Pigeon — Pigeons and doves constitute the bird family Columbidae within the order Columbiformes, which include some 300 species of near passerines. In general terms “dove” and “pigeon” are used somewhat interchangeably. In ornithological practice, there is a tendency for “dove” to be used for smaller species and “pigeon” for larger ones, but this is in no way consistently applied, and historically the common names for these birds involve a great deal of variation between the terms “dove” and “pigeon.” This family occurs worldwide, but the greatest variety is in the Indomalaya and Australasia ecozones. Young doves and pigeons are called “squabs.”
Pigeons and doves are stout-bodied birds with short necks, and have short slender bills with a fleshy cere. The species commonly referred to just as “pigeon” is the Feral Rock Pigeon, common in many cities.
Doves and pigeons build relatively flimsy nests from sticks and other debris, which may be placed in trees, on ledges or on the ground, depending on species. They lay one or two eggs, and both parents care for the young, which leave the nest after 7 to 28 days. Doves feed on seeds, fruit and plants. Unlike most other birds (but see flamingo), the doves and pigeons produce “crop milk”, which is secreted by a sloughing of fluid-filled cells from the lining of the crop. Both sexes produce this highly nutritious substance to feed to the young.
Pigeons and doves exhibit considerable variations in size. The largest species are the crowned pigeons of New Guinea, which are nearly turkey-sized, at a weight of 2-4 kilograms (4.4-8.8 lbs.) The smallest are the New World ground-doves of the genus Columbina, which are the same size as a House Sparrow and weigh as little as 22 grams. With a total length of more than 50 centimeters (19 in) and weight of almost a kilo (2 lb), the largest arboreal species is the Marquesan Imperial Pigeon, while the Dwarf Fruit Dove, which may measure as little as 13 centimeters (5.1 in), has a marginally smaller total length than any other species from this family. Smaller species tend to be known as doves, while larger species as pigeons, but there is no taxonomic basis for distinguishing between the two.
Pigeons and doves are distributed everywhere on Earth, except for the driest areas of the Sahara Desert, Antarctica and its surrounding islands and the high Arctic. They have colonised most of the world’s oceanic islands, reaching eastern Polynesia and the Chatham Islands in the Pacific, Mauritius, the Seychelles and Réunion in the Indian Ocean, and the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean.
Several species of pigeon and dove are used as food, and probably any could be; the powerful breast muscles characteristic of the family make excellent meat. In Europe the Wood Pigeon is commonly shot as a game bird, while Rock Pigeons were originally domesticated as a food species, and many breeds were developed for their meat-bearing qualities. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management contains recipes for roast pigeon and pigeon pie, a popular inexpensive food in Victorian industrial Britain.
The extinction of the Passenger Pigeon was at least partly due to shooting for use as food. According to the Tanakh, doves are kosher, and they are the only birds that may be used for a korban. Other kosher birds may be eaten, but not brought as a korban.
The Rock Pigeon has been domesticated for hundreds of years. It has been bred into several varieties kept by hobbyists, of which the best known is the homing pigeon or racing homer. Other popular breeds are tumbling pigeons such as the Birmingham Roller and fancy varieties that are bred for certain physical characteristics, such as large feathers on the feet or fan-shaped tails. Domesticated Rock Pigeons are also bred as Carrier pigeons, used for thousands of years to carry brief written messages, and Release Doves used in ceremonies.