They flock our cities
by the millions. Seemingly unremarkable grey birds - they are smarter than we think. Pigeons are master fliers, navigators
and have an incredible ability to find their way home from distant, unfamiliar locations. Just how pigeons do this is a question
many scientists across the globe are investigating. Join National Geographic as we explore the genius of pigeons!
Master fliers and navigators, pigeons have an incredible ability to find their
way. There is more to pigeons than you think!
- Pigeons are monogamous. Once mated, they usually
mate for life unless forcibly separated.
- The pectoral muscle makes up nearly a third of a
pigeon's body weight, making it one of the most muscle-bound birds on the planet.
- Pigeons have served our country well. Their service
in both World Wars has been credited for saving thousands of soldiers' lives.
- Military strategists regarded pigeons as one of
the most effective means of communication and were more reliable than radios during the World Wars. While racehorses are revered
for their 35-mile-per-hour sprints, homing pigeons can fly 500 air miles in one day, flying up to 60 miles per hour! Pigeon
eyesight is excellent – significantly better than humans. They see in millions of colours, including ultraviolet
light. Because of their extraordinary eyesight, pigeons can be beneficial for human search-and-rescue missions. Able
to hear sounds at much lower frequencies than humans, this allows them to hear approaching thunderstorms and even distant
volcanoes. This may explain why pigeons sometimes fly away for no apparent reason.
To support his theory of evolution, Charles Darwin depended on the study of his pigeons. B.F. Skinner
taught his pigeons to play ping-pong.
How old are pigeons?
Pigeons have lived alongside
man for thousands of years with the first images of pigeons being found by archaeologists in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq)
and dating back to 3000 BC. It was the Sumerians in Mesopotamia that first started
to breed white doves from the wild pigeon that we see in our towns and cities today and this undoubtedly accounts for the
amazing variety of colours that are found in the average flock of urban pigeons. To ancient peoples a white pigeon would
have seemed miraculous and this explains why the bird was widely worshipped and considered to be sacred. Throughout
human history the pigeon has adopted many roles ranging from symbols of gods and goddesses through to sacrificial victims,
messengers, pets, food and even war heroes
The first biblical reference
to the pigeon (or dove) was in the Old Testament of the Bible in the first millennium AC and was the story of Noah and the
dove of peace. Later, in the New Testament, the pigeon was first mentioned during the baptism of Christ where the dove
descended as the Holy Spirit, an image now used extensively in Christian art. These early biblical references have paved
the way for the many different ways that the urban pigeon is viewed in modern societies worldwide. Perception of the
pigeon through the centuries has changed from God to the devil and from hero to zero!
Although pigeon poo
is seen as a major problem for property owners in the 21st Century, it was considered to be an invaluable resource in the
16th, 17th and 18th century in Europe. Pigeon poop was a highly prized fertiliser and
considered to be far more potent than farmyard manure. So prized in fact that armed guards were stationed at the entrances
to dovecotes (pigeon houses) to stop thieves stealing it! Not only this, but in England in the 16th century pigeon poop
was the only known source of saltpetre, an essential ingredient of gunpowder and was considered a highly valued commodity
as a result. In Iran, where eating pigeon flesh was forbidden, dovecotes were set up and used simply as a source of
fertilizer for melon crops and in France and Italy it was used to fertilize vineyards and hemp crops.
The pigeon as a war hero
In modern times
the feral pigeon has been used to great effect during wartime. In both the first and second World Wars the pigeon saved
hundreds of thousands of human lives by carrying messages across enemy lines. Pigeons were carried on ships in convoys and
in the event of a U-boat attack a messenger pigeon was released with details of the location of the sinking ship. In many
cases this lead to the survivors being rescued and lives saved. Mobile pigeon lofts were set up behind the trenches
in the First World War from which pigeons often had to fly through enemy fire and poison gas to get their messages home. The
birds played a vital role in intelligence gathering and were used extensively behind enemy lines where the survival rate was
only 10%. In the Second World War pigeons were used less due to advances in telecommunications, but the birds relayed
invaluable information back to the allies about the German V1 and V2 Rocket sites on the other side of the Channel.
The pigeon as a messenger
The earliest large
scale communication network using pigeons as messengers was established in Syria
and Persia about 5th Century BC.
Much later in the 12th Century AD the city of Baghdad and all the main towns and cities in
Syria and Egypt
were linked by messages carried by pigeons. This was the sole source of communication. In Roman times the pigeon
was used to carry results of sporting events such as the Olympic Games and this is why white doves are released at the start
of the Olympic Games today. In England,
prior to the days of telegraphs, pigeons were often taken to soccer matches and released to carry home the result of the game.
Their use as a messenger in war time resulted in many pigeons being awarded honours by both the British and French Governments.
Incredibly, the last pigeon post service was abandoned in India
in 2004 with the birds being retired to live out the rest of their days in peace.
The religious significance of the pigeon
Many religious groups including Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs feed pigeons for religious reasons. Many older Sikhs
feed pigeons ceremoniously to honour the high priest and warrior Guru Govind Singh who was a known friend of the pigeon (or
rock dove). Some Sikhs also feed pigeons because they believe that when they are reincarnated they will never go hungry
if they have fed pigeons in their previous life. Other religious groups in India believe that when a person dies his or her soul assumes the form of a bird
(normally a pigeon) and therefore by feeding birds they are caring for the souls of their departed ancestors. The pigeon
is revered in India with huge flocks numbering
many thousands of birds being fed daily at Hindu temples in town and city centres throughout the country. In both eastern
and western societies many of the most entrenched pigeon-related problems in urban areas are considered to be caused, certainly
in part, by religious feeding of the birds. In the Christian religion the pigeon is both a symbol of peace and of the
During the First World War a pigeon named Cher Ami (Dear friend) saved the lives of many French soldiers by carrying
a message across enemy lines in the heat of battle. Cher Ami was shot in the chest and the leg, loosing most of the
leg to which the message was attached, but continued the 25 minute flight avoiding shrapnel and poison gas to get the message
home. Cher Ami was awarded the French Ã Croix de Guerre for heroic service. Another heroic pigeon named G.I. Joe
saved the lives of a thousand soldiers in World War 2 after British troops had established a position within an Italian town
that was due to be bombed by allied planes. Communication equipment was down and the only means of stopping the raid was to
attach a hastily written message to G.I. Joe and send him to the HQ. G.I. Joe flew 20 miles in 20 minutes arriving at
the air base whilst the planes were taxiing on the runway. Disaster was averted with 5 minutes to spare. G.I.
Joe received the Ã Dickens medal for his bravery.
Why do pigeons bob their heads?
The pigeon has side mounted eyes unlike humans and owls which have forward facing eyes. As a pigeons have monocular
vision rather than binocular vision they bob their heads for depth of perception. The pigeon’s eyes work much
better with stationary images and therefore, as the pigeon takes a step forward the head is temporarily left behind.
The next step jerks the head forward again and so on. This allows the bird to correctly orient itself.
Famous people and pigeons
The humble pigeon
has attracted some very famous fans over the last few thousand years ranging from Royalty to rock and roll singers and actors
through to fashion designers. One of the most famous royals is Queen Elizabeth of England
who has lofts and pigeon keepers at her estate in Sandringham, Norfolk.
Elvis Presley had a soft spot for pigeons and Mike Tyson is also an enthusiastic pigeon keeper. Even Maurizzo Gucci
the internationally renowned fashion designer is a keen pigeon fancier spending a reputed $10,000 on one American pigeon.
'One famous couple, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, are keen pigeon fanciers but after being swamped by autograph hunters
at a pigeon show they are apparently less comfortable to show their affection for the birds publicly.' Last but not
least, and probably the most famous of all... Noah!
Just as a matter of interest the Royal Pigeons won more races than
the Royal Horses in one particular season.
Tony Curtis and Lee Marvin both keen deep sea fishermen and pigeon fanciers
visited the south coast of Western Australia chasing the white pointer shark, one well know fancier who shall remain nameless
had a knock on his door, when he opened it was those two people wanting to have a look at his pigeons.
To see more famous
people that had or have pigeons have a look at
Pigeons as lifesavers
Although pigeons are one of the most intelligent of all the bird species man has found limited uses for the birds other
than for the purposes of sport, food and as a message carrier. A team of navy researchers, however, has found that pigeons
can be trained to save human lives at sea with high success rates. Project
Sea Hunt has trained a number of pigeons to identify red or yellow life
jackets when floating in the water. The pigeons were not only found to be more reliable than humans but they were also
many times quicker than humans when it came to spotting survivors from a capsized or sinking boat. The pigeon can see
colour in the same way that humans do but they can also see ultra-violet, a part of the spectrum that humans cannot see, and
this is one of the reasons they are so well adapted to lifesaving.
Pigeons in Wall Street
One of the richest and most famous families in the world amassed its wealth, certainly in part, as a result of exploiting
the pigeon. In the early 1800s the Rothschild family set up a network of pigeon lofts throughout Europe
and used homing pigeons to carry information between its financial houses. This method proved to be quicker and more
efficient than any other means of communication available at the time. The speed of the service combined with the ability
to send and receive information ahead of the competition helped the Rothschild family amass a fortune which still exists today.
Rock Dove or a pigeon
The feral pigeon that we see in our towns and cities today is descended from the Rock Dove (Columba livia), a cliff
dwelling bird historically found in coastal regions. The word pigeon is actually derived from the Latin word pipio which
meant young bird. The word then passed into Old French as pijon and thus the English name Ã pigeon was derived and is
now used the world over as a common name for the Rock Dove. Other common names include domestic pigeon and the feral
pigeon. In 2004 British and American Ornithologists officially re-named the bird the Rock Pigeon
How do pigeons navigate?
There are many theories about how pigeons manage to return home when released 100s of miles from their loft.
A champion racing pigeon can be released 400-600 miles away from its home and still return within the day. This amazing feat
does not just apply to racing or homing pigeons, all pigeons have the ability to return to their roost. A 10-year study
carried out by Oxford University
concluded that pigeons use roads and freeways to navigate, in some cases even changing direction at freeway junctions.
Other theories include navigation by use of the earth’s magnetic field, visual clues such as landmarks, the sun and
even infrasound’s (low frequency seismic waves). Whatever the truth, this unique ability makes the pigeon
a very special bird.
What is the natural predator of the pigeon?
Although the natural enemy of the feral pigeon is now man, with millions of pigeons being killed in control operations
the world over, it is the peregrine falcon that is the pigeons real natural predator. Although a shy and retiring bird
that has its natural habitat along rocky coastlines, the peregrine is now being introduced into towns and cities as a natural
pigeon control. The peregrine is the fastest bird on the planet when in a dive and can achieve speeds in excess of 200
mph, over 130 mph faster than a pigeon
Mating habits of the pigeon
The feral pigeon mates for life and can breed up to 8 times a year in optimum conditions, bringing two young into the
world each time. The frequency of breeding is dictated by the abundance of food. The eggs take 18/19 days to hatch
with both parents incubating the eggs. Young dependant pigeons are commonly known as squabs. Both parents feed
the young with a special pigeon milk that is regurgitated and fed to the squabs. Each squab can double its birth weight
in one day but it takes 4 days for the eyes to open. When squabs are hungry they squeak whilst flapping their wings and as
a result they are also commonly known as squeakers. At approximately 2 months of age the young are ready to fledge and
leave the nest. This much longer than average time spent in the nest ensures that life expectancy of a juvenile pigeon
is far greater than that of other fledglings.
Why do you never see a baby pigeon?
Most small birds rear and fledge their young in 2/3 weeks with young birds sometimes leaving the nest after only 10
days of life, but pigeons are different, their young remain in the nest for up to 2 months before fledging. This gives
the young pigeon an advantage over many other species of bird. It leaves the nest as a relatively mature juvenile, allowing
the bird to cope better in the first few days of its life, a dangerous time for all youngsters. Juveniles can be told
apart from adults but it takes an experienced eye. A juvenile beak often appears to be far too long for the size of its body
and the cere (the fleshy area at the top of the beak) is white in adults and greyish pink in juveniles.
Pigeon-gram Air Mail service
The first organised pigeon air-mail service was started in 1896 between New Zealand
and the Great Barrier Reef. The sinking of the SS Wairarapa off the Great
Barrier Reef, with the loss of 134 lives, was a catalyst for the service. News of the disaster did not reach
New Zealand for 3-days and as a direct
result a pigeon-gram service was set up between the two islands. The first message was carried in January 1896 and took
less than 1.75 hours to reach Auckland. Up to 5 messages
were carried by each pigeon with the record time for the journey being held by a pigeon called Velocity taking only 50 minutes
and averaging 125 km (only 40% slower than a modern aircraft!). Special pigeon-gram stamps were issued costing 2/- each
(20 cents) with the fee being paid in cash before the pigeon was released.
Pigeons are big business
We normally think of the pigeon as being an unwelcome guest in our towns and cities but most of us are unaware that
racing pigeons can be worth huge sums of money. One racing pigeon recently sold for a staggering $132,517.00!
The 3-year old bird was a champion racer beating 21,000 other pigeons in one long distance race. For this reason he
was bought by one British company that breeds racing pigeons for stud. One very happy pigeon! The previous record
price for a pigeon was $73, 800.00.
Probably the greatest disaster to befall the species was the extermination of the passenger pigeon in North
America in the early part of the 20th century. It is estimated that there were 3-5 billion passenger pigeons in
North America at the time. Flocks of 100,000 of the birds would blacken the skies as
they flew over but early settlers managed to wipe out every last bird by 1914 through over-hunting. A more recent, and
quite bizarre disaster, befell tens of thousands of racing pigeons released from Nantes in
France as part of a race held to celebrate the centenary of the Royal Racing
Pigeon Association in England. 60,000
pigeons were released but only a few birds ever arrived back at their lofts throughout southern England. One theory suggests that the sonic boom created by Concorde as it
flew over the English Channel, at the precise time the pigeons would have been at the same
point, completely disorientated the birds, compromising their inbuilt navigation system
Pigeons in the news
One of the world’s most famous news agencies, Reuters, started its European business by using trained homing
pigeons. The service was started in 1850 with 45 pigeons carrying the latest news and stock prices from Aachen
in Germany to Brussels in Belgium. Although a telegraph service between the two
countries existed, numerous gaps in the transmission lines made communication difficult and slow. The birds travelled the
76 miles in a record-breaking two hours beating the railway by four hours.
Are pigeons intelligent?
are considered to be one of the most intelligent birds on the planet with pigeons being able to undertake tasks previously
thought to be the sole preserve of humans and primates. The pigeon has also been found to pass the mirror test (being
able to recognise its reflection in a mirror) and is one of only 6 species, and the only non-mammal, that has this ability.
The pigeon can also recognise all 26 letters of the English language as well as being able to conceptualise. In scientific
tests pigeons have been found to be able to differentiate between photographs and even differentiate between two different
human beings in a photograph when rewarded with food for doing so.
Here are a couple of facts my own
A grown pigeon has nearly 10,000 feathers if you don't believe me count them
it beats it's wings ten times a second, it can maintain a heart beat of 600 per minute for up to 16 hours
and is regarded as the unequalled athlete of the air
The pigeon has a visual memory that can store at least 300 objects
or images indefinitely, pound for pound the pigeon is one of the smartest most physically adept creatures in the animal kingdom
PIGEONS-THE FEATHERED FRIEND WE LOVE BUT CAN’T UNDERSTAND.
PIGEONS- THE SAME BIRDS JUST MORE OF THEM.
RACING PIGEON-THE BIRD WE RACE NOT KNOWING WHY IT RACES. HOMING PIGEON-HAS ABILITY TO RETURN HOME ROLLER PIGEON-STOPS FLYING AND STARTS ROLLING, PIGEON PICTURE-ATTAINABLE HERE PASSENGER PIGEON-THE ONES THAT ARE AROUND...DO NOT FLY. PIGEON CONTROL-OFTEN AIDED BY HAWKS.
PIGEON AUCTION-WHERE YOU CAN BUY TOP QUALITY RACING PIGEONS LOFT PIGEON-THE ONES THAT ARE TAKEN CARE OF BY FANCIERS. CLAY PIGEON-I TRIED FLYING THEM; IT DOESN’T WORK. THEY DON’T HOME.
FANCY PIGEON-NOT GOOD FOR RACING. BUT THEY ARE VERY PRETTY.
CARRIER PIGEON-A HOMING PIGEONS WITH A NOTE ON ITS LEG.
PIGEON SUPPLY-BUSINESS NOTABLE FOR PIGEON NECESSITIES.
BREED PIGEON-SOMETHING WE DO WHEN WE WANT VERY GOOD BIRDS.
WHITE PIGEON-#1 HAWK BAIT.
PIGEON TRAP-PIGEONS MAIN ENTRANCE TO LOFT.
PIGEON RAISING-THE 24-7 ART OF CARING.
PIGEON COOP-WHERE WE KEEP THEM.
BIRD PIGEON-NOT THE COMPUTER CHIP.
PIGEON POINT-WHAT IT MAKES WHEN IT COMES HOME.
PIGEON PHOTO-AVAILABLE BY APPOINTMENT ONLY.
CLOCK PIGEON-WHAT WE DO TO FIGURE OUT HOW FAST THEY FLY.
STOOL PIGEON-NOT THE BIRD TO WIN PIGEON RACE