What's So Special About Pigeons?

Read about Project PigeonWatch and Find Out! Project PigeonWatch is run by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. For more information, click here.

"Pigeons are dumb.

"They poop on people's heads."

"They smell."

That's what some people say about pigeons. In fact, that's what a lot of people say about these birds.

But did you ever notice that pigeons come in so many colors and feather patterns? Did you ever notice their shiny, rainbow-like neck feathers or their red feet? Did you ever notice the interesting way that pigeons coo and strut?

The fact is, pigeons are special. They are special because there is such variety in the way they look. Blue Jays all look very much alike, and so do robins and cardinals. But find a flock of pigeons and you will see white ones and gray ones. You will see pigeons with blue-gray feathers and pigeons with red feathers. You will see solid-colored pigeons and speckled pigeons. Look long enough and you will be able to tell them apart, give them names, and get to know their habits.

Pigeons are special because they can fly very fast. In fact, some can fly 50 miles per hour! Pigeons also have very strong "homing instincts" that help them find their way back from far away. Pigeons make great pets, too. Many people build little houses called "coops" for pigeons in their backyards or on rooftops. They let their pet pigeons fly free because, unlike canaries or parrots, pigeons will come back home.

There is one other thing that is special about pigeons. This is the fact that bird scientists know less about city pigeons than they do about many other wild birds. It is surprising that such a common bird is such a mystery. But because they are everywhere, scientists seem to have overlooked them.

Only recently did many scientists realize how interesting pigeons are. They have many questions about them. For example, they want to know why pigeons come in so many colors. They want to know how pigeons choose their mates. These questions are important because the answers will tell us not only about pigeons but about birds in general. The answers also will help us learn more about other wildlife, about our land and skies, and about ourselves as "human animals."

To answer these questions, bird scientists have designed a research project called Project PigeonWatch. People just like you from all over the world are involved in it. These participants are called PigeonWatchers. PigeonWatchers collect information on their pigeons in their cities. Then they send that information to the scientists, who enter it into computers. They print out maps that show the information by location. These maps show how pigeons are alike and different from place to place.

Project PigeonWatch could not happen without hundreds of "citizen scientists" like you who collect information from so many different places. Taking part in Project PigeonWatch is important, but it is also easy and fun. Interested in becoming a PigeonWatcher? Read on!

Curious About Pigeons?

If you have read this far, you are probably excited about becoming a PigeonWatcher. Maybe you have become a die-hard fan of pigeons! If so, keep reading. This web page contains many more pictures and facts about this special bird.

What To Expect When Pigeon Watching

All you need to get started is some curiosity about pigeons! If you have made your flash cards, take them into your neighborhood because they will come in handy. The only other thing you need to remember is that you will be outdoors, so, dress for the weather and wear walking shoes.

Now you are ready for the information-gathering part of Project PigeonWatch. Scientists call this "data collecting." Go outside to a pigeon "hang-out," which is a place where pigeons gather. You will toss out bird food to attract the pigeons and count all the pigeons. Next, count the number of pigeons of each color morph. If there is time and your pigeons are courting, you may stay to observe courtship behavior. Finally, keep a written record of the information you collected and send it to the scientists.

Get Ready For Pigeon Watching

If you have decided to be a PigeonWatcher, you should first observe the birds in your neighborhood. Are there any pigeons near where you live? Find their "hang-outs" and study them for several minutes. Can you see any differences between one pigeon and another? Use colored pencils or crayons to draw a picture of any pigeons you see. You can print out this page and use the drawing below as a template. Fill in the details you observe.


Second, learn to recognize the different color morphs of pigeons. "Morph" is a word used by bird scientists to describe an inherited physical feature. For birds, an important morph is feather color. Pigeons are polymorphic for feather color. This means that pigeons come in more than one pattern of color.

Scientists know that long ago, wild pigeons came in only one color morph, blue-black and gray. Then people captured pigeons and bred them. Over time this breeding produced many different color types of pigeons. Today's wild city pigeons are descendants of these captured pigeons. Scientists want to know why wild pigeons still exist in so many colors. Why haven't they become one common color, like they used to be?

Scientists are trying to learn if different color morphs are more common in different parts of the United States and different areas of the world. Look at a flock of pigeons and count the number of each color morph. You can keep a record of what you find. By observing your flock, you will help scientists learn which color morphs are common in your area. For PigeonWatching, you need to learn the seven main color morphs for pigeons. Check out the pictures of the color morphs that are included in the identification section.

Third, learn how pigeons behave when they are trying to attract mates. This is called courtship behavior. Scientists want to know whether pigeons choose mates by color. If they do, it might explain why city pigeons continue to exist in so many different colors. Pigeons can mate at any time of year, especially if it is warm outside. During your PigeonWatch, you can observe pigeons courting by studying their behavior. The information you collect will help scientists figure out how courtship is related to color. Pictures of the different courtship appear in a later chapter.

Finally, practice your pigeon observation skills by making flash cards. You can print out the identification section and cut out the pigeon pictures to make the flash cards. Shuffle the cards and quiz yourself, or get together with another PigeonWatcher to quiz each other. Take your cards with you for a walk in your neighborhood. Look for pigeons and practice observing color types and courtship activity.

Nifty Bird and Science Words

Rock Dove:the common name for the original pigeon 

Columba livia: the scientific name for pigeon 
ornithology: the study of birds 
iridescence: the rainbow-like shine found on the neck feathers of some pigeons 
hackle: the neck feathers of a bird 
hen: an adult female pigeon 
cock: an adult male pigeon 
hatchling: a pigeon that has just come out of its egg (hatched) 
squab: a young pigeon from 1 to 30 days old 
peeper or squeaker: a young bird that is learning to eat 
fledgling: a bird that is learning to fly or has just taken a first flight 
juvenile: a bird out of the nest and flying but less than eight months old 
data: pieces of information 
morph: a physical feature that is inherited 
assortative mating:when males and females pair up based on their color morphs 


Pigeon Color Morphs

This bird has two black or dark gray stripes or "bars" on each light-gray wing. It has a dark-gray body and shiny, rainbow-like neck feathers.
This bird has two red stripes or "bars" on each light-gray wing. It also has a rusty-red or brown shade to  
its body.
This bird has one dark color spread all over its body.
This bird has a rusty-red or brown shade to its body and light-gray bars on its wings.
This bird looks a little like a checkerboard. Its wing feathers have checks of light and dark.
pied white 
This bird has white as well as other colors on its body. The "pied white flight" has white wing feathers, which are easy to see when the bird is flying.
pied splash 
The "pied splash" pigeon has one or more spots of white.
This bird is solid white. This color morph is what some people call a dove of peace.

Pigeon Courtship Behaviors

The male puffs out his neck feathers. He lowers his head and bows several times while he circles a female.
The male spreads his tail and runs after the female, dragging his tail on the ground.
The male runs close behind a female, to move her away from other males.
The female puts her bill (beak) inside the male's bill. Then the two birds move together in rhythm, bobbing their heads up and down. Billing happens just before mating.
The female bends down and the male climbs on top of her. He will flap his wings to keep his balance. The male stays on the female for a few seconds.
display flight 
After mating, the male flies up and claps his wings together over his back. This makes a clapping sound.


Pigeon Questions and Answers

How big are pigeons?
From bill to tail, the average pigeon is about 13 inches. Males are bigger than females. The average pigeon weighs a little less than a pound.

Do pigeons come in more than seven color morphs?
Yes! There may be as many as 28 different color morphs. Project PigeonWatch only uses seven of the most common morphs, to make counting easier.

What color are pigeon eyes?
Adult pigeons have orange or red-orange eyes. Young pigeons under eight months old have brown or gray-brown eyes.

What color are pigeon legs and feet?
Many pigeons have red legs and feet but the color can range from pink to gray-black. Their claws are usually gray-black. On red or white pigeons, the claws are sometimes white. Some pigeons wear "stockings," which are feathers that cover their legs and feet.

How well do pigeons see?
Pigeons have very good eyes. They can see colors. They also can see ultraviolet light, which human beings cannot see.

What do pigeons eat?
Just about anything! Pigeons are not fussy eaters. They have only 37 taste buds, while you have 9,000.

How do pigeons drink?
Pigeons suck up water by using their beaks like straws. This is different from most birds. Most birds take sips of water and then throw their heads back to let the water trickle down their throats.

What sounds do pigeons make?
Pigeons make lots of different sounds. Their main sound is used by males to attract mates or defend their territories: coo roo-c'too-coo. The call they make from their nest is oh-oo-oor. A pigeon call of alarm is oorhh! Baby pigeons make sounds by snapping their beaks or hissing. After mating, male birds make loud noises by clapping their wings together.

How do pigeons raise their babies?
Pigeons make nests of small twigs or stems which the males bring to the females one piece at a time. The nests are usually well-hidden, such as on high ledges, under bridges, or in empty buildings. Pigeons usually lay two white eggs. The parents take turns keeping the eggs warm. Males usually stay on the nest during the day and the females stay on the nest at night. Eggs take about 18 days to hatch. Both parents produce a special milk which they feed, beak to beak, to their young during the first week. Scientists think that once pigeons mate, they stay together for life.

Do pigeons have any enemies?
Hawks and other large animal-eating birds (birds of prey) catch and eat pigeons. The Peregrine Falcon is a bird of prey that lives in some cities and feeds on pigeons. In many cities, however, pigeons have no enemies.

How fast and far can pigeons fly?
Pigeons can fly 40 to 50 miles per hour. Most city pigeons stay close to home, flying less than 12 miles in a day. However, their wing muscles are strong and they can fly much further if necessary. Some pigeons have traveled 600 miles in a day!

How long do pigeons live?
Pigeons can live about five years in the wild. They sometimes live for more than 15 years when raised by people.

Pigeon Parts

A History of Pigeons

Pigeons have been on this earth at least 20 million years. That is longer than humans! Scientists know this from fossils, which are remains of bones that have been preserved in rock.

The original pigeons lived among cliffs and rocky ledges in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. These pigeons are known as Rock Doves, and they still exist today. All Rock Doves are the same blue-bar color morphs.

About 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, humans began to capture and raise pigeons. Some they raised for food, some for racing, and some to carry messages.

People also raised pigeons for their beautiful feathers. Over many generations, this is how pigeons acquired such a wide range of color morphs.

The first pigeons in North America were brought over by people from Europe who settled in Canada in the early 1600s. Pigeons that escaped from settlers formed the wild flocks you see in cities today. These wild birds live among city buildings, bridges, and other man-made structures in the same way their ancestors used to live among cliffs and rocky ledges.

Pigeon Messengers

When the first Olympic games were held in Greece in 776 BC, how did people find out who the winners were? Pigeons carried the news! Julius Caesar, the emperor of Rome more than 2,000 years ago, used birds to send messages back home from battle. Pigeons were used as war messengers as recently as in World War II. In fact, until the invention of the telegraph in 1836 and the telephone in 1875, the fastest way to send any kind of news was by pigeon.

Pigeons are still sometimes used as messengers. For example, medical workers on an island in France put blood samples into the tiny pockets of a vest worn by a pigeon. The pigeon then flies the blood samples to the mainland. In many parts of the world, news photographers use pigeons. When they can't leave their spot or don't want to get caught in traffic, they attach their rolls of film to a pigeon. The pigeon carries the film to a developer in time for the next issue of a newspaper or magazine.

Nobody knows for sure how pigeons are able to find their way back home from hundreds of miles away. Scientists think that pigeons can detect the Earth's magnetic fields. This means that their brains work like a compass to figure out North, South, East, and West. Scientists also think that pigeons can tell direction by looking at the position of the sun in the sky.

Pigeons As Rescuers

Because pigeons have better eyesight than humans, they have been used to help in search-and-rescue missions. Pigeons have been trained to spot the orange life jackets of people lost at sea. The pigeons are carried by helicopter over the ocean. When they spot a life jacket, they peck a keyboard, which sets off a light. Then the helicopter moves closer and more slowly over the waves until the humans are able to see the life jacket.

The Story of Cher Ami

In World War I, a pigeon saved the lives of many soldiers in the "Lost Battalion" of New York's 77th Division of the U.S. Army. This pigeon was Cher Ami. His name means "dear friend" in French.

During a battle in France, the American soldiers found themselves surrounded by the enemy. Then they found themselves being fired on by their own side! They tried sending a message to their fellow troops by pigeon. The first message said, "Many wounded. We cannot evacuate." The pigeon carrying the message was shot down. They sent out a second bird with the message, "Men are suffering. Can support be sent?" That pigeon too was shot down.

One homing pigeon was left-Cher Ami. His message was, "Our artillery is dropping a barrage on us. For heaven's sake, stop it!" The men of the Lost Battalion saw Cher Ami fly up-and then saw him shot down. Yet soon Cher Ami was airborne again. Hopes soared. Cher Ami's leg was shot off and he was hit by another bullet. Still, this bird kept flying. Cher Ami finally got through. The shooting stopped, and many lives were saved.

At the end of the war, Cher Ami and more than 40 other pigeons were honored for their brave service. They were well cared for until they died. Today Cher Ami's body can be seen in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian Institution.

Who Runs Project PigeonWatch?

Project PigeonWatch is run by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. This lab conducts bird research and conducts programs to educate the public about birds. It also has several "citizen science" programs in which non-scientists take part in the collection of science information. Besides Project PigeonWatch, the lab's citizen science projects include Project FeederWatch, the Cornell Nestbox Network, and the Birds in Forested Landscapes Project. The lab publishes a magazine, Living Bird, and a newsletter, Birdscope.

Project PigeonWatch
Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology
159 Sapsucker Woods Road
Ithaca, New York 14850
telephone: 607-254-2427
email: PigeonWatch@cornell.edu


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