Pigeons are common birds that can be seen in many cities around the world. These birds have a natural affinity for urban areas, but what is it about cities that makes them an ideal habitat for pigeons?
They are naturally attracted to the hard surfaces, concrete, marble, and stone structures found in cities due to their mimicry of the birds’ natural habitat on the rocky seaside cliffs. Urban pigeons have made the most of these hard structures for nesting and survival, as they provide ample resources for them to feed, breed, and nest in safety.
Despite being often considered pests, especially in the cities, these birds have a natural advantage – their incredible ability to navigate. Pigeons have well-developed navigation capabilities, allowing them to travel vast distances and back to their nests with unerring accuracy.
Living within feral populations, pigeons can be found in almost every corner of the urban environment. They exploit the artificial habitats of cities in a manner that other birds fail to do. These habitats include pigeon houses, generously put out food by humans, and protection offered by humans from natural predators.
Relationship with Mans and the Nesting Habits
The origin of rock doves, also known as urban pigeons, can be traced back to their development along the North African coast, from where they spread and colonized the Mediterranean. Their natural habitat consisted of seaside cliffs, where they could safely nest and breed.
As human civilization developed, large, ornate buildings emerged, incorporating intricate designs and structures. These buildings provided numerous crevices and corners for pigeons to nest and breed in. Their natural affinity for nesting in cliffs led them to view these towering structures as an ideal substitute.
Over time, feral pigeons have developed a strong sense of home and security within human accommodations, passing this learned behavior down to future generations. Therefore, pigeons have adapted to city life, perceiving buildings as familiar structures that provide safety and shelter from natural predators.
Pigeons hold a unique distinction as the first bird species that humans have domesticated. Unlike most animals, they possess intelligence and curiosity, allowing them to develop a more intimate relationship with humans. For centuries upon centuries, this enduring relationship has been sustained despite changes in landscape and habitat.
Pigeons have adapted to the urban landscape and view buildings as a natural substitute for their natural habitats. This adaptation has allowed them to thrive in a non-natural environment that would typically be untenable for wild animals.
The relationship between humans and pigeons is tied to their domestication, as they have become accustomed to living and interacting with people from a young age. As a result, pigeons have come to seek out people’s company and affection, making them one of the most enduring interspecies relationships in history.
Pigeon Nesting Habits
The rock doves are believed to have originated from the coastlines of North Africa and are known to have migrated around the Mediterranean Sea area. Their natural habitat utilized the cliffs along the coast for nesting and feeding. As human development spread across the Western world, buildings with ornate designs and elaborate ornamentation were constructed and provided many nooks and crannies for these birds to nest in.
These tall man-made structures looked similar to the cliffs that the rock doves used to nest in, hence why they naturally adapted to these urban environments. Through their physical characteristics and unique reproductive habits, these birds have developed into the feral pigeon populations that we see in cities today.
These feral pigeon populations have adapted so well to urban environments that buildings and other human accommodations have become a natural nesting habitat for these birds. They pass on the sense of home and security to future generations, making these man-made structures no longer seem strange or artificial.
People, especially in the cities, have very polarized opinions about them. Some love them, and feed them with bread crumbs, pulses, and even leftover food.
Europeans were very fond of these birds, so when they migrated to North America in the sixteenth century, they brought pigeons with them. Some of the pigeons escaped and proliferated across cities in America where the human population was growing.
Gradually, population of pigeons exploded in cities like Boston, San Francisco and New York because, believe it or not, cities are tailor-made for pigeons!
Easy Access To Food
Pigeons love cities with dense human populations, because that translates into better availability of food for them. Unlike other birds, pigeons can easily thrive on human food, including leftovers. They are often seen eating leftover rice, bagels, doughnut, buns and potato chips in American cities. Thus, the ability to consume human’s leftover food has made them very suitable for city life.
In their original habitat, rock pigeons nest on cliffs and spend their life near the sea. However, as cities and civilizations started to prosper near the sea, they moved in. For these pigeons, buildings were just like cliffs, albeit with better architecture!
Pigeons have a natural affinity for hard surfaces. They like concrete, marble and stone structures, which are abundant in cities. Pigeons are uniquely suited for city life because they have mastered the art of nesting on these hard structures, as they mimic their rocky and hard natural habitat. Cities are abundant with places that make good nesting places for pigeons, such as AC units, fire escapes, or even the ledges decoratively built on some old buildings.
Easy access to food, an easy home… what else do you need? Easy breeding! Pigeons are a species that breed throughout the year. The easy availability of food and shelter means that pigeons spend a lot less time searching for food and more time mating! That’s why we see the pigeon population exploding out of control in certain cities.
Excellent Navigating Capabilities
Another reason why pigeons are highly successful in cities is that they are incredible navigators. Scientists are still working to understand the mechanism behind their navigation abilities. Some pigeons can be driven hundreds of miles away, yet still manage to navigate back to their home! These navigation skills aid pigeons in moving through the complex cityscape.
A study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology posits that this ability has something to do with infrasound, an extremely low-frequency sound wave emanating from the ocean and reverberating throughout the planet. Researchers believe that by using these low-frequency signals, pigeons can make mental maps of their surroundings, which aids their navigational repertoire.
Pigeons have big eyes with five color receptors, as compared to three in human eyes, which lets them see things we can’t even imagine. This incredible vision, amplified with their navigation abilities, makes it easy for pigeons to locate food in any neighborhood.
Dearth Of Natural Predators
Another thing that worked in favor of pigeons in cities is the dearth of apex predators, like falcons and hawks. In the case of cities in the US, pigeons didn’t have natural predators for a long time. This is partly do with the usage of insecticide DDT, which started in the US after World War 1. The use of DDT made the eggshells of raptors like falcons and hawks very thin, leading to a decrease in their population.
Interestingly enough, pigeons are good at avoiding predators and other moving objects, like automobiles. One study discovered that pigeons rarely crash, making them one of the best flyers in the natural world. Pigeons are quite acrobatic, so it’s not easy for predators to prey on pigeons.
When The Pigeon Population Exploded Beyond Control
In New York, there’s an adage: there’s one pigeon for every New Yorker. That would mean there are more than 7 million pigeons in the city! Whether or not that’s true, many urbanites in New York feel that the city isn’t large enough for both species.
In Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, pigeons have flocked beyond the city’s limit. Bangkok’s municipal corporation is considering a proposal prohibiting people from feeding pigeons. Violators could be fined 25,000 baht (~$800) or three months of imprisonment—or both. Interestingly, Italy long ago passed laws and made it illegal to feed pigeons in Venice.
A Final Word
For centuries, pigeons have been the companions of humans. Initially, they served as a good source of protein in the form of squab. For some, they were cute cuddly flying pets. In fact, we even built dedicated homes (dovecotes) for them! But with rapid urbanization and the human population gradually concentrating in cities, our relationship with pigeons seems to have changed.
Many of us now see them as pests, proliferating in our cities, often beyond control. In the US, the pigeon is one of the few birds that doesn’t come under federal protection. In fact, there’s an entire industry dedicated to their removal.