Pigeons (Columba livia) are medium-sized birds in the Columbidae family. Known for their incredible navigational skills, pigeons can cover great distances and still find their way back to their nests. These feathered creatures can return home from locations up to 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) away, thanks to their homing instinct.
Pigeons also have a rich history as reliable messengers in war and peace. Over the centuries, civilizations have entrusted pigeons with delivering important messages.
As we cover more pigeon facts below, it becomes even more apparent how these adaptable birds coexist with humans, displaying resourcefulness and resilience throughout their shared history.
15 Pigeon Facts That Will Amaze You
1. Pigeons are one of the most abundant bird species.
Pigeons are everywhere! An estimated 400 million pigeons live worldwide, though they initially came from the rocky cliffs of Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia.
As these wild birds took to city life, they evolved into city doves or feral pigeons, showing us that they're just as comfortable in bustling cities as in the wild. People have also selectively bred pigeons for centuries, resulting in various pigeon breeds with distinct traits and purposes.
Domesticated pigeons are the first domesticated birds from the wild rock dove species. Domestication goes way back to the days of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) around 5,000 years ago. Romans even kept pigeon lofts just beside their houses to breed these birds.
Historically, domestic pigeons enjoyed high demand for their meat (runt pigeons), eggs, feathers, and their role as messengers. Symbolically, pigeons have been associated with peace and love while appearing in art and literature.
2. Homing pigeons can navigate back home from vast distances.
Next in our pigeon facts is their homing instincts. Homing instincts are the fantastic ability of certain animals, like homing pigeons, to return to a particular place, usually their home or nesting spot, even after moving far away.
These pigeons manage to return home from a staggering 1,300 miles away. How do they manage this feat? They have an internal GPS, relying on an acute sense of smell, sensitivity to Earth's magnetic field, and a keen eye for visual landmarks. They use the sun as a compass and have shown the ability to tap into infrasound and polarized light patterns for extra help.
Since ancient Egypt and Rome, humans have leveraged these skills. Need a message delivered quickly and accurately? Send a pigeon. Genghis Khan and his grandson established a pigeon post system covering almost one-sixth of the world. In the past, pigeon messengers were the fastest way to send messages.
3. Pigeons can see ultraviolet light.
Pigeons can perceive a world of color thanks to their tetrachromatic vision. In comparison, humans are trichromatic, with three types of color-receptive cones in our eyes.
Pigeons can even see ultraviolet light. But why, you might ask, do pigeons need this technicolor vision? One reason is they rely on this vision to look for food. Pigeons can spot trails of rodent urine glowing in UV light, so they follow the trail to find food.
Another reason is related to their homing ability. This enhanced color perception helps them determine their destination and direction. It's like having an in-built GPS but with more color. Finally, pigeons also use their vision to recognize and distinguish other pigeons.
4. There are 300 species of pigeons.
One of the most remarkable pigeon facts is their diversity. There are over 300 recognized species of pigeons and doves worldwide. These species belong to the Columbidae family, which includes wild and domesticated pigeons.
Wild pigeons include the rock dove, Victoria-crowned rock pigeon, Nicobar pigeon, and White-crowned pigeon. Rock doves, also known as the feral pigeon, have grayish bodies. The Victoria-crowned pigeons are the largest pigeon species found in New Guinea. Nicobar Pigeons, on the other hand, are native to Southeast Asia and Pacific Islands. In comparison, the White Pigeons live in North America and the Caribbean.
Some species under the domestic pigeon are feral pigeons, homing pigeons, racing pigeons, fancy pigeons (bred for appearance), tumbler pigeons (known for acrobatics), passenger pigeons, and carrier pigeons (used for carrying messages).
5. Pigeons can distinguish among different humans.
Pigeons are known for their surprising intelligence, as demonstrated through various studies and research. These birds have showcased remarkable cognitive abilities, problem-solving skills, and learning capabilities.
One example of their intelligence is their ability to recognize and distinguish between objects, colors, and patterns. In a study at the University of Iowa, researchers trained pigeons to classify digital images based on visual features. The study found that pigeons could successfully learn to categorize images, displaying visual discrimination similar to primates2.
Pigeons can also recognize and distinguish between human faces. In a notable study at the University of Cambridge, researchers trained pigeons to recognize and categorize photographs of human faces. The pigeons could differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar faces, demonstrating their capacity for facial recognition3. Furthermore, they are also able to recognize themselves in a mirror.
6. They can eat almost anything.
Pigeons are the ultimate survivors, and their diet comprises seeds, fruits, insects, and even small critters like snails and worms. They also eat wheat, corn, and barley.
However, they also nibble on veggies, berries, and fruits such as cherries, apples, and peas. The breeding season brings even more variety to the pigeon's plate. Why do you see them pecking around more during this time? It's their protein cravings kicking in, leading them to insects like ants, beetles, and flies.
Pigeons also thrive in urban areas and cities as they scavenge for human food leftovers. Those fast food discards and pizza crusts are delicacies for our city-slicker pigeons. A city may not always offer the ideal diet, but pigeons take it all in stride. They've adapted to exploit any available food source, even if it's not the healthiest of options.
7. Pigeons mate for life.
Did you know pigeons mate for life and both sexes care for the young? Once pigeons find a suitable mate for life, they tend to form strong pair bonds that can last for their entire lives. They stay committed to their partner in a monogamous relationship.
8. Both pigeon parents take turns in parenting.
Unlike other birds, male and female pigeons incubate their eggs, ensuring a consistently warm environment for the eggs to hatch. Curiously, the male pigeon covers the day shift while the female takes over at night.
Besides incubation, these avian parents continue their collaborative effort in feeding and guarding the newly hatched pigeons. They produce a particular substance aptly named "pigeon milk." This nutritious food source resembles mammal milk, brimming with proteins, fats, and vital nutrients. It even comes with antibodies to support the immune system of the fledglings1.
However, unlike mammals, whose milk comes from mammary glands, a pigeon produces milk through a special section in their esophagus called the crop (only mammals produce real milk). The crop helps them store food and produce crop milk. As these baby pigeons (scrabs) grow, their parents gradually introduce them to solid foods such as seeds and grains.
Additional pigeon fact: Why are newborn pigeons a rare sight? Baby pigeons stay in their nests for up to six weeks to ensure full development.
9. Pigeons signify various things in different religions.
Pigeons are essential in various cultures and religions, such as Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism. In Christianity, they represent the Holy Spirit and are associated with peace and purity.
Furthermore, Islamic tradition considers pigeons sacred symbols of purity, loyalty, and peace.
For Muslims, feeding pigeons is an act of charity. Finally, the Sikhs feed pigeons for spiritual reasons to show care for all living beings, reflecting equality, compassion, and community.
10. Pigeon guano is valuable.
Nowadays, pigeon droppings are a nuisance and a major problem in cities. However, they were valuable in the past. Pigeon droppings, or "guano," are rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. For centuries, people have used nutrient-rich pigeon waste as a natural fertilizer. Historical accounts reveal that ancient civilizations like the Incas collected pigeon guano to nourish their crops.
11. Pigeons are war heroes.
Pigeons helped shape history and saved thousands of human lives. During World War I and II, these birds carried messages between bases and even across enemy lines. Moreover, they were excellent at their jobs, with a whopping 95% success rate in delivering their precious cargo of information.
Pigeons like G.I. Joe and Cher Ami, two of the most famous pigeons among the huge flocks of wartime, showed incredible bravery. For example, G.I. Joe saved 1,000 soldiers from British troops from a bombing by delivering vital messages. Meanwhile, Cher Ami delivered 12 crucial messages to the U.S. military, saving 194 American lives.
Cher Ami's bravery didn't go unnoticed - she received the Croix de Guerre, a prestigious award in the French military.
12. Pigeon racing is a thing.
Another interesting pigeon fact is that these amazing birds can fly at high speeds, reaching an average velocity of 50-60 miles per hour. They can even fly up to 90 miles per hour, pushing humans to create the sport of pigeon racing.
Pigeon racing involves the release of trained pigeons and their subsequent return to their respective pigeon houses or lofts. A pigeon loft is a specially designed structure where the bird lives and receives training. It provides shelter, perches, and nest areas for its many pigeons.
The sport itself started in 19th-century Belgium and has since gone worldwide. Countries like the United Kingdom, the United States, and China now host these races. Furthermore, it is a competitive and highly regulated sport, with enthusiasts participating in local, regional, and international racing events.
13. Famous people love them.
Throughout history, numerous famous figures have deeply loved and appreciated pigeons. The influential artist Pablo Picasso embraced pigeons as pets and artistic muses, incorporating their graceful forms into his works.
Nikola Tesla, the visionary inventor, fostered a unique bond with pigeons, caring for them and believing they held a special connection to him, often receiving inspiration from their presence. Meanwhile, the renowned naturalist Charles Darwin used pigeons as a model to study variation and selective breeding, contributing to his groundbreaking theories on evolution and natural selection.
Moreover, pigeons have made their way to royalty. The late Queen Elizabeth keeps a royal loft at Sandringham House, her country estate, where she raised and cared for a flock of racing pigeons.
14. They have a long lifespan.
The lifespan of a pigeon can vary depending on various factors such as species, environment, and care. Wild pigeons tend to have shorter lifespans than domesticated pigeons.
Wild pigeons typically live for an average of 3 to 5 years. However, feral pigeons can live up to 10 years longer than other bird species. They face various challenges in the wild, including predation, disease, and environmental hazards, which can contribute to their shorter lifespans.
Domesticated pigeons–from pets to racing pigeons–have significantly longer lifespans. Captive pigeons can live anywhere from 10 to 20 years or longer with proper care and suitable living conditions.
15. The conservation status of pigeons to protect other species.
The conservation status of pigeons varies depending on the species. While some pigeon species are abundant and thriving, others face significant conservation concerns; some are even extinct.
For example, the Passenger Pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, comprising around 3 billion individuals. It is now extinct due to large-scale commercial hunting and habitat loss. In 1914, the last known individual passenger pigeon died in captivity.
Some pigeon species, such as the Socorro dove and the pink pigeon, are currently endangered. The Socorro Dove lives on Socorro Island, Mexico, and faces threats of habitat destruction, competition from invasive species, and small population sizes. Meanwhile, the pink pigeon, native to Mauritius, is endangered for similar reasons.
We hope that these facts about pigeons have allowed you to gain an appreciation for these fantastic animals despite their sometimes troubled reputations. Click on over to our pigeon quotes for more about what people have to say and sayings to share.
Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with P.
Gillespie, M. J., Stanley, D., Chen, H., Donald, J. A., Nicholas, K. R., Moore, R. J., & Crowley, T. M. (2011). Functional similarities between pigeon ‘milk’ and mammalian milk: Induction of immune gene expression and modification of the microbiota. PLoS ONE, 6(10), e26563.
Lazareva, O. F., Freiburger, K. L., & Wasserman, E. A. (2004). Pigeons concurrently categorize photographs at both basic and superordinate levels. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 11(6), 1111–1117.
Stephan, C. C., Wilkinson, A. V., & Huber, L. (2012). Have we met before? Pigeons recognise familiar human faces. Avian Biology Research, 5(2), 75–80.