Common pigeons are native to Europe, North Africa, and western Asia. They’ve been domesticated for thousands of years, and have served as message carriers, food sources, research subjects, and pets. With such a longstanding relationship between people and pigeons, it’s unsurprising that European colonists brought these birds with them to North America in the early 1600s. Some escaped into the wild, and the rest is history: they soon spread across the country. Wild pigeons naturally nest on cliffs or in caves, and their feral cousins readily inhabit ledges on buildings.
There’s no difference between doves and pigeons, scientifically speaking. All belong to the family Columbidae. In fact, common pigeons are also known as rock doves. They have plump bodies, short legs, and thin, relatively short beaks. Their tails are fan-shaped and their wings are pointed.
Through selective breeding, people have developed domestic pigeon varieties with many interesting patterns and colors, much like domestic dog or horse breeds. This is why the descendants of these birds, the feral pigeons, can be found in many shades of brown, gray, black, and white. However, most flocks contain individuals with the typical wild “blue” form: a blue-gray body, lighter blue-gray wings marked by two black bands, a wide black tail band, and a white rump. The neck often shimmers with purple and green iridescent feathers.
One other member of the Columbidae family breeds in Massachusetts: the mourning dove. This slimmer, tan-colored bird has a pointed tail and is native to the area.
Pigeons are flocking birds, and they are among the strongest and swiftest of avian fliers. Their flight muscles make up about one-third of the total body weight. Some birds are raised for racing; they may fly more than 500 miles in a single day and have been clocked at speeds in excess of 94 miles per hour.
An unusual feature of pigeons is their ability to drink by sucking fluid in through their bills, rather than by tilting their heads back to swallow like most birds. Watch for this behavior when you see pigeons drinking from a puddle.
Common pigeons are monogamous, and pairs stay together throughout their lives. They may breed at any time of the year as long as there’s enough food. Wild pigeons nest on cliff ledges or in caves, so feral pigeons seek their urban equivalents: building ledges, rafters, and niches beneath bridges and overpasses.
Females typically lay two whitish eggs. Both the male and female care for the young. For the first four or five days after hatching, the parents feed their nestlings "pigeon milk”. This secretion, which is produced by a part of the digestive system called the crop, is rich in fat, protein, and vitamins, much like mammals’ milk.
Four to six weeks after hatching, young pigeons are semi-independent. At this point the adults may start another brood.
Pigeons mostly eat seeds, but they will also consume berries, vegetation, and the occasional small creature such as an insect. City pigeons eat a varied diet. They thrive on the weed seeds in vacant lots, and, unfortunately, on grass seeds in newly sown lawns. They also eat spillage from bird feeders, handouts from people, and food waste.
Pigeon Situations & Solutions
Pigeons usually cause few problems for people, but sometimes their droppings and their habit of nesting in places such as air vents can become a problem. Before deciding on the best way to exclude pigeons from an area, you should first try to figure out what’s attracting them: is there a source of food, such as a dumpster, bird feeder, or people feeding them?
Many stores sell plastic owls, hawks, and other objects that are made to scare away pigeons. Unfortunately, these don’t work; pigeons become comfortable with nonmoving objects very quickly. The following are some better solutions for pigeon situations.
Pigeons Nesting in Undesirable Locations
Pigeons will readily nest on any flat sheltered surface. To discourage nesting, alter these surfaces by adding a slant or blocking them with netting. Learn more about discouraging nesting on buildings
Pigeons Trapped Indoors
When a lone bird is trapped indoors, shut out as much light as possible. Close all exits except for the one through which you wish the bird to leave. If it’s practical, ask everyone leave the area for a while to give the bird a chance to calm down and find the exit. Alternately, slowly but firmly urge the bird toward the exit.
Pigeons at Bird Feeders
Pigeons are ground feeders by preference. To keep pigeons out of the inevitable spill zone around a feeder, you can put a brush pile at the feeder’s base—pigeons don't like feeding in dense vegetation. Sometimes they may perch on pole and window feeders. You can discourage this by purchasing feeders whose seed openings close when any creature larger than a songbird perches on them. Also, avoid using mixed seed, since the corn in these mixtures is a favorite of pigeons.
Lost Racing Pigeons
Racing pigeons, also called racing homers, are special pigeons raised for the sport of racing. These birds are trained to fly at high speeds for races that can be anywhere from 100 to 600 miles long.
During these races, dozens of birds may become lost due to inexperience or adverse weather conditions. They eventually land, and are exhausted and dehydrated. You can recognize these pigeons by their ankle bands. If you find one, look at the band: it will usually have an inscription starting with “AU” or “IF.” AU stands for the American Racing Pigeon Union and IF stands for International Federation of American Homing Pigeon Fanciers. Their web sites will help you reunite a bird with its owner.
Baby Pigeons Out of the Nest
Pigeon parents aren’t adept at finding and caring for young that have fallen from the nest. Because young pigeons require a special secretion—"pigeon's milk"— for early growth, it’s nearly impossible for people to rear orphan pigeons. If you find a displaced baby pigeon, there are two potential solutions:
- Locate the nest, usually on a nearby ledge, and return the pigeon.
- Leave the bird to its natural fate. Nestling birds tend to have a high mortality rate, so you need not worry that this response is callous or cruel.
Pigeons and Disease
Pigeon droppings can contain molds and bacteria that cause pneumonia-like diseases called histoplasmosis and ornithosis (psittacosis). These disease agents are also present in the soil and in other animal droppings.
Fortunately, contracting a pigeon-associated illness is unlikely, and there has never been a major outbreak of any bird-associated disease in Massachusetts. Those most at risk are people who have extensive contact with birds or their droppings, such as poultry farmers and poultry-processing workers, bird breeders, pet shop owners, and those involved in cleaning areas contaminated with accumulated bird droppings.
Here are some tips for preventing illnesses:
- Wash your hands carefully after handling either birds or their droppings.
- Discourage birds of any kind from roosting near ventilation systems and air conditioners. These can aerosolize the stool and contaminate the air.
- Because proper decontamination and protective equipment are essential for cleaning up accumulated droppings, you should enlist professional help. For advice, consult your local public health department.
Pigeons and the Law
As a non-native species in the United States, pigeons aren’t protected by federal laws. Learn more about wildlife and the law