of food, and as a courier and communicator. Additionally, they played a minor role as bait in the ancient sport of falconry and, more recently, have been hunted. Before the invention of the telegraph (1835), they were the fastest means of communication. Today, hundreds of varieties of pigeon are bred for show, or as a hobby, or raised to participate in the sport of pigeon racing. King pigeons (possibly named for their large size) are bred for food. Egyptian hieroglyphics, and stone carvings found in Mesopotamia (now modern Iraq) dating back to around 3000 BC, suggest that these birds were domesticated over 5,000 years ago. The white dove is believed to have been bred around this time. All domestic and feral pigeons (domestic pigeons that have returned to the wild) are descended from the wild rock pigeon, and all three readily interbreed.
Pigeons have been domesticated to either develop their attractive plumage or to enhance their speed and homing instincts so that they can participate in the sport of pigeon racing. Pigeons raised for endurance flying and homing purposes are typically called homing pigeons or racing homers, whereas other breeds used for exhibition purposes, or as pets, are placed in a broad range of separate classifications. These include such names as Fantails, Carneau, Jacobins, Tumblers, Frillbacks, Pouters and Tipplers.
As for the ancestry of these pigeons, the rock dove – called the rock pigeon in the United States since 2004 – is considered to be their predecessor. It is native to Europe, North Africa and South Asia, although today it is distributed worldwide. Its numbers are dwarfed by the millions of feral pigeons we see in the streets and public squares of our cities, in urban parks, on farmland and under bridges. Feral and rock pigeons are similar in size and shape, but feral pigeons display a far greater variation in color and patterns. Today, these birds have colonized the world, except for Antarctica and the Sahara Desert. Although once close companions to humans, they have fallen out of favor and lost popularity as their numbers have increased and their behaviors worsened. People generally love them or hate them.
Rock/feral pigeons are not native to North America. They were brought from Europe during the 1600s as a source of food and for religious purposes, and inevitably some escaped. They found conditions suitable for breeding and quickly spread across the continent. Today they are widespread. Global population estimates vary widely, ranging from 120 million to 400 million. In the United States, these pigeons fall outside the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, 1918 because, like house sparrows and the European starlings, they are an invasive species, and can be hunted and killed.
Many people treat rock/feral pigeons as pests, and they are killed, or removed, or their habitat modified, and their eggs stolen or made infertile by mixing a chemosterilant with their food, to cull their numbers. Admittedly, they ravage crops, cause a nuisance because of their droppings, damage property, and are believed to be a risk to human health. They also risk being preyed upon by peregrine falcons and sparrow hawks. In some places, there numbers are so great and behaviors so inappropriate that they are called “rats with wings”, a term believed first used by the New York City Parks Commissioner in 1966.
Yet, for those who breed pigeons, the species is worthy of protection. The racing homer is generally acknowledged for its endurance, speed and desire to return “home”. Pigeon racing is known as a sport with a single starting gate and many finishing lines. Races range from 100 km (62 miles) to 1000 km (620 miles), and in the United States, flights of up to 1,100 miles (1770 km) take place. Racing pigeons typically fly around 50 miles (80 km) per hour. Published records indicate there are about 15,000 registered lofts in the US, Taiwan has 500,000 people who race pigeons, there are 60,00 pigeon fanciers in the UK (42,000 keep and race pigeons), and in Beijing alone, there are an estimated 100,000 pigeon fanciers.
Training is essential to make a racing pigeon want to return “home”. Its homing instincts are developed by releasing it from different directions and gradually increasing its flight distance. Prize money can be substantial. The South Africa Million Dollar Race, the Olympics of pigeon racing, offers up $1.6 million in prizes, with a first prize of $300,000.
The Persians, Greeks and Romans bred pigeons for both show and racing, and the Genghis Khan nation used them to communicate across their vast Mongol Empire. During the 12th century AD, the city of Bagdad and all the main towns in Syria and Egypt were linked together by messenger pigeons, as they are sometimes called. During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, pigeon guano was considered highly prized as a fertilizer, and in England, it was originally the primary source of saltpeter, an essential ingredient for making gunpowder.
During the First and Second World Wars, homing pigeons saved hundreds of thousands of human lives by carrying messages across enemy lines. During the First World War, mobile pigeon lofts were set up behind trenches from which pigeons often had to fly through enemy fire and poison gas to deliver their messages home. Amazingly, the last “pigeon post” service appears to have ended during 2004 in India.
Pigeon racing remains a widespread hobby around the world. All you need is a loft for your pigeons, and the time and funds to care for the birds and to train them to win. Birds are brought to a specific site where they are released, and each bird flies back to its owner’s loft. A band attached to the bird’s leg before the race begins is then removed, and placed into a timing device. The pigeon that has the fastest average speed is declared the winner.
Exactly how racing pigeons navigate their way home is unclear. A dominant theory is that they use the position and angle of the sun, along with landmarks, to navigate the direction of flight. However, there are examples of pigeon races taking place during sunny, clear weather when large numbers of participants simply vanish. In June 2021, only about 10 percent of 250,000 birds released across the UK made it home within the expected timeframe. It was a clear day but many birds straggled home much later, and some remain missing today; some flew in the wrong direction and several ended up in other countries. One is believed to have been spotted in Majorca, Spain, nearly 1000 miles (1610 km) away.
Some scientists believe that the birds use the Earth’s magnetic field for navigation because of a concentration of iron particles in their beak that appear to serve no other useful purpose. On this particular day, it is presumed that a solar storm must have occurred. Another theory proposes that homing pigeons can detect low-frequency sounds coming from the earth and oceans to guide them home, which are inaudible to humans.
What’s important is that this is a serious sport, and a highly successful pigeon can be sold for huge amounts. In November 2020, a two-year old female racing pigeon, belonging to a Belgian, was auctioned to a Chinese purchaser for $1.9 million because of its breeding pedigree, making it the highest valued racing pigeon. Consequently, the peregrine falcon and sparrow hawk sometimes find themselves threatened or hunted by racing pigeon enthusiasts who fear that the raptors will kill their prize birds.
There are of course other pigeons and doves worldwide. In fact there are over 300 species of these birds, some occupying tiny areas, such as a single island (for example, Granada), or small parts of a country ( for example, the Somali pigeon in northern Somalia and the black-billed fruit dove in the north east corner of Australia’s Northern Territory). In North America, in addition to the rock pigeon and its descendants, there is the band-tailed pigeon, native to the west and southwestern states. It is the second most abundant species of pigeon in the United States. Small flocks can be observed descending into backyards and stealing seeds from bird feeders. There is also the white-crowned pigeon, found in southern Florida, and the red-billed pigeon resident in the south of Texas and throughout Mexico. They are considered gamebirds and are hunted across the southern areas of North America.
As for doves, there are 15 varieties in North America, with the mourning dove, named for its haunting and sad cooing sound, by far the most common. It is resident across two-thirds of the North American continent, and has an estimated population of about two million breeding birds. They are friendly, attractive birds, often seen in backyards where they feed both on the ground, under bird feeders, and on platform feeders. Some US states regard them gamebirds.
Hopefully, they will not follow the same destiny as the passenger pigeon, a native bird to North America that was considered to be the most numerous species of bird on that continent when Europeans first arrived. Its population at that time is estimated to have been at least three billion, and the species is thought to have accounted for around 40 percent of the continent’s bird population. They were shaped for speed, lived in forests, ate nuts and berries, and occupied very noisy nesting colonies. Their numbers rapidly declined, with catastrophic losses in the late 1800s. By 1900, none had survived in the wild, and in 1914, the last passenger pigeon in captivity died. Over-hunting, deforestation, and the boom-to-bust availability of their food are quoted as reasons for the extinction.
A feature of pigeons that you might sometimes observe is the way they often bob their heads as they walk. Unlike humans and owls that have forward-facing eyes, pigeons have side-mounted eyes, with monocular vision. They bob their head to gain depth of perception.
My childhood days during the 1950s in the UK exposed me to summer time visits from turtle doves, now seriously threatened in that country, with under 15,000 pairs currently breeding. There was also the more frequently observed collared dove, with over one million pairs, and the stock dove. Probably my favorite was the wood pigeon, the UK’s largest and commonest pigeon, and whose nest of twigs often allowed me to see the presence of two white eggs before I climbed the tree.
In summary, doves are associated with love, peace and compassion, whereas rock and feral pigeons are known today for living in close proximity to humans, their continuous breeding habits, the pollution they create, and their alleged spreading of disease. They procreate excessively; young birds can start breeding as soon as five months after birth, they can raise broods as frequently as eight times a year, and the male as well as the female produces “pigeon milk” to feed their young (sometimes called squabs). Additionally, they have a diet based heavily on scavenging human waste in addition to consuming seeds and grain. They are highly human-dependent and, regrettably, after thousands of years, their right to live alongside human beings is being challenged. Hopefully, they will receive sufficient compassion to acknowledge their prior contributions to human society, and be allowed to enjoy a peaceful life. Eliminating some of their sources of food and using deterrents to keep them away from protected areas should be chosen over resorting to killing these birds, destroying their nests, and making their eggs infertile. Long live Columba livia (domestica).
(Author’s note: I would like to thank my friend Ted Adams of Pacheco Valley, CA who encouraged this article by providing me with a copy of the 1965 edition of the Encyclopedia of Pigeon Breeds by Wendell M. Levi. Long ago, Ted was the keeper of about 50 homing pigeons, and subsequently changed to breed show birds such as Fantails and Jacobins.)