A while back I was, would you believe, excited that a rainbow-hued feral pigeon arrived on my bird table. How pretty! What a novelty!
That was the end of March. Around that time I started putting out a slightly different (cheaper) wild birdfood mix, with more corn in it.
Then there were two similar pigeons – in fact I thought it was still only one as I didn’t see them together. But one is darker, a bit sooty. I realise now I had never really looked at feral pigeons before – they have great variety. Read more about it later in this post…
So anyway, when I put the bird food out in the morning they were there, waiting. They would almost eat out of my hand. One day I scattered some seed on the ground, as it was easier for them to eat. BAD MOVE!
Suddenly there was a flock of seven pigeons! To be honest, they were quite interesting, as one was a sort of beige and white and one black-and-white piebald.
But you can have too much of a good thing. The last straw was one morning when they flew up in a flurry and one pooed on me! That’s it, I shouted at them, you’ve gone too far this time!
But this has made me ask questions about feral pigeons and where they originally came from. As usual, thank you to Wikipedia. Quite interesting…
The feral pigeon‘s Latin name is Columba livia, Columba meaning dove and livia meaning blue-ish. This is the same species as its domestic pigeon ancestors (feral just means “gone wild”) and as the original wild rock dove from which these were bred.
Every wonderful fancy pigeon, bred for show, is also a Columba livia, even though there are about 800 different breeds, all looking very different.
The illustration above comes from a wonderful website called the Mumtaztic Pigeon Loft, which gives extensive information about fancy pigeon genetics. Amazing stuff!
All these pigeons and doves are Columba livia and all can interbreed. But the wild rock dove came originally from Europe, North Africa and Asia, where they lived happily on cliffs and rock ledges. No wonder their descendants find our tall city window ledges so appealing…
The wild rock dove has a particular look (or “phenotype”) and I have noticed feral pigeons in Cardiff bus station with the same appearance.
According to the RSPB, “feral pigeons come in all shades, some bluer, others blacker – some are pale grey with darker chequered markings, others an unusual shade of dull brick-red or cinnamon-brown, and still others can be more or less white while others look exactly like wild rock doves.”
These doves started to be domesticated thousands of years ago. They are mentioned in ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian records. They were bred for food and sport, and possibly religious purposes.
Today they abound in cities all over the world. St Mark’s Square in Venice and Trafalgar Square in London are famous for them. The cities of India are full of them. They were taken to the New World in the 17th century and now thrive among city skyscrapers.
I have often heard people ask: “Why do you never see a baby pigeon?” I don’t know the answer, but I have never seen one, either.
Baby pigeons are known as “squeakers” by enthusiasts but as “squabs” by people intending to cook them and eat them.
The words “dove” and “pigeon” seem to be interchangeable and as usual with English, they exist side by side because they came from Saxon roots (Germanic) and Norman roots (French).
“Dove” seems to come from Old English dufe, which in German is taube, while “pigeon” comes from Old French pijon, possibly from Latin pipio, to cheep.
We have two other members of the Columbidae family as regular visitors to our garden…
While the wood pigeon (Columba palumbus) is in the same genus as the feral pigeon, the collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto) is in the same family but not the same genus.
In English “pigeon toed” means someone whose toes turn in like a pigeon’s. “Pigeon chested” does not, as you might think, mean with a huge puffed-up chest. It means a very narrow chest with the sternum in the middle sticking out like a bird’s. Then there is “pigeon livered”, which means more or less “lily-livered” (white livered) or cowardly.
As for “pigeon English”? Well that’s “pidgin English”, meaning a mix between two languages (such as Chinese and English), used for communication. “Pidgin” seems to be a Chinese mishearing or mis-pronunciation of the word “business”.
Talking of words – the homing pigeon is also a domesticated Columba livia trained to find its way home from great distances (for sport) and if used for carrying messages it is called a carrier pigeon. As for a passenger pigeon? That’s not used for carrying passengers! It’s a now extinct North American pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, from the same family as all the pigeons and doves above but not the same genus. The name passenger comes from the French word “passager”, to pass by, as it was migratory.
I’ve eased off on the bird seed now and things seem to be calming down. We are back to one or two pigeons sitting around on the roof, looking out for an opportunity…