Table of Contents

Bird Anatomy

Latin Name: Columba livia (‘dove’ or ‘bird of leaden or blue-grey colour’).

Common Names: Pigeon, dove, blue rock pigeon, rock dove, wild rock pigeon, rock pigeon, feral pigeon.

Derivation: The word ‘pigeon’ is derived from the Latin word ‘pipio’, meaning ‘young cheeping bird’. The word ‘dove’ is of Norse origin and first appeared in the 14th century as ‘dova’ or ‘douve’.

Bird Order: Columbiformes

Family: Columbidae (includes 315 different species)

Subspecies: C. l. livia, C. l. atlantis, C. l. canariensis, C. l. gymnocyclus, C. l. targia, C. l. nigricans, C. l. dakhlae, C. l. schimperi, C. l. intermedia, C. l. palaestinae, C. l. gaddi, C. l. neglecta

Varieties: 350 recorded varieties.

Most Common: Feral Pigeon - 10-15 million in Europe.

Origin: Europe, North Africa and Asia.

Habitat: The wild pigeon is found in coastal areas and the feral pigeon is found almost exclusively in areas of human habitation.

Distribution: Worldwide except Sahara Desert, Antarctica and the high Arctic. European population estimated at between 17 and 28 million birds.

Description (adult of the nominate subspecies of the rock pigeon):

  • 32-37 cm long
  • 64-72 cm wingspan
  • Dark bluish-grey head, neck and chest with glossy greenish and reddish-purple iridescence around the neck and wing feathers
  • Orange or red iris with pale inner ring (adult) or brown or greyish brown (juveniles)
  • Black bill with off-white cere
  • Red feet and legs
  • Distinctive twin black wing bars
  • White lower back feathers


  • Breeds all year round with peak breeding periods in spring and summer
  • All columbiformes are monogamous (mate for life)
  • Wild birds breed on coastal cliffs and some inland cliffs
  • Feral birds breed on or in buildings, usually in urban areas
  • Flimsy nest built on rocky shelf (wild) or accessible ledge on a building or in the roof void of a building (feral)
  • Two white eggs that are incubated by both parents for 17-19 days
  • The squab (chick) has yellow down and a pink bill
  • Squabs are fed on ‘crop milk’ by both parents
  • Fledging period is approximately 30 days depending on time of year
  • Pigeons can breed at 6 months of age
Pigeon nest and 2 eggs
Pigeon nest and 2 eggs
Pigeon squab and egg
Pigeon squab and egg
Adult pigeon on nest
Adult pigeon on nest
Pigeon egg
Pigeon egg
Pigeon squabs day 1
Pigeon squab 1 day
Pigeon squabs day 1
Pigeon squab 1 day
Pigeon squab 3 days
Pigeon squab 3 days
Pigeon squab 3 days
Pigeon squab 3 days
Pigeon squab 5 days
Pigeon squab 5 days
Pigeon squabs 8 days
Pigeon squab 8 days
Pigeon squabs 8 days
Pigeon squab 8 days

Pigeon squabs 8 days
Pigeon squab 8 days
Pigeon squabs 10 days
Pigeon squabs 10 days
Pigeon squab 14 days
Pigeon squab 14 days

Pigeon squab 14 days
Pigeon squab 14 days
Pigeon squab 16 days
Pigeon squab 16 days
Pigeon squab 16 days
Pigeon squab 16 days
Juvenile pigeons in nest
Juvenile pigeons in nest
Juvenile pigeons in nest
Juvenile pigeons in nest
Juvenile pigeon with mother
Juvenile pigeon with mother
Fledged juvenile pigeon
Fledged juvenile pigeon
Fledged juvenile pigeon
Fledged juvenile pigeon

Diet: Seeds form the major component of the diet, but it varies greatly according to species. Some ground feeding species (granivorous species) eat fruit and take insects and worms. One species, the Atoll Fruit Dove, has adapted to taking insects and small reptiles. The feral pigeon found in urban areas exists exclusively on a diet of seed (normally from human sources) and human refuse, such as fast food waste. Wood pigeons have a varied diet which includes vegetables and berries.

Life Expectancy: Varies greatly from 3-5 years through to 15 years dependent on many factors, including natural predation and human interference.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

Predation: The wild pigeon is predated upon, almost exclusively, by the peregrine falcon, a bird that is also found living and breeding in coastal regions. The sparrowhawk may also predate on the wild pigeon. The feral pigeon has few if any natural predators, with man being the main threat to the bird in areas of human habitation.

Characteristics and Attributes:

  • Pigeons can fly at altitudes of 6000 feet or more
  • Pigeons can fly at average speeds of up to 77.6 mph but have been recorded flying at 92.5 mph
  • Pigeons can fly between 600 and 700 miles in a single day, with the longest recorded flight in the 19th century taking 55 days between Africa and England and covering 7000 miles
  • Pigeons are thought to navigate by sensing the earth’s magnetic field and using the sun for direction. Other theories include the use of roads and even low frequency seismic waves to find their way home
  • Pigeons (and all the columbidae family) drink by sucking water and using their beaks like straws. Most birds sip water and then throw their head back to swallow
  • Pigeons, like humans, can see in colour, but unlike humans they can also see ultraviolet light, a part of the spectrum that humans cannot see. As a result, pigeons are often used in search and rescue missions at sea because of this unique sense combined with excellent all-round vision
  • Pigeons have been found to pass the ‘mirror test’, the ability to recognise its own reflection in a mirror. The pigeon is one of only 6 species, and the only non-mammal, to have this ability
  • Pigeons are highly intelligent and can recognise all 26 letters of the alphabet as well as being able to conceptualise. Pigeons can differentiate between photographs and even two different human beings in a single photograph.

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Domestication of the Rock Dove:

Early wall painting of man with dove

Early wall painting of
man with dove

The first mention of the domestication of the rock dove was found in Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets (pictographical writing on clay tablets) dating back over 5000 years. However, it is likely that rock doves were domesticated by Neolithic man as far back as 10,000 years ago in and around the alluvial plains of the Tigris and Euphrates. It was at this time that Neolithic man was starting to cultivate cereal crops and domesticate animals for food. In pre-history it is likely that rock doves lived alongside man in caves and on cliff faces.

Images of pigeons were first found on the reconstructed façade of an excavated temple dedicated to the goddess Ninhursag (Queen of Heaven and Earth) at Al’Ubaid in Sumeria in 3000 BC. Many more clay images of pigeons have been found during excavations of sites in Iraq and Crete dating back to 3000 BC. During the excavation of an Egyptian tomb in 3000 BC, the bones of pigeons were found in what is thought to have been the remains of a funerary meal. Although images of the pigeon have been found dating as far back as 3000 BC, it is not clear what role the pigeon played in these ancient civilisations and to what extent the bird was domesticated.

Later, in 1100 BC, King Rameses III sacrificed 57,000 pigeons to the god Ammon at Thebes, confirming that the pigeon was well on the way to being domesticated not only for food but also for religious purposes. Mention of pigeon sacrifices can also be found in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

The pigeon is probably best known for its ability to return ‘home’ from long distances and has been used extensively by man for this purpose. The earliest reference to the pigeon being used to carry messages dates back to 2500 BC and the tradition has continued throughout history. The Romans and ancient Greeks used the pigeon extensively for carrying messages and the first sophisticated messaging service was established in Syria and Persia in the 12th century AD, with messages being carried by pigeons from city to city.

Carrier Pigeons - World War 1

Carrier Pigeons - WW1

Later, in the 19th century, the pigeon was used for commercial purposes, carrying messages for financial institutions and news agencies in Europe and even providing an airmail service in New Zealand. In the 20th century, pigeons were used extensively in both Great Wars to carry messages, and as a result of their bravery and heroism, tens of thousands of human lives were saved. The last messaging service using pigeons was disbanded in 2006 by the police force in the city of Orrisa, India.

Dedicated pigeon houses, or dovecotes, were believed to have existed in very early times in southern Palestine and later in Egypt in 44 BC.

Ancient Egyptian pigeon house 44 AD

Ancient Egyptian pigeon
house 44 AD

However, a detailed and well-preserved Roman mosaic dating from 200 BC shows a dovecote with a thatched roof in which there are numerous flight holes with pigeons perching both on the roof and flying above it. This confirms that the pigeon was being bred in dedicated facilities over 2200 years ago. The Sicilian historian Diadorous, writing about the period circa 300 BC, also described a mud building with a reed thatched roof that was used to house domesticated pigeons, further confirming that organised domestication had been established in this period.

The dovecote has played an essential role in the domestication of the pigeon throughout history, with facilities ranging from extremely crude early examples in the form of basic clay pots through to highly ornate detached buildings housing many thousands of birds in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Dovecote, Dieppe, France

Dovecote, Dieppe, France

Pigeons were housed and bred within these structures for food, their excrement (which was used as fertiliser and as an ingredient for gunpowder), sport and as messengers. The tradition of housing pigeons in man-made structures continued until the 20th century and is described in more detail in the Dovecotes article.

The pigeon was domesticated not only for its ability to return home and as a source of food and by-products, but also for the purposes of sport. Man has found many sporting uses for the pigeon throughout history, with the earliest known example being the sport of Triganieri. It is unclear when this ancient sport first started, but the early Greeks and Romans are believed to have participated in it. The sport involves each participant using captive pigeons, released from several pigeon lofts or dovecotes at the same time, and to lure as many birds as possible away from adjoining lofts using specially trained pigeons. The captured birds were either killed or held for ransom. This sport has continued through the centuries and is still played today. In the Turkish city of Urfa the sport involves over 500 flocks in a single event.

Pigeon cage trap

Pigeon Cage Trap

Other sporting uses for the pigeon included the use of falconry, known as the ‘Sport of Kings’, where both domesticated and wild pigeons were killed for sport. The sport is believed to have started prior to the 10th century AD. At the end of the 17th century, with the advent of the shotgun, falconry dwindled in popularity, but a new, more deadly sport took its place – pigeon shooting. In the Middle East, domesticated pigeons are still used today as bait for falconers.

Organised pigeon shoots started in the 18th century where huge numbers of domesticated birds were released and shot at point-blank range. Incredibly, the sport continues today in the USA where huge numbers of feral pigeons are cage-trapped by unscrupulous pest controllers and netted by illegal gangs and then sold to shooting clubs. The birds are then released in front of shooters, many with semi-automatic weapons, and shot at point-blank range.

Pigeon Transporter

Pigeon Transporter

Probably the most common use for the domesticated pigeon today is pigeon racing, a sport that is popular in virtually every country in the world. It is not known when pigeon racing for sport first started, probably in very early history, but pigeon racing as we know it today first started in Belgium in 1850. The sport grew in popularity and peaked in 1960, when there were 170,000 pigeon fanciers in the UK alone. Today the sport is in decline, but pigeons that are considered to be good breeding stock can exchange hands for as much as £65,000.

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The Pigeon as an Icon and Symbol:

Since its domestication many thousands of years ago, the pigeon has been revered by many religions, including Hindu, Islam, Christian and Sikh. Although Neolithic man (circa 8500 BC onwards) undoubtedly domesticated the rock dove, there is little indication that the bird was used for anything but food.

Ancient Persian Dovecote

Ancient Persian Dovecote

The first historical indication of there being religious significance associated with the domesticated pigeon was in 3000 BC during excavations of temples and tombs in Egypt, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and Crete. Images of pigeons were first found in an excavated temple dedicated to the goddess Ninhursag (Queen of Heaven and Earth) at Al’Ubaid in Sumeria. On the reconstructed façade of the temple, a limestone frieze was found showing a row of sitting pigeons. Another discovery, found in Copper/Bronze Age tombs (3rd/4th millennium BC) excavated on the island of Cyprus, revealed large number of clay bowls, some decorated with doves. These closely resemble similar clay bowls found on the island of Crete. The bowls are thought to have been used for sacrificial worship or have some other religious significance.

Excavations of tombs dating back to 1600 BC at Mycenae in southern Greece revealed two ornaments that depict doves. One is of a goddess holding a dove in either hand, and another perched on her head, and the other depicts an altar upon which doves are perched. Another excavation in Canaan (modern day Israel and Lebanon) dating back to 1200 BC found a terracotta relief depicting a Dove-goddess holding a dove in either hand. Further examples have been excavated from Canaanite temples dating between to 1100-1300 BC, one showing a model of a shrine shaped roughly like a dovecote with pigeons sitting within the dovecote holes. These examples not only confirm the religious significance of the dove in early history but also confirm that the dove was bred in dedicated dovecote facilities for religious worship.

The pigeon was used as a sacrifice in early history, with King Rameses III, King of Egypt, sacrificing 57,000 pigeons to the god Ammon at Thebes in 1100 BC.

Pigeons in Judaism and Christianity

Noah and Dove of Peace

Noah and Dove
of Peace

The dove features strongly in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and references to frequent sacrifices exist in both. There are a number of references to the sacrifice of doves in the Talmud, a series of Jewish texts compiled between AD 250-500. Although the texts were compiled in AD 250-500, they are thought to relate to much earlier periods. The texts not only describe the sacrifices but also how the sacrificial birds should be reared and the correct ways of killing them. The dove is better known for its part in the Old Testament story of the Great Flood, however, when one returned to Noah with an olive branch. As a result, the dove has always been linked with peace and good news and is still released at the start of the Olympic Games today for this reason.

Pigeons and the Romans

Roman mosaic 3rd Century AD

Roman Mosaic
3rd Century AD

The Romans had a great affinity with the pigeon and although they sacrificed the dove to the goddess Venus, and therefore revered the bird, they also bred different varieties and used the pigeon widely as a messenger. Historian and philosopher Caius Pliny, writing in the 1st century AD, says: "Many people have quite a mania for pigeons, building turrets for them on house roofs and tracing the pedigrees of single birds...". The pigeon is commonly depicted throughout the Roman period but never in more detail than the superb Dove Mosaic discovered during the 18th century at Emperor Hadrian’s Villa. Another detailed mosaic, dating from 200 BC, shows a priest beside a shrine with an adjoining dovecote. The dovecote is detailed with pigeons on the roof and flying above it. This mosaic further confirms the connection between worship and the breeding of pigeons.

Pigeons and Islam

Prophet Mohammed depicted with dove

Prophet Mohammed
Depicted with Dove

Islam has had strong associations with the pigeon throughout history and that association continues today with large flocks being found in the holy city of Mecca, where breeding sites are provided for the birds and where pilgrims to Mecca purchase grain to feed them.
Pigeons waiting outside 21st century Mosque to be fed

Pigeons Waiting Outside
21st Century Mosque
to be Fed

At the shrine of Mohammed in Medina (western Saudi Arabia) the thousands of pigeons that gather there are commonly referred to as the ‘Prophet’s birds’.

Pigeon racing and fancying is still a popular sport in the Muslim world and the breed of pigeon known as the ‘Arabian Laughter’ is believed to have been introduced by Mohammed and is still bred today.

Pigeons and Hinduism

Pigeon feeding in India

Pigeon Feeding in India

The Hindu religion has also revered the dove throughout history, with the bird being mentioned as far back as 1500-1200 BC in the Rig Veda, an ancient hymn dedicated to the Aryan Deities. There are countless illustrations of the pigeon throughout Hindu history, depicted with various deities. The pigeon is still revered today, with huge flocks of pigeons being fed on a daily basis in temples throughout India, in many towns and cities in the UK and many other European cities.

Pigeons and Sikhism

The Sikh religion, founded in the 16th century, considers the dove to be a symbol of peace, harmony and goodwill. Sikhs believe that God's light is in all creatures including pigeons and other birds. As with the Hindu religion, Sikhs feed pigeons around temples in India and throughout the UK and many European cities today.

Pigeons being fed at temple

Pigeons Being Fed
at Temple

The feral pigeon that is directly descended from the domesticated rock dove is now perceived as being a pest and a nuisance in towns and cities throughout the world, and yet the bird is still revered in the 21st century. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs continue to revere the pigeon and the huge flocks of pigeons that can be seen in and around temples and places of worship confirm this. In towns and cities throughout the UK the continued growth of multi-racial groups has ensured that the feral pigeon is, to some small degree, still a symbol of peace and harmony.

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The Pigeon as a Messenger:

The pigeon is probably best known for its ability to return ‘home’ from long distances and has therefore been used extensively throughout history as a messenger, dating as far back as 2500 BC and continuing into the 21st century. The first historical mention of the pigeon being used to carry messages was in the city of Sumer in southern Mesopotamia in 2500 BC. The ruler of the city released two doves to carry the news of the relief of the city from its warring neighbours.

It is believed that pigeons have been bred in China since 772 BC, and according to author Salvador Bofarull, Indian and Arab merchants used carrier pigeons when visiting China. Several hundred years later, references have been found that confirm pigeons were used to carry messages attached to their legs. At the first Olympic Games held in 776 BC, every athlete taking part brought a homing pigeon from his village. If he won his event, his would be the bird that carried the news home.

In 532 BC a Greek poet referred to the pigeon as a message carrier in a poem entitled ‘Ode to a Carrier Pigeon’ and later, between 63 BC - AD 21, the Greek geographer Strabo noted that pigeons were trained to fly between certain points along the Mediterranean coastline to carry messages of the arrival of fish shoals for waiting fishermen. In the 5th century BC the first network of pigeon messengers is thought to have been established in Assyria and Persia by Cyrus the Great, and later in 53 BC Hannibal was thought to have used pigeons to carry despatches during the Battle of Modena. Julius Caesar is also believed to have used pigeons to carry messages during the conquest of Gaul (northern Italy, France, Belgium and western Switzerland) from 58 to 51 BC.

Pigeon post woodcarving 1481

Pigeon Post
Woodcarving 1481

In the 12th century AD Sultan Nur-ed-din built pigeon lofts and dovecotes in the cities of Cairo and Damascus, where pigeons were used to carry messages from Egypt to cities as far away as Baghdad in modern day Iraq. This extensive system of communication, using pigeons to link cities hundreds of miles apart, is considered to be the first organised pigeon messaging service. Also in the 12th century AD, during the siege of the city of Acre in northern Israel, the Sultan Saladin (Sultan of Egypt and Syria) used pigeons to send messages to his garrison. A century later, after the fall of Constantinople in 1204, the Italian victors sent messages back to Venice by pigeon, some 700 miles away.

In the early 1800s pigeons were used for the first time as commercial messengers by the Rothschild family to communicate between their financial houses. A series of pigeon lofts were set up across Europe where carrier pigeons were housed and then dispatched with important financial information. This method of communication was far more efficient and considerably faster than any other form available at the time, and it allowed the Rothschild family to play the markets ahead of the competition and amass a fortune as a result.

Later, in 1850, pigeons were used to great effect as commercial messengers by the world famous Reuters News Agency. The service was started in 1850 in Germany and pigeons flew between Aachen and Brussels in Belgium, carrying the latest news and prices of stocks and shares. A telegraph service had already been established between the two countries by 1850, but it was so unreliable, and there were so many gaps in the communication lines, that pigeons were used for their speed and reliability. Pigeons were able to travel the 76 miles between Aachen and Brussels in 2 hours, whereas the railway took over 6 hours to do the same journey.

During the siege of Paris by the Prussians in 1870-71, carrier pigeons were taken out of the city, along with refugees, by balloon. During the siege a total of 65 balloons escaped Paris, many carrying pigeons. The pigeons were then taken to pigeon lofts set up well outside the battle zone from where they could be sent to cities throughout France. Communication between the besieged city and the outside world then became possible as a result of this unique system of carrying messages.

Post Office Notice Paris 1870

Post Office Notice Paris 1870

Pigeon poster, Paris 1870

Pigeon Poster, Paris 1870

The Prussians became aware of the carrier pigeons and employed hawks in an attempt to catch them, but many of the birds got through and delivered their messages.

Medals commemorating the arrival of the pigeon post in Paris 1870

Medals commemorating the arrival of the pigeon post in Paris 1870

Airmail Service with Pigeons

The first airmail service using pigeons was established in 1896 in New Zealand and was known as the Pigeon-Gram Service. The service operated between The Great Barrier Reef and New Zealand, with pigeons covering the distance in 1.75 hours and averaging speeds of up to 77.6 mph, only 40% slower than a modern aircraft. Each pigeon carried 5 messages and special Pigeon-Gram stamps costing 2/- each (20 pence) were sold for each message carried.

Pigeon Post route, Auckland to Great Barrier Island

Pigeon Post Route, Auckland to Great Barrier Island

Pigeons in the First & Second World Wars

In the First World War, pigeons were used extensively for carrying messages. During the Battle of Ypres in 1915, pigeons were used to carry messages from the front line back to Brigade HQ, and although German marksmen were deployed to shoot the birds down, many survived and delivered their messages. Pigeons were also carried in tanks during battles and released through tiny portholes in the side. Mine-sweeping boats also carried pigeons so that in the event of an attack by a U-boat, a pigeon could be released with a message confirming the exact location of the sinking boat, often resulting in the crew being saved. Even seaplanes carried pigeons to relay urgent information about enemy movements. In the Second World War, pigeons were used less due to advances in telecommunication systems and radar, but they were still used in active service in Europe, India and Burma.

WWW1 Mobile Pigeon Loft - WW2 Paratrooper with Carrier Pigeon - GI Joe

WW1 Mobile Pigeon Loft - WW2 Paratrooper with Carrier Pigeon - GI Joe

The last pigeon messaging service was disbanded in 2006 after 60 years of active service. India’s Police Pigeon Service, based in eastern Orrisa, retired its 800 birds to zoos and sanctuaries throughout the state due to advances in electronic communication. Until 1988, carrier pigeons had provided daily communications between Orissa’s 400 police stations across the state. Pigeons were used to carry essential messages during two natural disasters: the massive cyclone that hit Kendrapara State in 1971 and the unprecedented floods in coastal areas of the state in 1982. Their ability to fly in adverse weather conditions is thought to have saved many human lives.

Orissa police pigeon handlers

Orissa Police
Pigeon Handlers

Orissa Police carrier pigeon station

Orissa Police Carrier
Pigeon Station

Message attached to Orissa police carrier pigeon

Message Attached to
Carrier Pigeon

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The Pigeon in Wartime:

First balloon to leave Paris during siege in 1870

First Balloon to Leave Paris
During Siege in 1870

The first historical mention of the pigeon being used to carry messages in wartime was in the city of Sumer in southern Mesopotamia in 2500 BC. The ruler of the city released two doves to carry the news of the relief of the city from its warring neighbours.

Later, in 53 BC, Hannibal was thought to have used pigeons to carry despatches during the Battle of Modena, and Julius Caesar is also believed to have used pigeons to carry messages during the conquest of Gaul (northern Italy, France, Belgium and western Switzerland) from 58 to 51 BC. Pigeons also played an important role during the siege of Paris in 1870-71, where birds were smuggled out of the city in balloons and then used to carry messages to cities throughout France. It is, however their feats of bravery and the thousands of human lives that they saved in the two Great Wars that is more often remembered.

Pigeons being transported World War 1

Pigeons Being Transported
World War I

Pigeons were used extensively throughout the First Great War and continued to play an important role in the Second Great War, but to a lesser degree due to advances in technology and communications. Pigeons were most commonly used as message carriers and the role that the birds played in the Intelligence Service cannot be underestimated. Pigeons were used to maintain contact with resistance movements across Europe, often flying over enemy territories where they stood a far greater chance of delivering their message than an airplane or vehicle. However, due to a combination of shell fire, small arms fire, poison gas, predation and adverse weather conditions, fewer than 10% ever returned.

Pigeon wagon World War 1

Pigeon Wagon World War I

In 1915, at the start of the First Great War, two Pigeon Corps were established on the Western Front, consisting of 15 pigeon stations each with 4 birds and a handler. The Pigeon Corps was so successful that further birds were recruited and the service expanded considerably. By the end of the war the Pigeon Corps consisted of 400 men and 22,000 pigeons in 150 mobile lofts. Messages would be put into a small canister and then attached to the pigeon’s leg. The bird would be released and would return to its loft behind allied lines, tripping a wire as it did so and sounding a bell to confirm that a bird had landed. Mobile pigeon lofts were used so that birds and their handlers could be moved as required during fighting, with messages being relayed to command posts. Pigeon lofts were also established on home soil in the First Great War, with each airfield along the east coast of England having its own loft so that pigeons could be dispatched with messages in the event of invasion.
London Bus converted to mobile pigeon loft WW1

London Bus Converted
to Mobile Pigeon Loft,
World War I

As pigeons can fly at incredible speeds, over 125 kilometres per hour, this method of communication was faster and more reliable than the very basic telegraph systems in service during the First Great War. Both the Belgium and French armed services used pigeons extensively during the First Great War, with an estimated 21,000 pigeons losing their lives in active service.

French pigeon corps World War 1

French Pigeon Corps, WW1

Estimates of British pigeons lost in the First Great War vary, but at least 100,000 birds are thought to have lost their lives in military service.

Many pigeons in both Great Wars were awarded for their bravery and their heroism. One example in the First Great War was a pigeon named ‘Red Cock’, who was awarded the Dickin Medal for bravery, considered to be the equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Red Cock was released from a torpedoed trawler and returned to his loft with a message carrying the grid reference of the sinking boat. As a result, the crew were saved, although the captain, who released the pigeon, was mortally wounded. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. The Dickin medal is awarded to any animal that has distinguished itself through an act of bravery in wartime, and of all the animals that have been recognised for this award, the pigeon has been recognised more times than any. Of the 55 medals awarded to date, pigeons have been recognised 32 times.

Cher Ami

Cher Ami

Probably the most famous recipient of an award for bravery in the First Great War was a British pigeon called Cher Ami, which was donated by British pigeon fanciers to the US Army Signal Corps. On 3rd October 1918, 500 men from a battalion of the 77th Infantry became trapped and cut off near Argonne in north-eastern France with no food or ammunition. The troops were also being bombarded by friendly fire. Within 24 hours of becoming cut off, over 300 men had been lost and with no other options available to him, the Commander, Major Charles Whittlesey, wrote a note saying: “Many wounded, we cannot evacuate”, and attached the note to a carrier pigeon. The bird was immediately shot down by the Germans. A second bird was dispatched with a message which read: “Men are suffering. Can support be sent?” The second bird was also shot down.

The last bird was called for, Cher Ami, and Major Whittlesey wrote a final message saying: “We are along road parallel to 276:4. Own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For Heaven’s sake, stop it!” and attached the message to Cher Ami. The bird was immediately shot through the breast by enemy fire and fell to the ground, but managed to get back into the air. Cher Ami then flew the 25 miles back to his loft at Division Headquarters through a constant barrage of enemy fire and made the journey in 25 minutes. As a result, 194 men from the 77th Infantry Division were saved. Cher Ami had delivered the message despite having been shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, covered in blood, and with a leg hanging by only a tendon. He became a hero of the 77th Division and medics managed to save his life and replace his leg with a wooden one.

Australian pigeon lofts WW2 New Guinea

Australian Pigeon Lofts
WW2, New Guinea

When the bird was well enough to travel he was sent back to the USA and became the mascot of the Department of Service. The pigeon was awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal with a palm Oak Leaf Cluster for his heroic service in delivering 12 important messages in Verdun. He died at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, on June 13, 1919 from the wounds he received in battle and was later inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931. He also received a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Racing Pigeon Fanciers in recognition of his extraordinary service during World War I.

In the Second Great War, pigeons continued to be used throughout Europe and as far afield as Burma and India. The American and Australian Services also used pigeons extensively and had their own pigeon units operating in many different countries. Allied bomber crews usually carried a pair of pigeons so that in the event that the plane was shot down, the birds could be released with details of the crash site.

Pigeon message capsule World War 2

Pigeon Message Capsule,
World War 2

Wireless communication could not be used, so a message with a grid reference offered surviving crews the only hope of rescue. One example of this was on 23rd February 1942 when a damaged Beaufort bomber had to ditch into the sea off the Norwegian coast after being damaged during a raid. One of the carrier pigeons escaped from its container after the damaged aircraft had broken up on contact. The bird managed to travel the 129 miles back to its base, covered in oil from the damaged plane and delivered its message. The crew were rescued as a result.

Pigeon carrying vest World War 2

Pigeon Carrying Vest,
World War 2

In 1943 a pigeon called White Vision was awarded the Dickin medal for “…delivering a message under exceptionally difficult conditions and so contributing to the rescue of an air crew while serving with the RAF in October 1943”.

Paratrooper with pigeon in harness World War 2

Paratrooper with Pigeon in
Harness, World War 2

A Catalina Flying Boat came down close to the Hebrides in heavy seas and bad weather and rescue operations by sea were hindered due to extreme weather conditions. An air search was impossible due to heavy fog. White Vision was dispatched from the Catalina and flew the 60 miles back to her loft with the position of the aircraft. White Vision battled over heavy seas, with visibility of only a hundred metres in places and against a headwind of 25 miles per hour. The search was resumed in light of the information provided by White Vision and the crew were found and saved.

In 1940 over 300 crates of pigeons were dropped into Enemy-occupied areas of Europe, each bird being packed into a single box with enough food for 10 days.Instructions and a questionnaire were also included in the box. The idea was that if found by an ally, information about enemy movement could be put inside the container on the bird’s leg and the bird released to fly back to its loft in Britain. An estimated 16,544 pigeons were parachuted into occupied Europe during the Second Great War but only 1,842 returned.

World War 2 pigeon carrier with message equipment

World War 2 Pigeon Carrier with Message Equipment

World War 2 pigeon carrier with message equipment

World War 2 Pigeon Carrier with Message Equipment

Message enclosed in pigeon carrier

Message Enclosed in Pigeon Carrier

However, important information was received via the birds, particularly information relating to exact positions of the V1 flying bomb site in Peenemunde in Germany. Pigeons were also used extensively for aerial photography.

Pigeon with message capsule and harness

Pigeon with Message
Capsule and Harness

An automatic miniature camera was mounted to the bird’s breast via a canvass harness and pigeons were then flown over areas of strategic importance to capture images. When the bird arrived back at its loft the camera was removed and the film developed, often providing crucially important information about enemy troop movements and air bases.

The following quote, from Major General Fowler, Chief of the Department of Signals and Communications for the British Army, sums up just what a vitally important role the pigeon played in wartime:

World War 2 pigeon with camera

World War 2, Pigeon
with Camera

“It is the pigeon on which we must and do depend when every other method fails. During quiet periods we can rely on the telephone, telegraph, flag signals, our dogs and various other ways in use on the front with the British Army, but when the battle rages and everything gives way to barrage and machine-gun fire, to say nothing of gas attacks and bombing, it is to the pigeon that we go for succour. When the troops are lost or surrounded in the mazes on the front, or are advancing and yet beyond the known localities, then we depend absolutely on the pigeon for our communications. Regular methods in such cases are worthless and it is at just such times that we need most messengers that we can rely on. In pigeons we have them. I am glad to say that they have never failed us.”

In 2004 an impressive memorial to commemorate all the animals and birds killed during wartime was erected in Hyde Park. Pigeons have been given pride of place on the wall of the sculpture where they are carved in relief, with two pack mules in the foreground weighed down with munitions and cannon parts.

Memorial to animals lost in war, Hyde Park

Memorial to Animals Lost in War, Hyde Park

Huge numbers of animals and birds lost their lives in both Great Wars, particularly the First Great War, with 8 million horses being lost and pigeon losses in the hundreds of thousands. Further impressive memorials to the pigeon bravery and heroism in wartime can be found in Brussels, Lille and Berlin-Spandau. Most died in appalling circumstances.

Dickin Medal For Bravery

Dickin Medal For Bravery

The following pigeons received the Dickin medal for bravery:

  • NEHU.40.NS.1 - Blue Cheq. Hen "Winkie"
  • MEPS.43.1263 - Red Cheq. Cock "George"
  • SURP.41.L.3089 - White Hen "White Vision"
  • NPS.41.NS.4230 - "Beachbomber"
  • NPS.42.31066 - Grizzle Cock "Gustav"
  • NPS.43.94451 - Dark Cheq. Cock "Paddy"
  • NURP.36.JH.190 - Dark Cheq. Hen "Kenley Lass"
  • NURP.38.EGU.242 - Red Cheq. Cock "Commando"
  • NPS.42.NS.44802 - Dark Cheq. Cock "Flying Dutchman"
  • NURP.40.GVIS.453- Blue Cock "Royal Blue"
  • NURP.41.A.2164 - "Dutch Coast"
  • NPS.41.NS.2862 - Blue Cock "Navy Blue"
  • NPS.42.NS.15125 - Mealy Cock "William of Orange"
  • NPS.43.29018 - Dark Cheq. Cock "Ruhr Express"
  • NPS.42.21610 - B.C. Hen "Scotch Lass"
  • NU.41.HQ.4373 - Blue Cock "Billy"
  • NURP.39.NRS.144 - Red Cock "Cologne"
  • NPS.42.36392 - "Maquis"
  • NPS.42.NS.7542 -
  • 41.BA.2793 - "Broad Arrow"
  • NURP.39.SDS.39 - "All Alone"
  • NURP.37.CEN.335 - "Mercury"
  • NURP.38.BPC.6 -
  • DD.43.T.139 -
  • DDD.43.Q.879 -
  • NURP.41.SBC.219 - Cock "Duke of Normandy"
  • NURP.43.CC.2418 - B.C. Hen
  • NURP.40.WLE.249 - "Mary"
  • NURP.41.DHZ.56 - "Tommy"
  • 42.WD.593 - "Princess"
  • USA.43.SC.6390 - "G.I. Joe"

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The Pigeon as a Source of Food:

Ancient dove houses, Cappadocia Turkey

Ancient Dove Houses,
Cappadocia Turkey

Rock Doves are believed to have been domesticated by Neolithic man over 10,000 years ago, but it is likely that Stone Age man exploited pigeons for food much earlier. The rock dove would have lived alongside Stone Age man, sharing caves and roosting and breeding on cliff faces alongside man, proving easy access to pigeon nests to take eggs and squabs (pigeon chicks). The first historical mention of domesticated pigeons being used for food was in Egypt in 3000 BC; a menu that included pigeon as a dish was found during an excavation. An early Sumerian psalm also mentions ‘…the dovecote of the goddess.’, suggesting that pigeons were housed in dedicated facilities even earlier than this.
Early clay pigeon breeding pots

Early Clay Pigeon
Breeding Pots

During another excavation of an Egyptian tomb dating back to 3000 BC the remains of a funerary meal were found which included pigeon bones, further confirming that pigeons were used for food during this period. The ancient Roman kingdom was founded as far back as the 10th century BC, with Rome being founded in 753 BC. The ancient Roman civilisation became the Roman Empire (27 BC - AD 476/1453) and throughout the Roman civilisation the pigeon was not only revered and widely bred but was also used for food. During an excavation at Palestrina in central Italy a Roman mosaic was found, dating back to 200 BC, depicting an early mud dovecote with entry holes in a thatched roof and pigeons flying around it and perching on it. The mosaic shows the River Nile in the foreground and it has been suggested that the doves housed in the dovecote may also have been used to send messages giving advance warning of the flooding of the Nile. It is equally likely, however, that the birds were used for food and/or sacrifice, as the mosaic also depicts a shrine adjacent to the dovecote. The Sicilian historian Diadorous, writing about an even earlier period (circa 300 BC), also described a mud building with a reed thatched roof that was used to house domesticated pigeons.

Dovecote in Karanis Egypt AD 65

Dovecote in Karanis Egypt AD 65

Although little is known of the domestication of the pigeon in China, an excavation of a tomb at Chang-Chou, near Honan, dating back to the 1st century AD found pigeon lofts built into towers around a central courtyard. This appears to confirm that pigeons were domesticated over two thousand years ago in China and used either for food or for sacrifice, or possibly as messengers. In the same century, the Roman writer Varro, who wrote extensively about animal husbandry, described the domestic pigeon in some detail and the types of buildings in which they were housed. His description of the interiors of the lofts or dovecotes are quite detailed, describing the ledges upon which the birds roosted and bred as well as the smooth surfaces around flight holes designed to deny access to predators. He also confirmed that pigeon cotes were numerous, with some housing as many as 5000 birds. Pigeons were also mentioned in cookery books written by the Roman gourmet Apicius, dating back to the 1st century AD, confirming that the birds were considered to be a delicacy. The pigeon was also consumed both as a delicacy and as a part of the staple diet in Medieval England (post 5th century).

The earliest remains of dovecotes found in Britain date back to the 12th century, with one early example uncovered during an archaeological excavation in Raunds, Northamptonshire. A number of these early ‘rubblestone’ dovecotes, dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries, have been uncovered throughout southern England in recent years and with quite a significant geographical spread,

Garway dovecote, 1326, exterior

Garway Dovecote,
1326 - Exterior

ranging from Devon in the south-west through to Lincolnshire in the east. These early dovecotes were built mainly to service the culinary needs of monasteries, castles and manors, but were the sole preserve of the wealthy and almost certainly beyond the means of the poor. In Medieval and Norman times the building of a dovecote was a feudal right restricted to lords of the manor, abbots and barons, with these privileges eventually extending down to the humble parish priest. Today very few of these structures remain intact. It must be assumed that the pigeon was farmed in quite large numbers from the 13th century onwards and this is confirmed in the domestic household records kept by Dame Alice de Breyne in 1413. Records of the daily provisions for the household included the following entry:
Luntley Court 15th-16th century dovecote

Luntley Court 15th-16th
Century Dovecote

‘… one capon, two chickens and twenty pigeons’. Pigeons were also eaten in large numbers at banquets, and records of one banquet, held by the Earl of Warwick in 1470, confirm that 4,000 pigeons were served.

In 16th century England, pigeon production for meat became commercial, with some pigeon farms housing anything up to 30,000 birds. The wide popularity of pigeon meat resulted in the bird becoming part of the daily diet rather than being considered only as a delicacy. In the main it was the squab (pigeon chick) that was consumed, with young birds being killed at approximately 4 weeks old for the table. Although most ancient dovecotes are believed to be round in shape, the 17th century saw rectangular and octagonal dovecotes being built, some with incredibly intricate designs and housing many thousands of birds. The interior of a dovecote is usually a large open space with the breeding cubicles or ledges in rows around the internal walls.

Dovecote interior

Dovecote Interior

Pigeons would enter the dovecote in a variety of different ways, depending on the size, shape and type of structure, with the most common entry/exit point (known as the flight entrance) being provided beneath a cupola or ‘lantern’ on the roof of the structure. The birds would be encouraged to roost and breed within the structure, and as pigeons are quite prolific breeders, bringing up to 8 young into the world each year, competition for breeding cubicles within the cote would be high.

Although pigeons were farmed in the main for meat, their by-products were also in great demand. This was particularly the case in the 16th century when pigeon excrement was found to contain saltpetre, a substance used in the manufacture of gunpowder. As a result, pigeon excrement became even more widely prized than pigeon meat. In some cases, armed guards were posted outside dovecotes to stop thieves stealing pigeon excrement. Production of saltpetre from pigeon excrement ended in the late 18th century when saltpetre was

Restored 17th century dovecote

Restored 17th
Century Dovecote

found to be naturally occurring in South America. In the Middle East (where eating pigeon flesh was forbidden) dovecotes were built simply to provide manure for growing fruit and this practice continued for centuries. In France, Italy and Spain guano was used extensively on hemp crops and for the fertilisation of vineyards.

In the 19th century the rearing of pigeons for meat fell into decline, which continued into the 20th century. However, during the First World War the American government encouraged people to breed pigeon squabs for meat, telling them:

Interior of Minster Lovell Hall dovecote

Interior of Minster
Lovell Hall Dovecote

“Grow squabs in your backyard. Take little room, grow quickly, are easy to raise. The pair of pigeons Noah took into the Ark could nest, hatch and raise a pair of squabs in the forty days the rain lasted. The eggs of pigeons hatch in 17 days. The squabs are ready to eat in three to four weeks. No other domestic bird or animal can make its meat product in so short a time and repeat 7 or 8 times a year. Nothing easier to raise. Nothing better to eat.”

In Britain, pigeon farming died out in the early part of the 20th century and there has been little interest since other than a mild resurgence of interest between the two Great Wars and later in 1971 where pigeons were bred for meat in Kent. Ironically, the pigeon is now wrongly perceived as a disease carrier, in the main as a result of commercial propaganda pumped out by the pest control industry, with America being the source of a majority of this misinformation. However, it was less than 100 years ago when Americans were told that there is 'nothing better to eat' than the pigeon, confirming absolutely the myth that the pigeon is a disease carrier.

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Pigeons for Sport:

The first historical mention of pigeons being used for the purposes of sport is in the Jewish Talmud (AD 200 – 500). The Talmud is a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, customs and history. Within the Talmud there is a definition of a pigeon trainer as being someone who deploys decoy birds to attract other birds from another loft or dovecote. This reference suggests that the ancient pigeon flying sport of Triganieri, or a version of this sport, may have been first practiced as far back as AD200.

The sport of Triganieri is thought to have originated in Modena in northern Italy during the 14th century.

Modena pigeon

Modena Pigeon

The Modena breed of pigeon, as it is known today, was known as the Triganica when mentioned in the chronicles of Modena dating back to 1328. Breeders of the Triganica pigeon were known as Triganieri, the term that is now used to describe the sport itself. Having originated in Italy, the sport became widely followed in many countries, including Persia, Spain and Egypt. The sport is still followed today, with references to it being actively pursued in New York. In the Turkish city of Urfa the sport can involve over 500 flocks in a single event.

Triganieri, Modena in 14th century

Triganieri, Modena in 14th Century

The ancient sport of Triganieri involved training pigeons from one loft to lure pigeons from other lofts back ‘home’. The sport was normally undertaken by those pigeon keepers who owned rooftop pigeon lofts, and highly organised events involved large numbers of participating pigeon keepers and birds. Flights of pigeons were released at the same time and allowed to fly together before being brought back to their respective lofts by their owners, normally by signalling to the birds with flags and whistles.
Crimean falconer

Crimean Falconer

The sport was usually amicable, with birds being returned to their rightful owners. However, the sport could be highly competitive, with rules for the game varying depending in what part of the world it was played. In many cases, captured birds were killed and some pigeon keepers even resorted to re-releasing captured birds to fly back to their ‘home’ loft with a phial of gunpowder attached to their tail feathers. The gunpowder was primed to explode on contact with the competitor’s flocks or when the bird arrived back to its loft.

Dovecote-bred pigeons were commonly used for the sport of falconry. Of course hawks and falcons were commonly used to kill wild pigeons and in fact still are today in many countries worldwide, particularly the Middle East and the UK. Pigeons were also used to train falcons, using a live pigeon as a lure rather than the more common feathered lure.

Medieval falconry

Medieval Falconry

When trying to catch a hawk or falcon that was reluctant to return to its handler, particularly when young birds were being trained, a live pigeon was sometimes tethered to a post in an effort to tempt the hawk back. In Holland this method was also commonly used to tempt wild migrating raptors into traps for resale. At the end of the 17th century the sport of falconry started to die out with the advent of the firearm.
Queen Elizabeth 1st Hawking, 1575

Queen Elizabeth 1st
Hawking, 1575

In the late 18th century, organised pigeon shooting became a popular sport in England, with tame dovecote-bred birds being used as targets. Up to 120 birds were used during one event. Early ‘meets’ took place in Ealing and Battersea, with large sums of money being wagered during competitions. Later, organised pigeon shooting clubs were established, with the famous Hurlingham Club being founded in London in 1869. The birds that were used as targets in these shoots became quite highly prized, with members of clubs like the Hurlingham Club paying as much as half a crown per bird.

Olympic Games poster, Paris 1900

Olympic Games Poster,
Paris 1900

This was a considerable sum in 1896 and it therefore comes as no surprise to learn that members of these clubs were wealthy, with the sport attracting individuals from the House of Commons and the House of Lords and even royalty.

Incredibly, the Summer Olympic Games held in Paris in 1900 included live pigeon shooting as a demonstration event, but due to public outrage, it was never granted official status. Even more incredible is the fact that over 200 years after the shooting of domesticated pigeons for sport first started in England, the state of Pennsylvania in the USA continues the tradition. Several shooting clubs in Pennsylvania host pigeon shoots where captive feral pigeons are released from traps and shot at point-blank range with automatic and semi-automatic weapons. A majority of the pigeons sold to these clubs are feral pigeons that have been illegally netted for the purpose. Pest control companies also cage-trap feral pigeons for their clients, supposedly as a method of bird control, and sell the live birds to shooting clubs. The continuance of this barbaric ‘sport’ has caused great controversy across America, but even in light of huge opposition, live pigeon shoots continue today in Pennsylvania.

Pigeon cage trap

Pigeon Cage Trap

Pigeon racing as we know it today is the sport most commonly associated with pigeons and a sport which is still enjoyed by large numbers of enthusiasts worldwide. The modern day sport of pigeon racing started in Belgium in 1850 and within 20 years had made its way across the Channel and was being enjoyed in the UK. One of the most famous pigeon ‘fanciers’ of the 19th century was the naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin, who was a member of two London pigeon clubs. By 1896 the National Homing Union was established as a governing body for the sport in the UK. That body is still in existence today and is now known as the Royal Pigeon Racing Association, with a further six Unions overseeing the sport in the UK, including the Scottish, Irish and Welsh Homing Unions and the North West and North East Homing Unions. The sport in the UK is represented on the world’s ruling body, the FCI (Federation Colombophile Internationale) which regulates the sport worldwide.

Pigeon races are organised and controlled by local pigeon racing clubs who transport the birds to various release sites, both in the UK and in Europe, from where they are released to fly back to their ‘loft’.

Pigeon loft

Pigeon Loft

Pigeons are released to fly over a carefully measured distance during a race and the time it takes the animal to cover the specified distance is then measured. The bird's rate of travel is then calculated and compared with that of all the other pigeons in the race to determine

Old timing clock

Old Timing Clock

which pigeon returned at the highest speed. The winner is the bird with the highest velocity. The calculation is the distance flown divided by the time taken. The traditional method of timing pigeons in a race is to place a rubber band on the leg of each bird – each ring has a unique serial number. When the bird returns to the ‘home’ loft the rubber ring is removed and placed into a sealed clock which records the official time. From this timestamp an average speed is measured and the winner can then be identified.
Large modern pigeon loft

Large Modern Pigeon Loft

The ‘real’ time the pigeon arrives at its loft is not necessarily the time that is recorded, as the owner has to catch the bird, remove the ring and then insert it into the clock. As races can be won or lost by seconds rather than minutes, this system is not ideal. Furthermore, as the pigeon is aware that the removal of the ring may be uncomfortable, it may not be as willing as it might otherwise be to be caught by its owner to have the ring removed.

Pigeon racing rings

Pigeon Racing Rings

In an effort to update the system of recording arrival times, an electronic timing system is now more commonly used where the arrival of the bird is recorded automatically. Each bird is fitted with a band that contains an RFID chip (radio-frequency identification), which is automatically read as the bird arrives at the loft. A pad or antenna is placed at the entry point to the loft and this scans the RFID chip as the bird arrives. The electronic clock is linked to the pad or antenna and the serial number on the transponder ring is recorded along with the precise time of arrival. This system means that the bird’s owner does not have to be present at the
Selection of pigeon timing clocks

Selection of Pigeon
Timing Clocks

loft when the bird returns.

In the early part of the 20th century, pigeons were transported to release sites in horse-drawn carriages, but today huge articulated lorries with all modern conveniences for both pigeons and owners transport thousands of birds to a single race. The sport has definitely moved with the times and the ‘flat cap’ image so often associated with pigeon racing is now a thing of the past.

Pigeon transporter and release

Pigeon Transporter
& Release

Pigeon racing is not only a global sport, it is a rich industry with stud pigeons and race winners fetching huge sums of money. One pigeon called Playboy has recently been purchased from its Belgian owner, Mr Van Roy, by a Japanese businessman, for a record $144,000 (£78,404), more than twice the usual price. Playboy won the 620-mile Barcelona race in 2008, a high point in the pigeon racing calendar, and as a result Mr Van Roy had been inundated with offers for him.

It is common for pigeons to fail to return home after a race, with large numbers of birds falling prey to exhaustion, weather conditions and birds of prey. Many of the survivors join feral flocks in urban areas and integrate quickly with feral birds. Some experts believe that the considerable numbers of racing birds lost annually to feral flocks has a significant impact on the size of feral flocks and pigeon-related problems in urban areas. A major 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 (1997).

Pigeon race 1997

Pigeon Race 1997

Some 60,000 pigeons were released in Nantes but only a few birds ever arrived back at their lofts throughout southern England. It is not clear what happened to the birds, or whether any survived, but one theory put forward is 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 and compromised their inbuilt navigation system.

There are many theories about how pigeons manage to return ‘home’ when released 100s of miles away from their loft. A champion racing pigeon can be released 400-600 miles away from its home and still return within the day. It is believed that the instinct to return to a mate and nest is a powerful motivator, but this does not explain the ability to travel such extraordinary distances and at such speeds. An adult pigeon in good condition can achieve average speeds of up to 125 kmph on short to middle distance flights and fly at an altitude of 6,000 feet. A 10-year study carried out by Oxford University concluded that pigeons use roads and motorways to navigate, in some cases even changing direction at motorway junctions. Other theories include navigation by use of the earth’s magnetic field, using visual clues such as landmarks, navigating by the sun and even using infrasounds (low frequency seismic waves).

Poisoned sparrowhawk

Poisoned Sparrowhawk

The sport of pigeon racing does not always attract good publicity and the darker side of the sport was recently put under the spotlight as a result of an extremely small number of pigeon fanciers bringing the sport into disrepute through their actions. A series of crimes against birds of prey, carried out by pigeon fanciers according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), hit the headlines in 2007 and 2008. The RSPB reported several cases of 'sickening cruelty' relating to attacks on peregrine falcons and their nests – the peregrine falcon is the natural predator of the pigeon and peregrines do take racing pigeons as natural prey. In 2007, 11 members of the National Birmingham Roller Pigeon club faced prison sentences in the USA having been convicted of a range of crimes against hawks and falcons, including spraying birds caught in illegal cage traps with ammonia and bleach, shooting hawks with shotguns and pellet guns and cutting the talons from illegally trapped birds.
Poisoned Golden Eagle

Poisoned Golden Eagle

All the men charged confirmed they had been protecting their racing pigeons. However, a majority of those involved with the sport of pigeon racing would never condone the actions of this small minority. Pigeon fanciers in the UK commonly raise money for various charities and raised over £35,000 toward the erection of ‘The Animals in War Memorial’ in Hyde Park, commemorating the many animals that died in both Great Wars, including the 100,000+ pigeons that died whilst on active duty. The annual Royal Pigeon Racing show in Blackpool is attended by many thousands of pigeon fanciers and all proceeds from the event are also donated to charities.

Pigeon racing saw a massive increase in popularity at the end of the First Great War, and between the two wars the sport was enjoyed by entire families. The popularity of the sport peaked in the 1950s, with the National Homing Union receiving Royal patronage and becoming the Royal National Homing Union, later to become the Royal Pigeon Racing Association (RPRA), as it is known today. Prior to 1987 it was impossible to calculate the number of members of the RPRA, but in 1987 a single member subscription system was brought in, allowing a true assessment of the membership for the first time. In 1989 the total membership for the RPRA was 60,000. The RPRA is now a thriving business with an annual turnover of £1.2 million and offices in Cheltenham and Welshpool.

There has been a marked decline in the sport in recent years which is blamed, certainly in part, on the restrictions imposed on keeping pigeons on residential properties. Due to the negative and inaccurate publicity generated by the pest control industry, suggesting that pigeons are disease carriers, objections are quickly raised if a pigeon loft is erected on a residential property.

Pigeon loft

Pigeon Loft

Alternative sites for racing pigeon lofts are almost impossible to find and there is the inevitable risk of vandalism and theft associated with remote lofts. The future for pigeon racing is unsure in the long-term but although the sport is in decline at present, it is far from dying out. It must be hoped that the sport will continue long into the future and help to raise the profile of a much maligned and unique bird that has given so much to man and yet has been rewarded with hate and persecution in the 21st century.

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Fancy Breeds of Pigeons:

The breeding of pigeons for the purpose of enhancing size, shape, colour or behaviour is thought to have started over 3000 years ago, but little historical evidence of early breeding exists. The first mention of pigeons being bred for colour appears to be in a poem written by the Greek poet Homer in 950 BC when he referred to ‘Messene’s towers for silver doves renowned’.

Rock doves in natural habitat

Rock Doves in
Natural Habitat

The reference to silver doves suggests that the rock dove, from which all varieties of pigeons descend, must have been bred to produce a silver or white colour. Later, the classical Greek philosopher Socrates (469- 399 BC) discussed the cross-breeding of birds which appear to have been pigeons.

In the 1st century AD the Roman historian Pliny discussed the breeding of fancy pigeons, confirming that the practice had been ongoing for some considerable time. In the same century, the Roman scholar Varro made clear references to cross-breeding.

Fancy pigeons illustration

Fancy Pigeons Illustration

He mentioned the domesticated rock dove in contrast to the ‘…white pigeon, fed at the doorstep’. It is clear from this that the fancy breeds of today are not only descended from the wild rock dove but that cross-breeding was started soon after the bird was first domesticated.

Throughout the next 2000 years breeding and cross-breeding of the pigeon to produce fancy breeds has become an art form, with over 300 known breeds of fancy pigeon in existence today.

The grouping of fancy breeds is complex but can be roughly defined in 8 separate headings:

Utility Pigeons:

These are breeds that were originally bred for meat and include the ‘French Mondain’ and the ‘King’.





Flying Tumblers and Highfliers:

This group of fancy pigeons includes birds that are bred for show purposes but which can also be used in flying competitions for their acrobatic abilities. This group includes the ‘Tumbler’, the ‘Tippler’ and the ‘Roller’.







Asian Feather and Voice Pigeons:

This group has been developed for extensive feathering and for their laughing or ‘trumpeting’ voice. The group includes the well-known ‘Fantail’, the ‘Trumpeter’ and the ‘Jacobin’.

Fantail fancy pigeon

Fantail Fancy





Homer Pigeons (Homing Pigeons):

As the name suggests, this group of pigeons was bred for their homing abilities but also includes racing birds bred specifically for showing. The group includes the ‘English Carrier’, the ‘Dragoon’ and the ‘German Beauty Homer’.

English Carrier

English Carrier



German Beauty Homer

German Beauty Homer

Exhibition Tumblers:

Some members of this group were originally bred for their acrobatic abilities but have been interbred to such an extent that they are now considered to be purely show birds. This group includes the ‘Nun’, the ‘English Short Faced Tumbler’ and the ‘Magpie’.





English Short faced Tumbler

English Short Faced

Colour Pigeons:

This group consists of many different varieties of fancy pigeon bred specifically for their colour and markings. The group includes the ‘Archangel’, the ‘Swallow’ and the ‘Danish Suabian’.





Danish Suabian

Pouters and Croppers:

This group of fancy pigeons is bred purely for their ability to inflate their crop with air. The group includes the ‘English Pouter’, the ‘Norwich Cropper’ and the ‘Pigmy Pouter’.

English Pouter

English Pouter

Norwich Cropper

Norwich Cropper

Pigmy Pouter

Frills and Owls:

This group has been bred for their stunted beaks and their extraordinary chest feathers. This group includes the ‘Old German Owl’, the ‘Oriental Frill’ and the ‘Aachen Lacquer Shield Owl’.

Old German Owl

Old German Owl

Oriental Frill

Oriental Frill

Aachen Lacquer Shield Owl

Aachen Lacquer Shield Owl

The breeding of fancy pigeons is an international pastime, with pigeon fanciers coming together at local, national and international shows to compete for ever-growing prizes. The German National Pigeon Show, one of the largest national pigeon shows, is held annually in Nurnberg and attracted 33,500 people to the 2006 event. This demonstrates how popular pigeon fancying has become. The annual show held by the Royal Pigeon Racing Association in Blackpool is attended by upwards of 25,000 people each year, with all profits raised from the event being donated to charity.

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Common Varieties of Pigeons (UK):

Other than the wild rock dove, of which there are very few remaining, and the feral pigeon, there are only 3 other varieties of the columbidae family commonly found in the UK: wood pigeon (Columba palumbus), collared dove or ring-necked dove (Streptopelia decaocto), turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur) and the stock dove (Columba oenas).

Wood pigeon

Adult wood pigeon

Adult Wood Pigeon

The wood pigeon is the most common pigeon found in the UK, with numbers of birds even eclipsing the feral pigeon found in towns and cities all over the UK. A 2004 study carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology confirmed that the wood pigeon is now the most commonly seen bird in the UK.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) estimates the number of breeding pairs in the UK to be between 2,570,000 and 3,160,000.

Unlike the feral pigeon, however, the wood pigeon is found predominantly in rural areas, but in the last 30 years the bird has started to exploit urban habitats as a result of increasing persecution in its natural habitat.

Juvenile wood pigeon

Juvenile Wood Pigeon

The wood pigeon is the largest pigeon in the UK, measuring 38-43 cm and weighing 480-550 grams. The bird can be identified by a distinctive white broken band around the rear of its neck and prominent white wing bars. Other than these features, the bird is basically sky grey with a pinkish breast. Juvenile birds have no neck markings until approximately 6 months of age, at which time they gain small white patches on either side of the neck which then develop into fully formed bands at approximately 8-9 months of age. Juvenile birds can also be distinguished from adults by a dark grey beak – adults have a yellow/orange beak with a white cere.
Juvenile wood pigeon being fed

Juvenile Wood Pigeon
Being Fed

The beak of the juvenile may appear to be disproportionately large relative to that of the adult.

The wood pigeon breeds between June and November, but can breed much earlier in the year depending on weather conditions and food sources. Wood pigeons breed in trees and bushes, although the Pigeon Control Advisory Service (PiCAS International)

PiCAS International

PiCAS International

has confirmed several instances of the bird breeding on buildings in recent years. PiCAS International also confirmed that wood pigeons have been found breeding in flower boxes on a modern high-rise office building in Central London close to London Bridge.

Woodland areas are the natural choice for wood pigeons when breeding, but the birds are now commonly found exploiting trees in domestic gardens and parkland as a result of persecution and the removal of habitats in rural areas. Wood pigeons lay two white eggs in a very basic nest made of twigs, with eggs hatching in 17-19 days.

Wood Pigeons Mating

Wood Pigeons Mating

The young fledge at 33-37 days but can fledge much earlier or stay in the nest longer in some circumstances.

Wood pigeon in flight

Wood Pigeon
in Flight

Wood pigeons will exploit multiple food sources, including vegetables, short grass (particularly manicured lawns), young shoots, seedlings and cultivated grain. The bird's ability to exploit multiple food sources and to adapt to different habitats is almost certainly why it is so successful. The wood pigeon is a flock bird and can be seen in huge flocks numbering many thousands of birds in rural areas, particularly in mid winter when exploiting agricultural crops.

Flock of wood pigeons

Flock of Wood Pigeons

The wood pigeon is slaughtered in huge numbers, often illegally, by farmers and those selling shooting rights on their land. With the decline in conventional farming practices in the UK, more and more landowners are turning to shooting as a source of income.

Wood pigeons in a field

Wood Pigeons in a Field

It is common for large quantities of grain to be distributed by those selling shooting services in an effort to attract more birds for ‘guns’. Wood pigeons, like most birds, breed according to the volume of food available to them and therefore this practice is almost certainly why the species is increasing in numbers at such an alarming rate. Over-shooting for profit is undoubtedly the main contributory factor in relation to the bird moving into urban habitats where it is starting to cause problems in residential gardens, according to PiCAS International.

Wood pigeon shooting

Wood Pigeon Shooting

Collared dove or ring-necked dove

Collared Dove

The collared dove is not a native species to the UK, having been introduced in 1953 from Europe. Like the wood pigeon and the feral pigeon, the collared dove is an extremely successful species and although originally only found in warmer regions such as southern Europe, the bird has now spread as far as Scandinavia, north of the Arctic Circle.
Collared dove neck ring

Collared Dove
Neck Ring

The collared dove is now a common visitor to gardens across the UK and numbers have risen dramatically over the last 44 years from an estimated 3,000 breeding pairs in 1964 to a staggering 298,000 breeding pairs in 2008, according to the RSPB.

The collared dove is a small bird, smaller than the feral pigeon, measuring 31-33 cm and weighing 150-220 grams. It is a pinkish grey colour all over with the exception of a narrow black band around the rear of the neck and dark wing tips on the primary flight feathers.

Collared dove

Collared Dove

The beak is black in the adult, the iris is a prominent orange colour and the pupil is black – the whole eye may appear to be black when viewed from a distance. Juvenile birds form the black neck collar at 4-6 months of age and have a brownish beak, which may appear to be disproportionally large relative to the adult.

Collared doves breed almost exclusively in trees or bushes and build a very basic nest made of small twigs. Breeding takes place between February/March and October, but the birds can breed earlier or later depending on weather conditions and food sources.

Collared dove squab in nest

Collared Dove Squab in Nest

Nests will be found close to human habitation where food supplies are optimum, normally in residential gardens and parks. The birds lay two white eggs which hatch in 15-18 days, with the young fledging after 17-22 days. Collared doves are a seed eating bird and will often be found exploiting food on bird tables, around industrial facilities such as grain mills and around farm buildings. The birds can be found in rural areas and occasionally in town and city centre locations, according to PiCAS International, but they are more often found in urban and semi-rural areas.

Stock dove

Stock dove

Stock Dove

The stock dove is a bird similar in both size and appearance to the rock dove and feral pigeon. These similarities make it difficult to identify and most stock doves are misidentified as being rock doves/feral pigeons. Distribution is wide throughout the UK other than parts of Scotland and Ireland, with over half of the European population being found in the UK.
Stock dove

Stock Dove

The RSPB estimates the number of breeding pairs in the UK to be 309,000, making the bird even more widespread than the collared dove.

The stock dove measures 32-34 cm in length with an average weight of 290-330 grams, almost identical to the rock dove and feral pigeon. The head and beak of the bird are similar to a wood pigeon, although smaller, with a yellow/orange beak and a slightly domed head. The body of the bird is a more compact version of the rock dove/feral pigeon with slightly less defined markings. The bird has two small wings bars that are barely noticeable when the wing is folded and more iridescent colouring around the neck than the rock dove/feral pigeon.

Stock dove

Stock Dove

The back of the stock dove is a uniform grey colour, whereas the back of a rock dove/feral pigeon is white, but this feature is difficult to see except when the bird is in flight.

Stock dove

Stock Dove

The stock dove breeds between March and September/October, nesting on rocky outcrops or cliff faces and sometimes cavities in trees created when branches have fallen in gales. The bird lays 2 white eggs that hatch in 17 to 19 days, with young fledging after approximately 30 days. Food sources include seeds, leaves, buds, flowers and vegetables, but
Pigeon shooting

Pigeon Shooting

like the wood pigeon, the birds will also graze on cropped grass.

The stock dove is a shy and solitary bird and normally found in rural areas, mainly farmland, moorland and open parkland areas with large deciduous trees. The bird is rarely found in urban areas. Although the stock dove inhabits the same areas as the wood pigeon, it is rarely found in large flocks, with birds more likely to be seen in pairs rather than in numbers. Like the wood pigeon, the stock dove is shot extensively due to its natural habitat on farmland, often illegally and mainly for sport, but in the name of control.

Turtle dove

Turtle dove

Turtle Dove

The turtle dove is the rarest member of the columbidae family resident in the UK and is a migratory bird, arriving in the UK in late April or May and leaving any time between July and September. The bird spends the winter month in areas south of the Sahara. The RSPB estimates the numbers of pairs currently breeding in the UK to be 44,000. Modern farming methods have impacted on the breeding success of the turtle dove, with a significant reduction in the number of nesting sites as a result of the removal of natural hedgerows, unkept areas of scrub and hawthorns.
Turtle dove

Turtle Dove

The wholesale illegal slaughter of migratory birds in southern Europe has also had a devastating impact on numbers. According to the State of Europe’s Common Birds Report of 2007, the turtle dove population in Europe has fallen by 62% in recent years.

Turtle dove

Turtle Dove

The turtle dove is also the smallest of all the members of the columbidae family resident in the UK, measuring 26-28 cm in length and weighing 130-180 grams. The bird is very similar to the collared dove in outline but with extraordinary orange-brown and black wing markings with a whitish/pink head and breast. On each side of the neck there is a small barred black and white patch and the back is a brownish grey colour. The tail feathers are black with white tips. The eye rims are a distinctive red colour with an orange iris and black pupil. Juveniles are duller in colour, appearing to be a dullish brown and lacking the neck patch of the adult. The beak of the juvenile will also appear to be disproportionately large in relation to that of adult.

Turtle dove

Turtle Dove

The turtle dove breeds in rural or semi-rural areas and is rarely seen in areas of human habitation. It is an extremely shy bird, although it will, very occasionally, nest in a semi-rural garden and feed on bird tables. It breeds between May and August, returning to its winter home once the young have fledged. It builds a basic nest of small twigs and lays 1 or 2 white eggs. The eggs hatch between 15 and 18 days and the young fledge after 16-21 days. Main food sources include cereal crops, weeds that have gone to seed, buds and leaves. The bird is only found in southern England and in some eastern areas of Wales.

Turtle dove

Turtle Dove

The future for the turtle dove does not look positive with breeding habitats on the decline and large increases in illegal shooting and netting in Mediterranean areas. The large decline in numbers suggests that unless the bird is better protected it may become a rare and infrequent visitor to the UK and may eventually die out altogether.

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What does the future hold for the feral pigeon?

Since early history, the pigeon has lived alongside man and been exploited by man for food, sport and as a messenger, courtesy of the birds’ unique ability to return to its nest and its mate from huge distances. The feral pigeon is now one of the most successful and resourceful species on the planet and is found in virtually every part of the globe with the exception of the Sahara Desert and the two Polar ice caps. The bird has adapted to survive in extreme weather conditions and in temperatures ranging from -50° to +50°, yet it has still managed to proliferate. The pigeon is one of the most intelligent species on the planet and able to undertake tasks that were previously thought to be the sole preserve of humans and primates. The pigeon can pass the ‘mirror test’ (being able to recognise its own reflection in a mirror) and can even recognise all 26 letters of the alphabet, and man has exploited this intelligence and these abilities for thousands of years. The pigeon has served man faithfully and often heroically throughout. However, in the 21st century the pigeon has at last outlived its usefulness and is slaughtered by the millions for commercial gain, often illegally, without a thought to the debt of gratitude that is owed to the bird. In the last 50 years the pigeon has been persecuted by man to the point where virtually any other species would have disappeared altogether, but unlike the passenger pigeon, which was wiped out in North America in the early 20th century as a result of over hunting, the feral pigeon continues to thrive. Millions of urban pigeons are killed annually by the pest control industry for commercial gain and yet the bird continues to be perceived as an ever-growing problem in towns and cities worldwide. Why is this? Basically because killing pigeons as a method of control actually increases pigeon flock size. Furthermore, the source of the problem, available food, is rarely dealt with.

Pigeons breed all year round and according to the extent of food available to them. If food is readily available, and assuming that good roosting and breeding opportunities exist, the feral pigeon will breed between 4 and 8 times a year, bringing two young into the world each time. A juvenile pigeon can breed in its first year of life. Simple maths confirms that unless available food is strictly controlled, pigeons will rapidly breed out of control, resulting in overpopulations in areas of human habitation. To add to this, scientific research and research carried out by PiCAS International has proved that when pigeons from a feeding flock are killed as a method of control, flock size will increase by between 12% and 30% within a matter of months, further entrenching the problem.

So why do we still kill pigeons as a method of control and fail to deal with the issue of available food? Not only because the pest control industry is dependent on the huge annual income derived from killing pigeons but also because councils and other bodies either choose ‘quick fix’ culling options to control pigeons or choose to ignore the problem altogether rather than implementing sustainable control systems that deal with the source of the problem. It must therefore be concluded that ‘pigeon problems’ are, in reality, ‘people problems’ and must be dealt with as such.

Although it may appear that the solution to the problem is relatively straightforward – stop killing pigeons) as a method of control and reduce available food – the reality is far from straightforward. The pest control industry pumps out huge volumes of propaganda suggesting that pigeons are disease carriers and that they pose a significant threat to human health. A majority of this misinformation has no basis in fact, or is wildly exaggerated, but it has the desired effect and the public is quickly convinced that pigeons pose a real health risk when in reality they pose little or no risk at all. Billions of pounds annually are spent on culling operations worldwide and yet this simply has the effect of increasing the size of pigeon populations. It is certainly not in the best interests of the pest control industry to cease offering these services. Furthermore, the deliberate and persistent daily feeding of pigeon populations with large quantities of food compounds the problem by further encouraging pigeons to breed. The pest control industry will not desist from culling because it generates a huge proportion of its annual profits from this source, and those that feed pigeons refuse to stop doing so for fear of pigeons dying as a result.

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So what is the answer?

An organisation called the Pigeon Control Advisory Service International (PiCAS International) pioneered a method of controlling feral pigeon populations that not only deals with the main problem associated with pigeons, the soiling of buildings, but also reduces pigeon flock size humanely and effectively via birth control. The system is discussed in detail in the Artificial Breeding Facilities document that can be found in the Product Review Section. The system is simple and inexpensive to set up and maintain and results in a massive decrease in pigeon flock size if implemented as recommended. The system is now used to great effect in many European countries and some users of the system have even suggested that the degree of control gained over pigeon flock size by this option negates the need to restrict the feeding of pigeons . However, even if a holistic and sustainable control system of this type is initiated, there is a clear need to reduce the use of lethal controls and stop the irresponsible feeding of feral flocks.

Even though man no longer has a need for the pigeon in the 21st century, there is clearly still a place for this much-loved and much-maligned bird. Slowly we are realising that we cannot wipe out wild bird populations just because they are inconvenient or unwelcome - particularly when the source of the problem is human. With the advent of the Internet and the wider availability of information, we are learning how and why problems such as those associated with the feral pigeon exist and how we can better deal with them. We also know that pigeon populations can be controlled in a humane and effective manner and that to continue to use commercially motivated controls such as culling is not only morally wrong (and often illegal) but also counterproductive. The future may not be full of hope for the pigeon, but the bird has survived in close association with man for over 10,000 years and it is likely that it will continue to do so well into the future.

Warm thanks to Dr Jean Hansell and her late husband Dr Peter Hansell, without whose wonderful and comprehensive books on the history of the pigeon this document could not have been written.

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