Scientific name: Columba livia, in the Family, Columbidae.
The Latin livia means blue, blue-gray, or lead colored, a reference to the Rock Pigeon’s predominantly bluish plumage, although its color variations are many. The “rock” of its common name refers to its preferred nesting habitant in the wild on rocky places.
The Rock Pigeon is one of three species introduced to North America which has become abundant. All three are generally disliked by birders because they “don’t belong,” and displace native species. The three species are tough and adaptable birds which can tolerate and thrive in association with humans. The House Sparrow and European Starling were wild birds which were released from their cages in New York City (the House Sparrow in 1851, the starling in 1890) and which quickly adapted to life in the new home. Both spread rapidly and are abundant year round residents throughout most of North America.
The Rock Pigeon is also an abundant year round resident throughout much of North America, particularly in cities and towns. But unlike the House Sparrow and starling, the Rock Pigeon population in not descended from wild birds which were released. The Rock Pigeon population is descended from domesticated birds which escaped and established a feral population. Even today, many writers routinely refer to these pigeons are feral pigeons. Behind this “feral” status of the Rock Pigeon in a long and fascinating history.
But how many of us know that the Rock Pigeon was (probably) the first bird to be domesticated? There is evidence that people bred domestic pigeons during the Neolithic Age beginning around 8500 B.C. The earliest proof of domesticated pigeons dates from about 4500 B.C. and comes from terra-cotta figurines found in what is today modern Iraq. It is thought that pigeons were first raised in captivity for their meat.
However, pigeons have a remarkable homing ability. They can find their way back to their nest or pigeon cote from hundreds of miles away, regardless of the direction they have traveled or have been transported. They are rapid, and seemingly, tireless flyers.
We are all aware of the thousands of miles that many birds travel during migration and their ability to navigate those vast distances. But nowhere in the Rock Pigeon’s native, wild range do they migrate. They may move relatively short distances during seasonal changes and in response to food needs, but they are not natural, long distance travelers. How is it then that pigeons have such a strong homing ability. This homing ability is not well understood. An ability to navigate by the sun, moon or stars has been suggested, as has an ability to sense magnetic fields (a more likely explanation).
|6th cen Mosaic, Israel|
The results of the Olympic Games were carried by pigeons to the Greek city states. In the fourth century, Alexander the Great used homing pigeons to keep his capital informed of his progress. Julius Caesar reported to Rome his conquests in Gaul with carrier pigeons. In the sixteenth century, there were pigeon postal services available for a fee, just as local and long distance telephone service is available today for a fee. When Napoleon met his Waterloo, the news reached the English banker, Rothschild, by private pigeon post four days before horse and ship were able to convey the victory to the city of London. Reuters News Service began on the wings of carrier pigeons.
|G.I. Joe in Retirement|
The pigeon population in cities around the world almost certainly traces to domestic pigeons gone wild. Romans not only employed them as messengers, but wealthy Romans loved their meat. Dovecotes abounded, but a carelessly tended cage meant escapees. Escapees were accustomed to human presence and soon resided abundantly in the cities where they had once been caged.
|Dovecote, Tyron Palace, 1770s, North Carolina|
Two sources were important for this column: “Encyclopedia of North American Birds” edited by John Terres (1980), and “Pigeons” by Andrew Blechman (2006).