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Domestic pigeon
Domestic-pigeon.jpg
Red Sheffield domestic homing pigeon
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Genus:
Columba
Species:
livia
Subspecies:
domestica
Synonyms
  • Columba domestica
  • Columba livia rustica
Pigeon Black and White
Commonly sighted in India

The domestic pigeon (Columba livia domestica) is a pigeon subspecies that was derived from the rock dove (also called the rock pigeon). The rock pigeon is the world's oldest domesticated bird. Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets mention the domestication of pigeons more than 5,000 years ago, as do Egyptian hieroglyphics. Research suggests that domestication of pigeons occurred as early as 10,000 years ago.

Domestic pigeons have a lifespan of around 15 years.

Pigeons have made contributions of considerable importance to humanity, especially in times of war. In war the homing ability of pigeons has been put to use by making them messengers. So-called war pigeons have carried many vital messages and some have been decorated for their services. Medals such as the Croix de guerre, awarded to Cher Ami, and the Dickin Medal awarded to the pigeons G.I. Joe and Paddy, amongst 32 others, have been awarded to pigeons for their services in saving human lives.

Reproduction

Domestic pigeons reproduce in a similar way to the wild rock pigeon. Generally humans will select breeding partners. Crop milk or pigeon milk produced by both male and female parent birds may occasionally be replaced with artificial substitutes. Pigeons are extremely protective of their eggs, and in some cases will go to severe lengths to protect their productive eggs and have been known to seek revenge on those who interfere with their productive process. Baby pigeons are called squeakers or squabs.

Homing pigeons

Dovecote at Nymans Gardens, West Sussex, England May 2006 3
Dovecote at Nymans Gardens, West Sussex, England
100 Pigeons
Group of pigeons

Trained domestic pigeons are able to return to the home loft if released at a location that they have never visited before and that may be up to 1000 km away. A special breed, called homing pigeons has been developed through selective breeding to carry messages and members of this variety of pigeon are still being used in the sport of pigeon racing and the white release dove ceremony at weddings and funerals.

The ability a pigeon has to return home from a strange location necessitates two sorts of information. The first, called "map sense" is their geographic location. The second, "compass sense" is the bearing they need to fly from their new location in order to reach their home. Both of these senses, however, respond to a number of different cues in different situations. The most popular conception of how pigeons are able to do this is that they are able to sense the Earth's magnetic field with tiny magnetic tissues in their head (magnetoception). This is all the more surprising as they are not a migratory species, which is a fact used by some ornithologists to dispute this theory. Another theory is that pigeons have compass sense, which uses the position of the sun, along with an internal clock, to work out direction. However, studies have shown that if magnetic disruption or clock changes disrupt these senses, the pigeon can still manage to get home. The variability in the effects of manipulations to these sense of the pigeons indicates that there is more than one cue on which navigation is based and that map sense appears to rely on a comparison of available cues

Other potential cues used include:

  • The use of a sun compass
  • Nocturnal navigate by stars
  • Visual landmark map
  • Navigation by infrasound map
  • Polarised light compass
  • Olfactory stimuli

Other purposes of pigeon breeding

Chicago pigeon in flight 2
Chicago-native Columba livia domestica in flight.

For food

Pigeons are also bred for meat, generally called squab and harvested from young birds. Pigeons grow to a very large size in the nest before they are fledged and able to fly, and in this stage of their development (when they are called squabs) they are prized as food. For commercial meat production a breed of large white pigeon, named "King pigeon," has been developed by selective breeding. Breeds of pigeons developed for their meat are collectively known as utility pigeons.

Exhibition breeds

Pigeon fanciers developed many exotic forms of pigeon. These are generally classed as fancy pigeons. Fanciers compete against each other at exhibitions or shows and the different forms or breeds are judged to a standard to decide who has the best bird. Among those breeds are the English carrier pigeons, a variety of pigeon with wattles and a unique, almost vertical, stance. There are many ornamental breeds of pigeons, including the "Duchess" breed, which has as a prominent characteristic feet that are completely covered by a sort of fan of feathers. The fantail pigeons are also very ornamental with their fan-shaped tail feathers.

Flying/Sporting

Domestic Pigeon Flock
Domestic pigeons in flight

Pigeons are also kept by enthusiasts for the enjoyment of Flying/Sporting competitions. Breeds such as tipplers are flown in endurance contests by their owners.

Experimentation

Domestic pigeons are also commonly used in laboratory experiments in biology, medicine and cognitive science.

Cognitive science

Pigeons have been trained to distinguish between cubist and impressionist paintings, for instance. In Project Sea Hunt, a US coast guard search and rescue project in the 1970s/1980s, pigeons were shown to be more effective than humans in spotting shipwreck victims at sea. Research in pigeons is widespread, encompassing shape and texture perception, exemplar and prototype memory, category-based and associative concepts, and many more unlisted here (see pigeon intelligence).

Pigeons are able to acquire orthographic processing skills, which form part of the ability to read, and basic numerical skills equivalent to those shown in primates.

Feral pigeons

WinterPigeons02
Feral rock pigeons commonly show a very wide range of plumage variation.

Many domestic birds have escaped or been released over the years, and have given rise to the feral pigeon. These show a variety of plumages, although some look very much like pure rock pigeons. The scarcity of the pure wild species is partly due to interbreeding with feral birds. Domestic pigeons can often be distinguished from feral pigeons because they usually have a metal or plastic band around one (sometimes both) legs which shows, by a number on it, that they are registered to an owner.

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