PIGEON (Fr. pigeon, Ital. piccione and pipione, Lat. pipio, literally a nestling-bird that pipes or cries out, a “piper”—the very name now in use among some pigeon-fanciers, though “squeaker” in the more usual term). The name pigeon, doubtless of Norman introduction as a polite term, seems to bear much the same relation to dove, the word of Anglo-Saxon origin, that mutton has to sheep, beef to ox, veal to calf, and pork to bacon; no sharp zoological distinction can be drawn (see Dove) between dove and pigeon, and the collective members of the group Columbae are by ornithologists ordinarily called pigeons. Perhaps the best-known species to which the latter name is exclusively given in common speech[1] is the wild pigeon or passenger pigeon of North America, Ectopistes migrarius, which is still found in many parts of Canada and the United States, though now almost extinct and never appearing in the countless numbers that it did of old, when a flock seen by A. Wilson was estimated to consist of more than 2230 millions. The often-quoted descriptions given by him and J. J. Audubon of pigeon-haunts in the then “backwoods” of Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana need not here be reproduced. That of the latter was declared by C. Waterton to be a gross exaggeration; but the critic would certainly have changed his tone had he known that, some hundred and fifty years earlier, passenger-pigeons so swarmed and ravaged the colonists' crops near Montreal that a bishop of his own church was constrained to exorcise them with holy water, as if they had been demons.[2] The passenger-pigeon is about the size of a common turtle-dove, but with a long, wedge-shaped tail. The male is of a dark slate-colour above, and purplish-bay beneath, the sides of the neck being enlivened by violet, green and gold. The female is drab-coloured above and dull white beneath, with only a slight trace of the brilliant neck-markings.[3] (See plate illustration under Dove.)

Among the multitudinous forms of pigeons very few can here be noticed. A species which might possibly repay the trouble of domestication is the wonga-wonga or white-fleshed pigeon of Australia, Leucosarcia picata, a bird larger than the ring-dove, of a slaty-blue colour above and white beneath, streaked on the flanks with black. It is known to breed, though not very freely, in captivity, and is said to be excellent for the table. As regards flavour, the fruit-pigeons of the genus Treron (or Vinago of some authors) and its allies surpass all birds. These inhabit tropical Africa, India, and especially the Malay Archipelago, but the probability of domesticating any of them is very remote. Hardly less esteemed are the pigeons of the genus Ptilopus and its kindred forms, which have their headquarters in the Pacific Islands, though some occur far to the westward and also in Australia. There may be mentioned the strange Nicobar pigeon, Caloenas (see plate illustration under Dove), an inhabitant of the Indian Archipelago, not less remarkable for the long lustrous hackles with which its neck is clothed than for the structure of 1ts gizzard, which has been described by Sir W. H. Flower (Proc. Zool. Soc., 1860, p. 330), though this peculiarity is matched or even surpassed by that of the same organ in the Phaenorrhina goliath of New Caledonia (Rev. de zoologie, 1862, p. 138) and in the Carpophaga latrans of Fiji. In this last the surface of the epithelial lining is beset by horny conical processes, adapted, it is believed, for crushing the very hard fruits of Onocarpus vitiensis on which the bird feeds (Proc. Zool. Soc., 1878, p. 102). The modern giants of the group, consisting of about half a dozen species of the genus Goura and known as crowned pigeons (see plate illustration under Dove), belong to New Guinea and the neighbouring islands, and are conspicuous by their large size, beautiful filmy fan-shaped crest, and the reticulated instead of scutellated covering of their “tarsi.”

A very distinct type of pigeon is that represented by Didunculus strigirostris, the “Manu-mea” of Samoa, still believed by some to be the next of kin to the Dodo (q.v.), but really presenting only a superficial resemblance in the shape of its bill to that extinct form, from which it differs osteologically quite as much as do other pigeons (Phil. Trans., 1869, p. 349). It remains to be seen whether the Papuan genus Otidiphaps, of which several species are now known, may not belong rather to the Didunculidae than to the true Columbidae.

Pigeons are now regarded as belonging to the Charadriiform or plover-like birds (see Birds) and are placed in the sub-order Columbae, near the sand-grouse (q.v.). They are divided into three families, Dididae, which includes the Dodo (q.v.) and Solitaire, the Columbidae, which includes the doves and pigeons, and the Didunculidae, of which the curious tooth-billed pigeon, of Samoa is the only example. The body is always compact, and the bill has a soft skin or cere covering the nostrils. The pigeons are chiefly vegetable feeders and have a hard gizzard, and all drink much water; they perch, and have a note of the nature of a “coo.” The nest is a rough platform or is in holes on the ground or in rocks. The eggs are two or three and white, and the young, which are helpless when hatched, are fed by a secretion from the crop of the parents.  (A.N.) 

  1. It may be observed that the “rock-pigeons” of Anglo-Indians are Sand-grouse (q.v.), and the “Cape pigeon” of sailors is a petrel (q.v.)
  2. Voyages du Baron de la Hontan dans l'Amérique septentrionale, i 93, 94 (2nd ed., Amsterdam, 1705). In the first edition, published at the Hague in 1703, the passage, less explicit in details but to the same effect, is at p. 80. The author's letter, describing the circumstance, is dated May 1687.
  3. There are several records of the occurrence in Britain of this pigeon, but in most cases the birds noticed cannot be supposed to have found their own way hither. One, which was shot in Fife in 1825, may, however, have crossed the Atlantic unassisted by man.