The New International Encyclopædia/Pigeon

PIGEON (OF. pigeon, pipion, Fr. pigeon, It. piccione, pippione, pigeon, from Lat. pipio, squab, young bird, from pipire, to chirp, onomatopoetic in origin). A name applied, like dove (q.v.), to all members of the family Columbidæ. Although members of the group differ greatly in size and color, with a few exceptions they are easily recognized. They are chiefly medium-sized or rather large birds. Most of those of temperate regions are plainly colored with gray, brown, or slate, and some black and white, but some of the tropical forms show brighter shades of blue and purple; while the fruit-pigeons of the far Orient are gorgeous in green, yellow, orange, red, violet, and blue. The wings are usually long and pointed; the tail more or less elongated. The crop is large and double; during the breeding season it becomes glandular and secretes a milky fluid upon which the young are in part fed, or at any rate it moistens the food given them by their parents. The plumage of pigeons is generally very dense, quite smooth, often reflecting metallic lustres; the feathers entirely lack the aftershaft. Pigeons are monogamous, and the birds seem much attached to each other, and share mutually the labors of nest-building, incubating, and caring for the young. The nests are always flimsy structures of a few twigs in a tree, and the eggs, almost always two in number, are pure white. The young are naked and helpless when hatched. Pigeons are vegetarians, and eat fruit, grain, seeds, and the like, and are therefore often destructive in cultivated fields. Their notes are soft, low, and rhythmic—well described as ‘cooing.’ The flesh of most species is good eating, and they are ranked game-birds and are much hunted. The flesh is nutritious, and that of the young, or ‘squabs,’ from twenty to twenty-five days old, is particularly delicate, and in some parts of the United States great numbers of domesticated doves are reared for market. One establishment near Los Angeles, Cal., kept in 1901 more than 10,000 to supply the demand for this delicacy.

More than 300 species of pigeon are known, of which nearly or quite half are the so-called fruit-pigeons of the East. The geographical distribution of the pigeons, living and extinct, suggests some of the most interesting inquiries in zoölogy. One interesting fact is that pigeons are generally absent from regions where monkeys abound, as these nimble thieves rob their open, unprotected nests so persistently that the two races of animals cannot dwell in the same district. Twelve species have been taken within the boundaries of the United States, but eight of these are West Indian or Mexican species, found only occasionally along our southern boundary. The remaining four are the little ground-dove (q.v.); the common ‘mourning’ or Carolina dove (Zenaiduru macroura), abundant throughout temperate North America; the band-tailed pigeon (Columba fasciata), a large stout species, with a noticeable black bar across the bluish-ash tail, common from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific; and the formerly very numerous ‘wild’ or ‘passenger’ pigeon.

The North American wild pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) is especially interesting from the marvelous numbers composing its flocks before the settlement of the interior of the country caused its almost total disappearance. It is a large, slender bird, with a small head, notched beak, turned at the base, short strong legs with naked feet, a long acuminate tail, and very long, pointed and powerful wings. It is a beautiful bird, of very graceful form and finely colored plumage, and formerly was found in almost all parts of North America. It is not, properly speaking, a bird of passage, as apparently its movements are consequent on the failure of a supply of food in one locality and the necessity of seeking it in another. Its power of flight is very great. The nest of the passenger pigeon consists of a few dry twigs placed in a fork of the branches of a forest tree, and contains two eggs. They breed two or three times in a season. Although both the bird and its nest are rarities now, only isolated colonies remaining in the less settled parts of the country, during the early part of the nineteenth-century incredible numbers of pigeons were wont to roost at night and nestle in certain breeding-places in the forests of the Mississippi Valley, where sometimes 100 or more nests were often seen in a single tree. These great breeding-places extended over a tract of forest, sometimes not less than forty miles in length. Flocks of pigeons were often seen flying at a great height in dense columns, eight or ten miles long; and calculations made by careful observers agreed that in some of their great migrations the column, a mile broad, was more than 150 miles long. The roosting-places were correspondingly extensive. The noise of wings and of cooing voices drowned the report of guns. The multitudes which settled on trees broke down great branches by their weight, so that it was dangerous to pass beneath. They crowded together, alighting one upon another, till they formed solid masses like hogsheads, and great numbers were killed by the breaking of branches. The inhabitants of the neighboring country would assemble, shoot them, knock them down with poles, stifle them by means of pots of burning sulphur, cut down trees in order to bring them in great numbers to the ground, eat them fresh, salt them, and bring hogs to fatten on them. Wolves, foxes, lynxes, cougars, bears, raccoons, opossums, polecats, eagles, hawks, and vultures congregated to share the spoils.

Such are the facts given by Wilson, Audubon, and the early historians of the West, and abundantly verified. The disappearance of these birds, as soon as settlers began to invade and clear away the woods, was so rapid as properly to be called sudden; and it is not easily explained.

Of the pigeons of the Old World, the most interesting is doubtless the blue rock pigeon, or rock dove (Columba livia), the ‘biset’ of the French, a bird of extensive geographical range. It is found as far north as the Faröe Islands and over the greater part of Europe, and breeds in crevices of rocks and often within caverns which open on the sea. In a wild state this bird exhibits great uniformity both in size and plumage; the prevailing color is bluish-gray, with two distinct bars of black across the closed wings. It is commonly believed that domestic pigeons are all descended from this species, although possibly some were derived from the very similar Columba intermedia. The ordinary domestic pigeon differs from the wild chiefly in color, and a tendency to revert to the original coloring has been observed. There are 250 or more domestic breeds, and they have undergone many remarkable changes under the selective care taken by intelligent fanciers, who often pay very high prices for fine birds. Some of the varieties which exhibit very strange peculiarities are known as ‘fancy’ pigeons, and are carefully tended and preserved by pigeon-fanciers. Of these may be mentioned, as among the most interesting, the rough-footed pigeon, having the feet feathered; the Jacobin, which has a range of feathers inverted over the head, and extending down each side on the neck, as a hood; the fan-tail, in which the number of the tail feathers is greatly increased, and the bird has the power of erecting its tail like that of a turkey-cock; the tumbler, so called from turning somersaults in the air in its flight, and further characterized by a very short bill; the pouter or ‘cropper,’ which has the power of blowing up its crop to an extraordinary degree so that the head seems fastened on the top of an inflated bladder; and the black nun.

None of these have the popular interest and value, however, reached by the carrier, or ‘homing’ breed, which is trained to return to its home from great distances, and is utilized for carrying messages in places where, sometimes, no other means of communication is available. This represents the highest example of pigeon development. This breed is of large size, about 15 inches long, and has the cere very large and carunculated, the eyes surrounded with a broad circle of naked red skin, and the wings reaching nearly to the extremity of the tail. Carrier pigeons are trained by being conveyed, when young, to short distances of a few miles from home and then let loose, the distance being gradually increased until at last as much as 100 miles may be added, and the pigeon made to return accurately and swiftly from 500 to 600 miles away. Pigeons intended for this use must be brought from the place to which they are to return within a short period (not exceeding a fortnight) of their being let loose, and at a time when they have young in their nest, their remarkable fecundity affording particular facilities for their employment in this way. The impulse of the bird is to return to its family with the utmost haste.

The use of carrier pigeons is very ancient in the Orient, and was brought to the attention of Europe at the time of the First Crusade, when the Saracens were found to have the birds in regular use for the conveyance of information; and the Christian commanders employed falcons to chase and intercept this pigeon-post on several occasions, and on others caught the tired birds, substituted misleading messages for those they were carrying, and sent them on to deceive the enemy. Arabic writers attribute to the perfection of a system of pigeon-posts elaborated by the Mohammedan sovereign Nureddin a large part of his success in welding together the scattered parts of his broad empire. Although their use, publicly and as an amusement, continued, it was not until the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 that pigeons were again of conspicuous public service. During the siege of Paris constant communication between the beleaguered city and the outside world was obtained by this means, microphotographs of military despatches, private letters, and even newspapers, being printed upon films of collodion and carried by the birds—as much as 30,000 words in some instances. These would then be enlarged by photography and made legible. Subsequently the German, French, and other European governments established regular pigeon-corps in the intelligence departments of their armies and navies, and thousands of birds were trained, and many continue to be kept for use as messengers. Experiments were tried extensively by the French in the employment of pigeons at sea. It was found that they bore voyages well, and would fly from a distance of over 300 miles to shore-stations with great accuracy; but that they could not be depended upon to go from ship to ship. In 1897 many trials were made in the United States Navy, especially by Admiral Sicard, and considerable success was attained. A similar news-service was also attempted by certain newspapers in coöperation with some of the Atlantic steamship companies, but was not long maintained.

The flight of one of these birds is steady, direct, and rapid, but the rate of speed has been exaggerated, and is now known to be on the average only about 30 miles an hour and rarely 45 miles. It begins with a spiral flight upward as soon as the bird is released from its confinement (usually in a portable dark basket), which is continued to a sufficient height to enable the bird, searching the horizon, to catch sight of some landmark with which it has previously been made familiar. Its memory in this respect is marvelous; and it may be assisted by that instinctive faculty for direction which seems innate in many wild animals. (See Migration of Animals.) It then directs its course straight toward that point, when it will sight another landmark and so proceed from known plate to place until it reaches home. Many societies in various parts of the world are breeding these pigeons and perfecting their abilities, and 500-mile races are frequently run.


NIE 1905 Pigeon.jpg
1. WILD or PASSENGER PIGEON (Ectopistes migratorius).     4. TOOTH-BILLED PIGEON (Didunculus strigirostris).
2. EUROPEAN TURTLE-DOVE (Turtur communis). 5. BLUE ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia).
3. GROUND-DOVE (Columbigallina passerina). 6. CRESTED BRONZEWING (Ocyphaps lophotes).
7. CROWNED PIGEON (Goura coronata).

The pigeons are a family, Columbidæ, of the charadriiform suborder Columbæ, which also includes the families Dididæ (see Dodo) and Didunculidæ (or tooth-billed pigeons). The Columbidæ are divided by structural features into several subfamilies: (1) Gourinæ, containing the gouras (q.v.). (2) Peristerinæ, containing such tropical groups as the Nicobar pigeon, the wonga wonga of Australia, the bronze-wings, and several other robust, often terrestrial forms of the East and West Indies; also the ground-doves of American warm latitudes; the scaly doves of the Andean region; the American mourning-doves; together with the many species of turtle-doves of the Old World. (3) Columbinæ, the typical pigeons. (4) Treroninæ, the fruit-pigeons, in the widest sense, about 120 species, most of which are Oriental and African.

Bibliography. Excellent popular accounts of pigeons in general will be found in the Standard and the Royal Natural Histories; by Evans in Birds (New York, 1900); and by Newton, in Dictionary of Birds (New York, 1896), the latter with many bibliographical references. Monographs have been prepared by Temminek (1808-11), Prevost (1838-43), and Selby (1835), but the most recent is Salvadori's vol. xxi. (London, 1893) of the Catalogue of Birds in the British Museum. In respect to domestic pigeons, many works exist, of which the foremost is Tegetmeier, Pigeons, Their Structure, etc. (London, 1867); Darwin, Origin of Species (London, 6th ed., 1882); id., Variation of Animals and Plants (London, 2d ed., 1875); Helm, Cultivated Plants and Domestic Animals (English trans. by Stallibrass, London, 1891); Rice, The National Standard Squab Book (Boston, 1902); id., Robinson's Method of Breeding Squabs (ib., 1902).