What is a Pigeon?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Pigeons are passerine birds in the family Columbidae, which is widely spread across the world, from the mountains of North America to the tropical rainforests of Africa. Pigeons and doves are actually in the same family, and these two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, with some people reserving “dove” for smaller birds in the family and “pigeon” for larger members of the family. Chances are very high that you have seen pigeons in your area, as these determined, hardy, and enterprising birds are able to set up shop almost anywhere.

Pigeons have uniquely designed feet that allow them to perch.
Pigeons have uniquely designed feet that allow them to perch.

Like other passerines, pigeons have uniquely designed feet which allow them to perch, along with characteristically plump bodies, stubby beaks and legs, and small heads. Pigeons come in a wide variety of sizes and colors, from tiny doves which fit in the palm of the hand to the crowned pigeons of New Guinea, which can grow as large as turkeys. Some pigeons have drab brownish to gray plumage, while others come in an array of tropical colors like green, yellow, and red.

All pigeons have adapted to eat a diet which consists primarily of fruit and seeds, and some are also enterprising scavengers who can find things to eat in the garbage. During mating season, pigeons build small, lightweight nests, laying two eggs which the parents incubate together. When the chicks hatch, the parents feed them on crop milk, a highly nutritious secretion of their crops. Crop milk is unique to members of the Columbidae family and the flamingos.

One of the most famous pigeon species is probably the rock pigeon, also known as the common or city pigeon. Rock pigeons can be found in many urban areas around the world, and many regions treat them as pests, due to their messy droppings and loud lifestyle. Several pigeon varieties are also hunted as game, and in some areas roast pigeon is a delicacy, while some people like to raise racing pigeons; while the passenger pigeon is now extinct, racing pigeons share the passenger pigeon's uncanny homing abilities.

Many people recognize a pigeon instantly when it starts to move, as the birds walk with a very assertive, cocky strut, typically bobbing their heads as they move along. Pigeons are also famous for their vocalizations, which include throaty coos. While many of these birds have obviously been able to survive in human communities and adapt to a new way of life, other pigeon species were not so fortunate. During the 200 years between 1800 and 2000, at least 30 pigeon species went extinct, and several more are threatened or endangered.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I was reading an article a couple of weeks ago about racing pigeons, which I had never heard of. There was a particular racing pigeon that sold for $132,517.00. It was a 3 year old pigeon and was a champion racer, beating out 21,000 other pigeons in a long distance race.

Before this sale, the highest priced racing pigeon sold for $73,800.00. Sounds like I’m in the wrong business!


Whereas we find pigeon feces to be a huge problem, it wasn’t that way in the 16th century in Europe. It has been said that the feces of a pigeon was a highly valued fertilizer and was far more potent than regular farmyard manure. Amazingly, armed guards were often posted at the entrances of dovecotes (pigeon houses) to deter thieves from stealing it.


Pigeons have been around for thousands of year. The first images of pigeons was found in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) by archaeologists and dated back to 3000 BC. The white pigeon was considered sacred and widely worshipped.

Pigeons have also been called messengers. The earliest communication network that used pigeons as messengers was established about 5th Century BC in Persia and Syria. In the 12th Century AD, Baghdad and surrounding cities were linked by messenger pigeons and that was the sole source of communication.

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