Rock Pigeons We Discourage As Urban Pests Have Amazing Skills That Have Served Mankind

Adult pigeons usually have red eyes. These birds have excellent vision and can even see ultraviolet light. (Photo: Jeanine Farley)

Did you know that the common pigeons we see in Cambridge and Boston, called rock pigeons, were one of the first animals to be domesticated? Egyptian hieroglyphics from 5,000 years ago show they were domesticated Columba livia domestica, but we do know that they were also domesticated at least 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq and parts of Kuwait, Turkey, Syria, and Iran). People have spread these domesticated birds so much around the world that today it is not clear exactly where wild rock pigeons originated from.

Pigeons are fantastic travelers. They can travel over 500 miles in a day and they’ve been clocked at 94 miles per hour. They have a unique research instinct. For these reasons, people have used them for racing and as carrier pigeons and message carriers. If the ancient Mediterranean sailors got lost at sea, they would drop a pigeon to make their way to land, while the inhabitants of ancient Rome would send pigeons between cities to announce the winners of the Olympic games and to disseminate the results of the chariot races. . Genghis Khan used a pigeon relay system from Asia to Europe to keep abreast of what was going on in his vast empire.

More mundane, thousands of years ago in North Africa, people bred pigeons both for food and to make fertilizer from their droppings. In medieval England, pigeon droppings were used to make gunpowder.

In medieval times in England, the lord of a mansion, when renting farms to tenants, reserved the right to let his pigeons graze there. . . . The destruction of crops by pigeons caused serious losses to the farmers and a lot of problems between them and their owners.

Pigeon manure is very rich in nitre, which the government had difficulty in obtaining for the manufacture of gunpowder; he therefore regulated the construction of the dovecotes and appointed collectors to collect the manure of the pigeons. It was easier to do this when large flocks were kept by owners than when an equal number of birds were kept in small flocks by tenants.

– John H. Robinson, “Our Domestic Birds” (1913)

American settlers brought domesticated rock pigeons to Plimoth and Jamestown in the early 1600s. These farm animals were bred for food. Throughout the 1600s, ships transported thousands of these birds to our shores. From the 1700s, people became interested in exotic pigeons, and hobbyists began to create new varieties. Even Charles Darwin crossed fancy pigeons to study variation within a species.

Selective breeding has created many varieties of domestic pigeons, just as people have bred breeds of domestic dogs and horses. This explains why you might see pigeons that are brown, white, gray or black. However, most pigeons have the blue coloring typical of wild birds – a blue-gray body, wings with two black stripes, and an iridescent purple and green neck.

Juvenile pigeons look a lot like adults, but they are less iridescent. (Photo: Jeanine Farley)

Today you can only find wild rock pigeons along the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland. All other rock pigeons in the world, including all of North America, are wild birds that have escaped or been released from domesticated stocks. But because domestic and wild pigeons have interbred with wild pigeons for thousands of years, a true wild type pigeon may not even exist.

Wild rock pigeons nest on rocky cliffs or caves; escaped wild birds like to build cornices, rafters and exposed beams in bridges and tunnels. (We have a native pigeon in Massachusetts, the Mourning Dove, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

Scientists have studied the genetic differences between groups of pigeons in the Northeast. Their results indicate that pigeons living in the urban corridor from Boston to Providence are genetically distinct from pigeons in the corridor between New York and Washington, DC Yet there is a lot of green space in Connecticut between the two populations, and the pigeons do not roam this area. A pigeon in New York may decide to go to Philadelphia, but it will not fly to Boston. And, similarly, a pigeon in Boston could fly to Providence but will not fly to New York.

Pigeons are often found in urban areas where food is plentiful. (Photo: Jeanine Farley)

Our wild pigeons make a nest which they use several times. What begins in the first year as a light nest of straw, sticks and stems over the years grows into a heavy pot-shaped mound. Large nests can contain baby bird droppings and sometimes unhatched eggs from previous years or even dead withered chicks.

Pigeons are monogamous and can mate for life. Females usually lay two eggs at a time. Both parents care for the hatchlings by regurgitating “pigeon’s milk,” a high-fat and protein-rich substance made in the throat pouch, or crop, from almost any food. Unlike other birds, pigeons do not need insects, worms and caterpillars to feed their young: although they mainly eat seeds, their menu also includes berries or insects, as well as food spilled from bird feeders, gifts from people and food waste. . (The need for water keeps plenty of it near lakes, rivers, or city fountains.) This allows the pigeons to breed year round, raising up to 10 chicks per year. At six weeks, the young are independent enough that the parents can start another brood.

I have noticed that there appear to be far fewer pigeon nesting sites than 20 years ago. This anecdotal observation is corroborated by the Breeding Bird Atlas, which indicates that the wild rock pigeon population in the United States declined 46% from 1966 to 2015. It is not known why the pigeon populations declined, but we can speculate on two factors. : increasing number of predators such as hawks and municipal pigeon control measures. The MBTA, for example, has installed spikes on its rafters to control pigeon populations, and people are discouraged from feeding the birds.

The Migratory Birds Treaty Act of 1918 protects native birds, but the law does not apply to wild pigeons, starlings, or house sparrows, as these birds are all introduced species.

Despite the fact that pigeon populations have declined in the United States, they are estimated at 400 million worldwide, and their numbers are increasing as urbanization continues. Pigeon populations do not appear to be in danger.

Facts about pigeons

  • Pigeons are quite intelligent and can recognize themselves in a mirror. They were trained to distinguish between four-letter words and 7,832 four-letter combinations that are not words.
  • In the 1970s and 1980s, the US Coast Guard discovered that pigeons were much better than humans at spotting shipwreck victims at sea. Due to advances in technology, pigeons are no longer needed for this task.
  • Pigeons can return home even if they are released from a distance. They navigate by sensing the earth’s magnetic fields and using sound, smell and the position of the sun.
  • Rock pigeons carried messages for the US Army Signal Corps during World Wars I and II.

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Have you taken pictures of our urban wild animals? Submit your images to Cambridge Day, and we can use them for a future feature. Include the photographer’s name and the general location where the photo was taken.


Jeanine Farley is an educational writer who has lived in the Boston area for over 30 years. She enjoys taking pictures of our urban wild animals.

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