Brooklyn Bird Watch: The Rock Pigeon

Today, Brooklyn Bird Watch features a Heather Wolf photo of the Rock Pigeon. The Rock Pigeon is the most common pigeon. In New York, it’s probably this species of Pigeon you see in the parks and throughout the city. It was once called the Rock Dove.

The basic color scheme of most Rock Pigeons is a grey-blue plumage with two black bands on the wing and a black tip on the tail with some iridescence along the neck. Sometimes you can see variations in plumage, individuals that are spotted and with reddish plumage, though it’s the same kind of pigeon.

There are 250 species of Pigeons and they are abundant all over North America. Pigeons occur worldwide except in the coldest regions and the most remote islands.

In fact, their range map with the purple color representing “Year-round” completely covers North and South America.
Pigeons usually mate for life. A pair will raise as many as five broods a year. Both the male and the female take care of the young, and it takes about a month before they are able to leave the nest.

Both parents feed their young “pigeon milk.” That’s right, pigeon milk. All pigeons do this. It’s a substance secreted in the throat of the adult pigeon. It comes from a special cell in the bird’s crop which is a section of the lower esophagus used to store food for digestion. The young pigeon reaches its beak inside the throat of the adult and gets the milk.

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In many cities the Pigeon has become a very unpopular bird, for example, and the obvious reason, they seem to defecate wherever they are, and when they flock together it can become messy, and give part of a building façade or the area around a park bench a nasty look. It doesn’t help that they are not by comparison the most attractive bird to look at either.

Yet, with all the negative feelings, especially in cityscapes, and the bad reputation that the Pigeon carries, it actually has had some very notable and somewhat noble connections to humankind.

So when you are one afternoon sitting on a park bench enjoying the weather, and see a few Pigeons in your vicinity and think to yourself…it’s just some of those dirty pigeons…and although the information below certainly won’t change your mind about Pigeons, you might at least consider cutting the bird some slack, because you’re looking at the oldest domesticated bird in human history, and a bird that has a very unique skill.

As Wikipedia reminds us, “Pigeons have made contributions of considerable importance to humanity, especially in times of war.” The domestication of Pigeons is mentioned in Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphics more than 5,000 years ago. They were introduced to the Americas a mere 400 years ago.

Some Rock Pigeons, known as the “Homing Pigeon”, have very special, complex navigational skills. They were used to carry important messages during WWl and WWII. The paraphrase below is Wikipedia explaining this unique navigation skill of the Homing Pigeon.

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 620 miles away. This 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. 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 senses of the pigeon, 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.

This post first appeared on brooklyneagle.com


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