Columbidaedoves and pigeons


Pigeons and doves are in the order Columbiformes and family Columbidae. There are five subfamilies within Columbidae, 42 genera and 308 species. They are easily recognizable and have a world-wide distribution (although they are not found in Antarctica). They live in almost all types of terrestrial habitats from desert to dense forest and large urban areas. Pigeons and doves are stocky birds that range from 15 to 75 cm long. Many of the seed-eating columbids are buff, grey and brown colors, while the fruit-eaters are often more brightly colored. Many have ornamentation and iridescent feathers on the neck, breast, back, wings and face. They range from solitary to extremely social; the now extinct passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) are reported to have occurred in flocks of up to two million birds that were so dense that they blocked out the sun. (Lack, 2003; Baptista, et al., 1992; Dickinson, 2003; Wells and Wells, 2001)

Geographic Range

Pigeons and doves are a cosmopolitan family (although they are not found in Antarctica or the high arctic). The highest diversity of columbids occurs in South America, Australasia and the Pacific Islands. Some species (for example, Rock Doves (Columba livia)) have been introduced throughout much of their range. (Baptista, et al., 1992; Frith, 1982; Gibbs, et al., 2001; Lack, 2003; Wells and Wells, 2001)


Columbids are found in almost all terrestrial habitats from temperate areas to the tropics including: lowland rainforest, highland forest, tropical deciduous forest, riparian forest, boreal forest, savanna, desert, cliff, chaparral, coral atolls, mangroves, swamp forest, woodland edge, agricultural areas, suburban and urban areas. The highest diversity of pigeons and doves occurs in tropical rainforests. They can be found from sea level to 5000 m and their excellent flying abilities have allowed them to colonize oceanic islands. (Baptista, et al., 1992; Gibbs, et al., 2001; Lack, 2003; Wells and Wells, 2001)

Physical Description

Pigeons and doves are stocky birds that range from 15 to 75 cm long and weigh from 30 to over 2000 g. The smaller species within Columbidae are often called doves and the larger species pigeons, but these names do not necessarily reflect true differences and are often used interchangeably. Columbids have small heads and short beaks and legs. Their flight muscles may make up to 44 percent of the bird’s body weight and allow them to have excellent flying capabilities and maneuverability. Wing-shape is often a good indicator of the species’ migratory behavior. They have soft skin at the base of their bills and a ring of bare skin around their eyes that can be red, blue, yellow or white. Columbids have a bilobed crop that produces “crop-milk” (or "pigeon milk") that they feed their young.

Columbids can be divided in to seed-eating and fruit-eating species. Many of the seed-eating columbids are buff, grey and brown colors while the fruit-eaters are often more brightly colored. Typical pigeons (subfamily Columbinae) are usually grey, brown and/or pink. Fruit-eating pigeons (subfamily Treroninae) are more colorful with oranges and greens. Crowned pigeons (subfamily Gourinae) are grey with pink or chestnut underparts and a white wing patch. Tooth-billed pigeons (subfamily Didunculinae) are chestnut colored on the back and wings and dark green elsewhere. Many doves and pigeons have ornamentation (such as crests and colorful eye rings) and iridescent feathers on the neck, breast, back, wings and face. They range from sexually monomorphic to sexually dimorphic, and molt annually after breeding. (Baptista, et al., 1992; Gibbs, et al., 2001; Lack, 2003; Wells and Wells, 2001)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • ornamentation


Pigeons and doves are monogamous, and many have the same mate from year to year. They have numerous displays that are performed either on the ground or in the air. For example, while on the ground, males of some species squat, lift their tail, lower their head, twitch their wings and scratch the ground with their feet while calling. Some species have aerial displays that usually involve wing claps (most forest and ground living species do not have aerial displays). Aerial displays are used in courtship and to indicate territory boundaries. During a pre-copulation display, a male inflates his crop, bows, spreads his tail feathers, pirouettes and calls. This display varies among species, and birds with ornaments and colorful plumage usually show them off during the display. Some species of pigeons and doves also engage in courtship feeding and/or mate guarding. (Baptista, et al., 1992; Gibbs, et al., 2001; Lack, 2003; Wells and Wells, 2001)

Breeding is triggered by food availability and photoperiod and can be seasonal or year-round, depending on the species. Some columbids breed colonially, some solitarily. The males bring nest material to the females who build the nest. The nest is a platform or shallow cup of twigs and stems built on a crevice, cliff, tree or the ground. Columbids will re-use nests and will build nests on top of abandoned bird nests. Nest building usually lasts two to four days and nest sites are defended.

Clutch size is usually one to two eggs (occasionally three). Frugivorous species usually have only one egg; fruit is low in protein so the birds can not raise more than one chick. The eggs are white or buff colored and unmarked. Both males and females incubate, but females usually spend more time incubating than males. Species that live in the desert wet their stomach feathers before incubating to help cool the eggs by evaporation. Incubation lasts 11 to 30 days, and hatching can be either synchronous or asynchronous. Chicks are altricial and are fed by both parents. Chicks fledge in 10 to 36 days (earlier if disturbed) and may continue to receive food from their parents for 30 to 40 days.

Breeding pairs can have up to five broods in one breeding season. Their short breeding cycle allows pigeons and doves to have more broods to compensate for their small brood sizes and relatively high rates of predation. Fledglings grow their adult plumage a few months after fledging and reach sexual maturity in 6 to 12 months. (Baptista, et al., 1992; Gibbs, et al., 2001; Lack, 2003; Wells and Wells, 2001)

Both males and females incubate, but females usually spend more time incubating than males. Species that live in the desert wet their stomach feathers before incubating to help cool the eggs by evaporation. Incubation lasts 11 to 30 days. Chicks are altricial and are fed by both parents. The chicks are usually fed crop-milk for three to four days and are then fed seeds and fruit, however, some continue to be fed crop-milk even after they have fledged. Crop-milk is made in the crop of the adult birds and is 75 to 77 percent water, 11 to 13 percent protein, 5 to 7 percent fat and 1.2 to 1.8 percent minerals and amino acids. Nestling pigeons and doves grow rapidly because of the crop-milk. Chicks fledge in 10 to 36 days (earlier if disturbed) and may continue to receive food from their parents for 30 to 40 days. (Baptista, et al., 1992; Gibbs, et al., 2001; Lack, 2003; Wells and Wells, 2001)


The oldest recorded columbid is a mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) that lived 19 years and 4 months. Adult annual survival has been estimated to be 40 to 65 percent. (Wells and Wells, 2001)


Pigeons and doves can be solitary to very social and can be found in flocks of several thousand. A flock of the now extinct passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) seen in 1740 was 3 to 4 miles long and 1 mile wide, it was so dense that it blocked out the sun. Dominance hierarchies occur in flocks. Many species roost communally at night (pigeons and doves are diurnal) and some are colonial breeders. To stay warm, Inca doves (Columbina inca) form groups of up to 12 and stand on each other’s backs. They shift positions so that each bird takes a turn on the outside.

Species in hot areas rest during the hottest part of the day. In cold weather, pigeons and doves fluff up their feathers to conserve their body heat. If they are hot, they raise their feathers even more so that the tips do not touch (a behavior called piloerection); this allows heat to escape and helps the bird cool down. Columbids spend a lot of time preening and bathing in the sun, water, dust and rain.

Pigeons and doves are known for their navigation abilities and have been used by humans as messengers. Some species are sedentary, and others are migratory. Some are nomadic and move as their food supply changes, and some make altitudinal movements as seasons change. Some pigeons and doves fly up to 40 km each day from their roosting sites to their foraging sites. Many species have high nest-site fidelity and during breeding they are aggressive and defend small territories around their nests. (Baptista, et al., 1992; Lack, 2003; Wells and Wells, 2001)

Communication and Perception

Pigeons and doves have a variety of songs and calls that they use to find mates, signal danger, and defend territories. Males have special vocalizations that are only used in courtship and advertising. Both males and females sing; most songs are flute-like cooing noises that differ in the length of each note and in the interval between notes. Some species sound like a whistle, and others sound more like a croak. Small columbid species have higher-pitched calls than larger species. They will sometimes call in duets. Some species make quiet purring sounds that function in mate-bonding. Adults will respond to song playbacks. Young birds have begging calls and the results of cross-fostering experiments show that songs are innate and are not learned from their parents.

Pigeons and doves have a variety of courtship displays (see Reproduction: Mating Systems). They also have threat displays in which they spread and raise their wings and spread their tail. If the display does not work to repel and intruder, they will “buffet” with their wings or peck at the intruder.

Columbids are excellent navigators and use both the magnetic field of the planet and the position of the sun to find their way. (Baptista, et al., 1992; Lack, 2003; Wells and Wells, 2001)

  • Other Communication Modes
  • duets

Food Habits

Pigeons and doves can be seen feeding in flocks. They are primarily grainivorous and frugivorous, but occasionally they eat insects, snails, worms, lizards, leaves, buds and flowers. Seeds are picked up off the ground and eaten whole and fruits are plucked from trees. Grainivorous species have specialized gizzards, intestines and esophagi that help them eat and digest seeds. Grain is stored in their crops and ground by the grit in their gizzard. Grainivorous species need to drink a lot of water in order to digest seeds. Desert species get their water from succulent plants and have the ability to drink saline water. Columbids drink by submerging their beaks into the water and sucking the water up, they do not scoop water in their beaks and lift their heads to swallow like most birds.

Size differences among columbids often reflect dietary differences and allow for resource partitioning. Larger birds eat larger fruit than smaller birds and smaller birds can feed on thinner branches and reach fruit that the larger birds can not reach. (Baptista, et al., 1992; Gibbs, et al., 2001; Lack, 2003; Wells and Wells, 2001)


Pigeons and doves often form feeding flocks, which allow for increased vigilance and reduce the chance that any one bird will be caught by a predator. They also use broken wing displays to draw predators from the nest. In response to high rates of nest predation, columbids have developed short incubation and nestling periods. Snakes (suborder Serpentes) are common nest predators and falcons (family Falconidae) and other birds of prey (order Falconiformes) feed on adults. (Baptista, et al., 1992; Goodwin, 1983)

Ecosystem Roles

Pigeons and doves are important seed dispersers and are host to a number of feather parasites (including Columbicola columbae and Campanulotes bidentatus). In addition, they can carry human diseases. (Baptista, et al., 1992; Lack, 2003)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Pigeons and doves are often a part of folklore and literature, and havae been domesticated for food (both eggs and adults are eaten by people). Research involving columbids has lead to increased knowledge about the inheritance of morphological and behavioral traits, endocrinology, learning, evolution, orientation and navigation. Pigeon racing is also a common pass-time and racing pigeons can sell for as much as $350 000. Pigeons and doves were also used as messengers during war times and are sometimes kept as pets. (Baptista, et al., 1992; Lack, 2003)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Because they feed on cultivated grain, columbids are often thought of as crop pests. They are also pests in urban areas where they nest in man-made structures and their droppings can be a nuisance. They are also known to carry human disease. (Baptista, et al., 1992; Lack, 2003)

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans
    • carries human disease
  • crop pest
  • household pest

Conservation Status

Some species of pigeons and doves have expanded their ranges and increased their population sizes as a result of human activities (for example, 'rock doves Columba livia' and 'Eurasian collared doves Streptopelia decaocto'). Other species are less fortunate and their ranges and populations are shrinking as a result of habitat loss and fragmentation, hunting, introduced species, agriculture and pesticides. Columbids that live on islands are the most threatened. Habitat preservation is the best solution to dwindling numbers of some columbids, and captive breeding may be useful as a last resort.

The IUCN lists 109 species of columbids in various categories from ‘Extinct’ to ‘Near Threatened. CITES lists 26 members of Columbidae ranging from Appendix I to Appendix III. ("UNEP-WCMC Species Database: CITES-Listed Species", 2004; Baptista, et al., 1992; Gibbs, et al., 2001; IUCN, 2003; Lack, 2003; Wells and Wells, 2001)

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated


Alaine Camfield (author), Animal Diversity Web.

Kari Kirschbaum (editor), Animal Diversity Web.



Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map


living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map


living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


Found in coastal areas between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Vegetation is dominated by stands of dense, spiny shrubs with tough (hard or waxy) evergreen leaves. May be maintained by periodic fire. In South America it includes the scrub ecotone between forest and paramo.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.


having a worldwide distribution. Found on all continents (except maybe Antarctica) and in all biogeographic provinces; or in all the major oceans (Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


to jointly display, usually with sounds in a highly coordinated fashion, at the same time as one other individual of the same species, often a mate


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


union of egg and spermatozoan


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


an animal that mainly eats fruit


an animal that mainly eats seeds


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body


referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.

island endemic

animals that live only on an island or set of islands.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


(as perception channel keyword). This animal has a special ability to detect the Earth's magnetic fields.

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.

oceanic islands

islands that are not part of continental shelf areas, they are not, and have never been, connected to a continental land mass, most typically these are volcanic islands.


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.


rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

sexual ornamentation

one of the sexes (usually males) has special physical structures used in courting the other sex or fighting the same sex. For example: antlers, elongated tails, special spurs.


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


lives alone


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.


uses sight to communicate

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year


2004. "UNEP-WCMC Species Database: CITES-Listed Species" (On-line). Accessed April 28, 2004 at

Baptista, L., P. Trail, H. Horblit. 1992. Family Columbidae (Pigeons and Doves). Pp. 60-243 in J del Hoyo, A Elliott, J Sargatal, eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 4. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions.

Dickinson, E. 2003. The Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World, 3rd edition. London: Christopher Helm.

Frith, H. 1982. Pigeons and Doves of Australia. Adelaide: Rigby Publishers.

Gibbs, D., E. Barnes, J. Cox. 2001. Pigeons and Doves: A guide to the pigeons and doves of the world. Sussex: Pica Press.

Goodwin, D. 1983. Pigeons and Doves of the World. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

IUCN, 2003. "2003 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species" (On-line). Accessed April 28, 2004 at

Lack, P. 2003. Pigeons and Doves. Pp. 288-295 in C Perrins, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Birds. Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press.

Payne, R. 2003. "Bird Families of the World" (On-line). Accessed April 28, 2004 at

Sibley, C., J. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds, A study in Molecular Evolution. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Wells, J., A. Wells. 2001. Pigeons and Doves. Pp. 319-325 in C Elphick, J Dunning, D Sibley, eds. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.