How Did We Get so Many Pigeons?

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pigeon facts

Story at-a-glance -

  • There are an estimated 400 million pigeons worldwide, residing on shopping malls, cathedrals and skyscrapers, but their incredible intelligence, ability to produce multiple young and undiscriminating eating habits help them survive
  • Pigeons and doves both come from the Columbidae family and often there’s no differentiation in terminology; the word “dove” was translated to English from Norse, and “pigeon” to English from French
  • Homing pigeons first emerged in 12th century Middle East and Western Europe, where principal cities were interconnected through a network, and this ability was utilized in both World Wars, even winning medals for heroism
  • Pigeons are very intelligent, evidenced by their ability to differentiate individual humans from photographs and to recognize themselves in a mirror
  • Some who revile pigeons claim they spread three diseases in particular through their guano, but the occurrences are rare

If you live in a city somewhere in the U.S., chances are you’ve seen or had an adverse experience with a bird some regard as one of the downsides to urban living: in a word, pigeons. A few dozen of them might be appealing; when there are millions of them, it becomes a predicament.

Millions? Yes: There are upward of 400 million pigeons worldwide, and 1 million in New York City alone,1 but their presence in cities has soared gradually. Pigeons in these places seem to be such a fixture on the urban landscape that some think their permanency ranks right up there with death and taxes.

The problems arrive for people due to large numbers of pigeons roosting on TV antennas, perching on windowsills, congregating on rooftops, nesting in chimneys and the list goes on. They’ve even been labeled “rats with wings.” As Live Science observes, “They peck at the pavement; they coo overhead; they swoop in hundreds across town squares.”2 Where did they come from? Have there always been this many?

According to the Pigeon Control Resource Center, there are 315 different species in the Columbidae family, which originated in Europe, North Africa and Asia. “City pigeons” are the shirttail offspring of a wild bird known as the rock dove, or Columba livia. While they once flocked together on rocky cliffs, today’s landscape provides resting places in the form of shopping malls, skyscrapers, metropolitan buildings and cathedrals.

As long as 10,000 years ago, there’s evidence from ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and Egypt that pigeons were coaxed into inhabiting areas rife with humans for the express purpose of providing nourishment, comparable to avian livestock, says Steve Portugal, Ph.D., a comparative ecophysiologist at the University of Oxford.

“The plump, young birds especially — known as ‘squabs’ — became a prized source of protein and fat. People then began domesticating and breeding the birds for food, creating subspecies that led to the diversity of urban pigeons known today.

Along the way, humans began to realize that pigeons were useful for much more than their meat. As the birds grew more popular in the Middle East, North Africa and Western Europe in the ensuing centuries, people began to tap into their innate talent for navigation.”3

Pigeons: Messengers and ‘War Heroes’

The homing pigeons that first emerged in the Middle East, Western Europe and North Africa came about as humans realized the lowly pigeon had the natural ability to find land, which was life-saving for people on crippled ships on the Mediterranean. City dwellers realized pigeons could be extremely useful and even valuable for bearing messages, even across long distances.

Instead of breeding pigeons for food, the enterprise became more of a hobby. As explorers and others found themselves sailing for North America, so did thousands of rock doves. Soon, breeding “programs” became a natural phenomenon. Michael Habib, Ph.D., a paleontologist at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, says fleeing captivity was inevitable, as was their growing proliferation.

The pigeon population thrived, he says, because they were “engineered” to do so.4 After all, one of the monikers for rock pigeons is “rock dove.” The word “dove” was translated to English from Norse, while pigeon evolved linguistically to English from French.

The messenger pigeon became a thing in 5th century B.C. Syria and Persia (Iran). By the 12th century A.D., principal cities and towns were interconnected through a pigeon network, as it were. Results of the Olympic Games were communicated in this way, explaining why white doves are released at the Games even today. Regarding the war hero designation:

“In the British Intelligence Service they were used in World War 1 as a method of maintaining contact with sympathizers and resistance movements in enemy-occupied territory … Batches of pigeons, each with its own body-harness and parachute, were jettisoned from an airplane and released at intervals by a clockwork mechanism.”5

One famous pigeon during WWI was honored for saving several French soldiers by delivering a crucial message across enemy lines and was awarded the French “Croix de Guerre” medal for heroic service. Another pigeon, G.I. Joe, flew 20 miles in 20 minutes to save British troops in Italy and was given the “Dickin” medal for bravery.

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The ‘Competitive Edge’ and Other Interesting Facts About Pigeons

Some truly astounding pigeon facts are a testament to the innate cleverness and resiliency of this enterprising bird. They can fly an average of 77 mph and as many as 700 miles per day, for instance, and see in color, but also the spectrum of ultraviolet light that is undetectable by humans. Here are more remarkable facts from Live Science and the Pigeon Control Resource Centre:

  • Pigeons have been tested and passed the “mirror test” for their ability to recognize their own reflection in a mirror, one of only six species — and the only non-mammal — with this ability.
  • Pigeons are very intelligent, can recognize all 26 letters of the alphabet and have the ability to “conceptualize.” Case in point: They can tell the difference between two human beings in a single photograph.
  • Other bird species eat berries, seeds and insects, but pigeons can eat nearly anything humans toss into the garbage. Plus, male and female pigeons rear their chicks on a special diet of protein- and fat-rich milk, produced in pouches in their throats, so their squabs are easily provided for.
  • Pigeon parents can produce as many as 10 chicks every year, which helps explain how this bird species is able to proliferate so quickly.
  • The pigeon has side-mounted eyes and monocular vision (both eyes used separately) requiring them to bob their heads for depth perception.

One reason pigeons are reviled by some is because they can spread diseases to humans through the guano they leave as calling cards. While the occurrences are rare, three diseases in particular concern pigeon opposers, according to NYC Health:

  • Cryptococcus, contracted by breathing in the microscopic C. neoformans fungus, usually by people with a weakened immune system, such as AIDS patients.6
  • Histoplasmosis, an uncommon fungal infection (15 cases were reported in New York City in 1999) that occurs especially among immunocompromised individuals. Other birds, including chickens and bats, as well as dogs, cats, rats and skunks, can be carriers.7
  • Psittacosis is another rare infectious disease, usually transmitted to humans from Psittacine, or parrot-like, birds. In 2001, zero cases were reported among New York City residents.8

Whether or not you’re a pigeon proponent, Portugal believes pigeons benefit urban environments and asserts, “They're actually one of the few bits of wildlife that people get to interact with in cities now, (plus) they're super-adaptable and super-successful; they’re the ultimate survivors. Actually, we can learn a lot from them.”9

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