Bird Lore: Rock Pigeon

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Rock Pigeon (feral) photo by Carol Riddell

The Rock Pigeon can be found throughout the Western Hemisphere, including right here in Edmonds. The species was brought to the Americas from Europe in the 1600s. While it is considered an urban bird, it also inhabits the countryside. The Rock Pigeon can crowd streets and public squares in cities. In rural areas, look for this species in fields and farmland, near grain silos, and on rocky cliffs. In Edmonds we frequently see them crowded together on the utility lines near the ferry dock. It is not uncommon to see several foraging along Olympic Beach. They also gather on utility lines throughout Edmonds neighborhoods.

Coastal cliffs were the native habitat of the Rock Dove, from which today’s feral Rock Pigeons were domesticated and descended. The common name of this feral species has alternated between Rock Dove and Rock Pigeon. In 2004 both the American and British ornithological societies agreed on the common name Rock Pigeon. Domestication over time has resulted in considerable variation in plumage. The bird in the top photo is mostly gray with two black bands on its wings and a white rump. It is closest to the ancestral wild form of the species. The second photo is of a brown or rusty-red adult. This plumage variation is considered scarce among today’s feral populations. LeRoy photographed this individual on one of Edmonds’ beaches on the same date in two consecutive years.

Rock Pigeon (feral) photo by LeRoy VanHee.

The Rock Pigeon often gathers in flocks, running or walking along the ground pecking for food. When a feeding flock is alarmed, it may quickly rise into the air and circle several times before returning to the ground. Its natural diet is mostly seeds, sometimes berries or acorns, and a few insects or earthworms. In rural areas it feeds on waste grains when available. In cities, it may survive mostly on junk food provided by humans. It will readily come to bird feeding stations if seeds or grains are strewn on the ground or placed on a platform feeder.

The Rock Pigeon mostly forms lifetime pairs. In courtship, the male circles the female, spreading his tail, puffing out his chest  and strutting about. He will bow and coo repeatedly. Natural nesting sites for the wild bird are on sheltered cliff ledges. The feral bird that has adapted to cities and the ways of humans, will nest on window ledges, in barn lofts, in gutters and in many other parts of buildings that will hold a nest. The female builds the nest with materials brought by the male. It is a platform of twigs and grass. A pair may return to the same nest site again and again.

There are typically one to two eggs, incubated by both sexes for 16-19 days. The parents both produce a protein-rich, fatty pigeon milk that they feed to the young for a couple of weeks. The milky liquid is produced in the crop, which is an enlarged pocket in the upper esophagus. For the first few days of life, a young bird receives pure pigeon milk. Then the parents start to mix in some partially digested seeds or fruit. The chick will insert its bill into the corner of a parent’s mouth. The adult will then regurgitate the milk or milky mixture for the young bird to eat. The young remain in the nest for about a month. This species has five or more broods each year.

Few bird species have been associated with humans as closely as the Rock Pigeon. This species was native to Europe, North Africa, and southeast to India. It can now be found in cities around the world. Some of the earliest images of the pigeon date back 5,000 years and were found by archeologists in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). The Sumerians of that region first started to breed white doves from the wild Rock Pigeon. Humans have used this bird in many ways: symbols of deities, sacrificial victims, messengers, pets and food. Some were even acknowledged as heroes during the First and Second World Wars in which they carried vital messages, flying through poisoned gases and enemy fire to make their deliveries. In 1896 a pigeon airmail service was started between New Zealand and the Great Barrier Island. Senders paid a postal fee. Each pigeon could carry up to five messages and fly the 90 km route in under two hours. In competitive pigeon racing, flight speeds of 50 mph have been recorded over 400-mile distances.

One domestic homing pigeon, retired from the U.S. Army Signal Corps, lived to be 31. The typical feral Rock Pigeon has a much shorter life expectancy, the average being about two and a half years. There are several collective nouns for a group of pigeons: flight, flock, loft and kit.

You can listen to the male Rock Pigeon’s song here: http://www.xeno-canto.org/207424.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for the info on the pigeon–er, DOVE! The latter name is so much classier and might help me to be just a teensy bit less upset when they “decorate” our condo’s sidewalk from their perch on the utility wires. The banded ones are what we have–again, more accepting to the psyche.

  2. The Band-tailed Pigeon is not known to perch on utility lines. Rock Pigeons, Mourning Doves, and Eurasian-collared Doves can be seen on utility wires. Look for our native Band-tailed Pigeon atop a fir tree or other such places.

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