The Birds in Your Garden

Columbidae – Pigeons

This is a family of some three hundred species, most of which are found in the tropics. You may love them or hate them, but they are everywhere! The distinction between pigeons and doves is not a taxonomic one, with the term dove tending to be used for the smaller varieties.

Pigeons are famed for their homing ability; from Roman or even Persian times, via the siege of Paris to World War 2, they were used to carry messages. When far from home they use the sun as a compass and can compensate for its movement across the sky; closer to home it seems they use local landmarks to navigate.

Feral or city pigeons are found in cities the world over and are derived from the Rock Dove. Such has been their success that true Rock Doves probably only exist in the wildest corners of northern Europe and Asia. They chose to desert their natural habitat and associate with mankind due to the ready availability of food combined with the breeding and roosting potential offered by buildings, which resemble the cliff faces on which they naturally breed.

Woodpigeon courting is particularly obvious in spring, with much cooing and preening together with explosive nearly vertical short flights and much clapping of wings. Their breeding season never seems to end, and they are regularly recorded having young in their nests from February to November.

This extended breeding season is only possible because, like all pigeons, Woodpigeons produce ‘crop milk’ which is similar to mammalian milk in its composition. It is produced in the crop, a sac-like structure normally used for storing food. This allows the young to be fed even when suitable food is not available.

Pigeons like to eat cabbage, sprouts, peas and grain and one reason for their recent proliferation is the availability of autumn sown brassicas, such as oil seed rape. They will also eat buds, shoots, seeds, nuts and berries, and in autumn can often be seen sitting on cotoneaster hedges.

Stock doves are similar in plumage and size to pigeons, but have neither their pale rump nor the white patches on the side of their throats. They are largely blue-grey with an attractive iridescent bottle green band on the back of the neck. They are widely distributed in the UK with over half their European population being found here.

The Collared Dove, now one of the commonest birds in Britain, is pinky-grey with a distinctive black band on its neck. They first bred in the UK in Cromer in 1955, having spread naturally from their ancestral haunts in Turkey and the Middle East.

Did you know that pigeons can fly……….?

–    at altitudes of 6000 feet or more
–    at average speeds of up to 77 mph and can exceed 90 mph
–    up to 700 miles in a day

And that

–    They drink by sucking water and using their beaks like straws, whilst     most birds sip water and then throw their head back to swallow.
–    The first commercial service using pigeons was established in 1896 in     New Zealand and was known as the Pigeon-Gram Service. It ran from     The Great Barrier Reef to New Zealand, (but not in reverse) with     pigeons covering the distance in under two hours. They carried five     messages, each requiring a special Pigeon-Gram stamp costing 2/- .

If you find the lives of our garden birds to be of interest, and would like to join in and count the feathered occupants of your garden, please contact me or visit the BTO Garden BirdWatch website ( If you know of a local organisation who would like a talk on garden birds call: Mike Gray 07596 366342 or