Rock pigeons should not be overlooked. Here’s why

I headed out to Wells Harbor this weekend to see what birds were there: Who was back from the south, who was migrating through and whether anyone was changing plumage as their mating season ramps up?

Instead, I was completely distracted (in a good way) by some common pigeons. They were all over the dock: cooing, strutting around, flying from one perch to another. There were pale gray ones, dark ones, and checkered ones. I had been thinking about seasonal plumage changes.

Rock pigeon with checkered plumage at Wells Harbor in Maine Sunday, March 31, 2024.

For example, just this weekend brilliant yellow male goldfinches showed up at my feeders. They’ve been coming all winter wearing their winter drab colors, now that it is time to mate, the males are getting all fancy. The loons at the harbor were also showing signs of change, transitioning from subdued, faded blacks and whites of winter to their summer colors — striking black and white spotted backs with contrasting white breast. What was up with the pigeons? Were some in breeding plumage? Is there a difference between male and females? Were the dark ones juveniles, as is common with some of the local gulls?

A natural adult rock pigeon at Wells Harbor in Maine Sunday, March 31, 2024.

I’ve tended to write pigeons off when I go birding. After all, they are an introduced species, the descendants of domestic pigeons brought over from Europe back in the 1600s. Rock pigeons (Columba livia) are thought to be one of the first domesticated birds, raised for both their meat and their message-carrying ability. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology “Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphics suggest that pigeons were domesticated more than 5,000 years ago. In fact, these birds have such a long history with humans that it’s impossible to tell where the species’ original range was.” Those domesticated pigeons were carried everywhere that humans went, and many escaped, establishing feral populations on every continent except Antarctica.

Aan adult dark rock pigeon at Wells Harbor in Maine Sunday, March 31, 2024.

Spring was definitely in the air at the harbor. Rock pigeons have been known to raise over six broods per year (these are serious breeders!) so I imagine these pigeons were in the throes of mating season. Some of the pigeons were puffing themselves up and strutting around in circles. These were presumably males-displaying to court females: standing tall, inflating their crops, fanning their tails, and strutting in a circle around the female while cooing in their most alluring manner. This will progress to mutual preening (referred to as nibbling) followed by the male regurgitating some seeds or liquid and feeding the female, one of the final behaviors prior to mating. While rock pigeons are monogamous and mate for life, I think of these displays as our date nights (minus the regurgitation). As with long-married couples, these displays strengthen their bond and indicate readiness to mate.

A rock pigeon strutting over to its mate at Wells Harbor in Maine Sunday, March 31, 2024.

It makes sense that they are nesting at the harbor. In the wild they nest on cliffs (hence the name rock pigeon). In cities and towns they prefer window ledges, traffic lights, roofs and under bridges. We don’t have skyscrapers, but we do have docks and rocky outcroppings.

Pigeons do so well around humans because they are prolific breeders, we build structures that they like to nest on, and they like the food that we grow-they like all sorts of seed crops and, of course, they like breadcrumbs. They are also unbelievable navigators and flyers (one reason they made great messenger birds). Even blindfolded, pigeons can find their way home by sensing the Earth’s magnetic field. They might also use sound, and smell-this is currently being investigated. Without a blindfold they can also use cues based upon the position of the sun (allaboutbirds.com/Rock_Pigeon). They can maintain speeds of 40 mph or more for long periods of time (another reason they made great messenger birds). Rock pigeons are also acrobatic flyers-watch them zoom around a city park, or effortlessly fly between the pilings under a dock-these birds can give most predators a run for their money.

An adult dark rock pigeon at Wells Harbor in Maine Sunday, March 31, 2024.

Those color variations that first caught my eye are just color variations. Pigeons come in a variety of plumages that have nothing to do with gender or age (but probably something to do with the breeding of domesticated birds), so looking for mating displays this time of year is the best way to distinguish males from females. Now that I know more about them, next time I am out birding I’m definitely going to pay more attention to the pigeons.

Susan Pike, a researcher and an environmental sciences and biology teacher at Dover High School, welcomes your ideas for future column topics. Send your photos and observations to [email protected]. Read more of her Nature News columns at Seacoastonline.com and pikes-hikes.com, and follow her on Instagram @pikeshikes.

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