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Do Pigeons Leave The City? - A Short Story on Pigeons

October 15, 2021

Pigeons are the birds that a lot of people are most familiar with (The Wildlife Trusts, 2020). They are in cities, towns, and rural settings, and are known for not being particularly shy around humans. Domestic pigeons are spectacularly diverse and are among the most widely distributed bird species. (Shapiro, et al., 2013) (Holt, et al., 2018). The pigeons in our cities are descendants of domestic pigeons, which evolved from wild rock pigeons or rock doves, Columba livia, and adapted to urban habitats. (The Wildlife Trusts, 2020) (Rose, Nagel, & Haag-Wackernagel, 2006). The rock dove is the wild ancestor of domestic pigeons the world over, domesticated originally to provide food. (RSPB, 2020).

Related: Rock dove (feral pigeon) 

What is the difference between wild rock pigeons and feral city pigeons?

Breeds

The Feral Pigeon comes in all shades; blue, black, pale grey with checkered markings, brick-red, cinnamon-brown, white, with some, even resembling the wild rock dove perfectly. (The Wildlife Trusts, 2020) (RSPB, 2020). Intensive selective breeding of the domestic rock pigeon (Columba livia) has resulted in more than 350 breeds that show differences in morphology and behavior (Holt, et al., 2018) (Stringham, et al., 2012). The large differences between breeds makes them useful for studying the genetic basis of phenotypic changes (Holt, et al., 2018). 

Location

The wild, 'pure' rock dove is the ancestor of all domesticated and city pigeons. It is now only found around rocky sites and cliffs in remote areas. It was originally domesticated to provide food but found its way into towns, cities, farmland, and woodlands. Feral pigeons now breed almost everywhere, except in upland areas. (The Wildlife Trusts, 2020)

Diet

There are some differences between the diets of wild Rock Doves and Feral pigeons. Wild Rock Doves depend on cereals from arable farms for most of the year. Some earthworm cocoons and small snails were also taken throughout most of the year (Murton & Westwood, 1966). In contrast, Feral Pigeons in cities depend directly on humans for food for much of the year. This is shown by the presence of bread, cake, and domestic scraps like cheese, popcorn, and bacon rind in the diet, as well as exotic seeds like Millet, Canary seed, Maize, and Peanuts that are given to the birds by the public. However, when feeding away from cities, feral pigeons will eat waste grain, seeds, berries, acorns, earthworms, and insects so that their diet was similar to that of wild Rock Doves (Kaufman, 2020) (Murton & Westwood, 1966).

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What do pigeons do in urban ecosystems?

City pigeons are often disliked and the high densities that occur in some urban areas have made them a pest (The Wildlife Trusts, 2020). However, pigeons are extremely interesting and useful in research. Charles Darwin was fascinated by the domestic rock pigeon and used them as an example to explain his theory about natural selection (Shapiro, et al., 2013). In The Origin of Species, Darwin repeatedly calls attention to the striking variation among domestic pigeon breeds, which were generated by thousands of years of artificial selection by human breeders, as a model for natural divergence among wild populations and species (Stringham, et al., 2012). C. livia is also widely studied in ecology, genetics, physiology, behavior, and evolutionary biology. They have also been used as a model for understanding the molecular basis of anatomical diversity, the magnetic sense, and other key topics in avian biology. (Holt, et al., 2018)


Rock pigeons on a street light


There is a misconception that they can cause diseases in humans. Studies have found that although feral pigeons can pose sporadic health risks to humans, the risk is very low, even for people who work closely with pigeons and are in contact with nesting sites (Haag-Wackernagel & Moch, 2004).

Feral pigeons are also disliked for the effects they have on a building when they use them for perching, sleeping, and breeding. This is one of the reasons pigeons are seen as pests. (Haag-Wackernagel & Geigenfeind, 2008)

Sometimes feral pigeons can be a nuisance in cities, but there is no proof that they have a negative impact on native bird species in the US. In fact, Feral pigeons are the favorite prey of the Peregrine Falcon, and pigeon populations support Peregrines that live in cities (Kaufman, 2020).

Birds provide ecosystem services to humans in the case of birdwatching, hunting, as pets, and through inspiring photography, art, and religious customs, and pigeons are no exception (Michel, Whelan, & Verutes, 2020). Perhaps one of the most important services birds like city pigeons provide is a link between urban environments and the natural world, and an easy encounter with wildlife (Belaire, Westphal, Whelan, & Minor, 2015) (The Wildlife Trusts, 2020). We talk further about the ecosystem service that birds provide in another article on our blog.

Humans have selectively bred wild Rock Pigeons since early Egyptian times and they have been domesticated and taken around the world, raised for food, trained for homing, racing, and carrying messages, and used in research. (Murton & Westwood, 1966) (Kaufman, 2020). Pigeons even took messages back and forth during wartime; some pigeons received medals for bravery and service during the World Wars. (The Wildlife Trusts, 2020)

Despite all these positive impacts and facts about city pigeons, in urban areas where the numbers are allowed to increase, they have sometimes been considered a nuisance. You can help by not feeding Feral Pigeons in areas where they may cause problems. (RSPB, 2020) (The Wildlife Trusts, 2020)

Related: Bird Behavior: Identification Through Observation

Where do Rock Pigeons traditionally live? Do they ever leave cities? 

Wild rock pigeons are native to Europe, North Africa, and India where they nest on cliffs along the coast and in inland mountains and gorges. (Kaufman, 2020) Feral pigeons now live in cities all over the world, on 6 continents including most of North America (Kaufman, 2020). In some places feral pigeons have reverted to living in wild habits, nesting on cliffs far from cities (Kaufman, 2020). In North America, feral pigeons are most common around cities, in suburban areas and farms, and occasionally in wild places far from human dwellings (Kaufman, 2020).

Feral pigeons are not migratory. If they are displaced from a nesting area they have a good homing ability, which is why they were used to carrying messages as we talked about earlier. (Kaufman, 2020). One study in Basel, Switzerland equipped free-living feral pigeons with GPS receivers. This showed that the maximum distance reached by a pigeon was 5.29 km. More than 32% of the pigeons remained within 0.3 km of their home lofts and only 7.5% flew distances of more than 2 km. So, pigeons seem not to leave cities much at all! (Rose, Nagel, & Haag-Wackernagel, 2006).

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References

Belaire, J. A., Westphal, L.  M., Whelan, C. J., & Minor, E. S. (2015). Urban residents’ perceptions of  birds in the neighborhood: Biodiversity, cultural ecosystem services, and  disservices. The Condor, 192-202.

Haag-Wackernagel, D., &  Geigenfeind , I. (2008). Protecting buildings against feral pigeons. European  Journal of Wildlife Research volume, 715–721.

Haag-Wackernagel, D., &  Moch, H. (2004). Health hazards posed by feral pigeons. Journal of  Infection, 307-313.

Holt, C., Campbell, M.,  Keays, D. A., Edelman, N., Kapusta, A., Maclary, E., . . . Shapiro, M. D.  (2018). Improved Genome Assembly and Annotation for the Rock Pigeon (Columba  livia). G3 Genes|Genomes|Genetics, 8(4).

Kaufman, K. (2020). Rock  Pigeon. Retrieved from Audubon: https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/rock-pigeon

Michel, N. L., Whelan, C.  J., & Verutes, G. M. (2020). Ecosystem services provided by Neotropical  birds. The Condor, 1-21.

Murton , R. K., &  Westwood, N. J. (1966). The foods of the Rock Dove and Feral Pigeon. Bird  Study, 130-146.

Rose, E., Nagel, P., &  Haag-Wackernagel, D. (2006). Spatio-temporal use of the urban habitat by  feral pigeons (Columba livia ). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology volume,  242-254.

RSPB. (2020). Rock  dove/Feral pigeon Rock dove (feral pigeon) Rock dove (feral pigeon) .  Retrieved from Royal Society for the Protection of Birds:  https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/rock-dove/

Shapiro, M. D., Kronenberg,  Z., Li, C., Domyan, E. T., Pan, H., Campbell, M., . . . Yandell. (2013).  Genomic Diversity and Evolution of the Head Crest in the Rock Pigeon. Science,  339(6123), 1063-1067.

Stringham, S. A., Mulroy, E.  E., Xing, J., Record, D., Guernsey, M. W., & Aldenhoven, J. T. (2012).  Divergence, Convergence, and the Ancestry of Feral Populations in the  Domestic Rock Pigeon. Current Biology, 22(4), 302-308.

The Wildlife Trusts. (2020).  Rock dove . Retrieved from The Wildlife Trusts:  https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/birds/pigeons-and-doves/rock-dove