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Published on June 8th, 2011 | by Yellow Magpie


Pigeons: Our Unjust Love Hate/Relationship With These Remarkable Birds


We have a strange relationship with these creatures. Some of us adore them, others cannot tolerate them. They have been extremely good to us in the past – yet we eat them. Pigeons are still one of the most misunderstood of all animals and they also highlight our petty nature.

The Pigeon/Dove Misconception

There is a general belief that doves and pigeons are two distinct types of birds. In fact, the two terms are often used interchangeably. The most common pigeon, the Rock Pigeon, was called the Rock Dove up until recently. The old method of classification – that doves are larger while pigeons are smaller is also erroneous as many species break this rule.

Role During World Wars

Pigeons were used extensively during World War One and Two by both the Allies and the Germans. Homing pigeons were used because of their ability to find their way home and cover large distances. These homing pigeons would bring important information written on light paper. The paper would be rolled up and placed into a tube which was attached to the pigeon’s feet.

White Homing Pigeon

So valuable was the role of pigeons during those war years that 32 birds were selected to be recipients of the Dickin Medal.

A Feat Of Perfect Engineering

All pigeons are amazingly adapted but one species stands out. That is the racing variety of the Rock Pigeon or Rock Dove. They can fly for several hours at a constant speed in excess of 190 kilometres per hour (100 miles). What’s more they can travel these distances eating only 30 to 40 grams (roughly an ounce) of food.

The secret to accomplishing these feats is the pigeons’ very powerful breast muscle which accounts for up to one/third of their total body weight. Their bones are hollow and reinforced with criss-crossing fibres that offer great strength. Powering their bodies is an incredible heart that can pump blood in excess of 600 beats per minute during full flight.

White-bellied Green Pigeon Photo By Charles Lam

One of the most amazing aspects of pigeons is their ability to navigate back home. It is thought that for short distances the pigeon uses landmarks to make its way home. While farther out different mechanisms are thought to be employed. Two theories have been put forward to explain this remarkable ability. One is that pigeons can read the position of the Sun while the other is that pigeons can read the Earth’s magnetic field and find their way home.

Recently it has come to light that different breeds of homing pigeons use different methods of navigation. In various experiments, pigeons’ ability to return home was affected. One group had difficulty returning after odours from the roost were eliminated using air conditioning. While other groups had difficulty returning after the length of day was artificially lengthened using lights.

These experiments show just how remarkable and varied pigeons truly are.

Monogamous Creatures

Pigeons are thought to be monogamous creatures. Once they select a partner they are mates for life. Although it must be noted that it is not unique for birds to be monogamous.

Carrier Pigeon

Seeing A Very Different World

The world that pigeons see is very different to the world that we see. Pigeons are tetrachromats which means they have four different filters or channels for processing images. Humans along with a select number of other mammals are trichromats.

The differences between the two are immense. Pigeons can see colours that we cannot perceive. They can even see ultra violet light which remains invisible to our eyes. But it is the immense range of colours that pigeons and tetrachromats can see that is mind-boggling. Normal trichromats can recognise roughly one million colours while tetrachromats can distinguish 100 million colours.

Marquesan Imperial Pigeon Photo By Samuel Etienne

Some people may wonder why pigeons are so slow to react to traffic and they may mistakenly believe that the reason for this is that the bird is a bit dim. However, the truth is strangely different. We process visual information at about 24 frames per second. Pigeons though process at a far faster rate roughly 70 to 75 frames per second.

Therefore, what appears to be moving very quickly to us would appear to be moving quite slowly to a pigeon. If one placed a video screen in front of a pigeon and showed it a video – the pigeon would not see moving images only a quick moving slide show.

Victoria Crowned Pigeon

Vital Statistics

  • Pigeons can be up to 50 centimetres in length (21 inches) in the case of the Marquesan Imperial Pigeon. The smallest, the Dwarf fruit dove can be as small as ten centimetres in length (four inches).
  • The largest species can weigh up to four kilograms (nine lbs).
  • Pigeons can live to be as old as twenty years.
  • They are found in most places except dry deserts, the Arctic and Antarctica.

Highly Recommended Get The Book Through Amazon

Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird by Andrew Blechman is a great read and provides a fascinating insight into the world of pigeons, why they are hated by some and how seriously some people take racing pigeons.

You can obtain Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird here from Amazon.
For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom you can access Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled here.
For those living in Canada you can obtain Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird from here.
For Germany: Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird.
For France: Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird.

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