Rock doves, generally known as pigeons, are so common that they often go completely unnoticed by humans. However, they have played many important roles in different cultures around the world. Native to Europe, North Africa, and India, they were first domesticated more than 5,000 years ago, the second oldest domesticated bird species after chickens. Clay tablets from Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) and Egyptian hieroglyphs depict people and domestic pigeons.
In the wild, rock doves nest on cliffs, which is one reason they have adapted so well to city life—our giant concrete “cliffs” provide them perfect homes. They are low maintenance birds that can thrive in a wide range of conditions. More than 150 different domestic varieties have been developed by humans—some for meat, others for show by fanciers, and still others for their remarkable navigational ability. The white doves featured in the World of Birds Show are known as “release doves” and are domestic rock doves bred for their small size and color. Scientists discovered that pigeons have special adaptations that enable them to navigate by sensing the Earth’s magnetic fields as well as by drawing on sounds, smells, and visual cues based on the position of the sun. With these adaptations, pigeons can find their way back to their home roosts even when transported to distant locations while blindfolded. Throughout history, humans have made use of this ability. Pigeon racing is a popular sport in many countries and during the first and second World Wars, the U.S. Army Signal Corps used pigeons to carry messages because the birds were more difficult to trace than conventional communication lines. One retired Army bird named Levi lived to be 31 years old.
These birds are found in North America, Europe, North Africa, and Asia. They nest on skyscrapers, bridges, and rain gutters. Wild rock doves nest in rocky cliffs and shrubs.
Rock doves eat mainly seeds. Their diet also includes berries, fruit, and the occasional insect, snail, or worm.
Adult rock doves’ average body length is 11 to 15 inches with a wingspan of about two feet. On average they weigh between eight and 13 ounces. Lifespan is extremely variable, from 2 to five years in the wild (where they are an important food source for raptors such as peregrine falcons and merlins) up to 15 years or more in human care.