Columbiformes – Pigeons & doves

While the feral pigeon may feel like an urban pest, it has some great cousins you should know about

This order encompasses over 300 species of pigeons and doves and historically includes the now-extinct dodo and the solitaires. Stocky bodies, short necks, and short, slender bills with a fleshy cere characterize this diverse order. They are found in virtually every habitat on Earth, from dense forests to arid deserts and from tropical regions to temperate zones.

The size of these birds varies significantly within the order. On the smaller end of the spectrum is the delicate Australian Diamond Dove, which weighs a mere 30 grams (1 ounce), while on the larger end is the impressive Victoria Crowned Pigeon of New Guinea, tipping the scales at around 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds). The dodo, which was endemic to Mauritius, was much larger still, with estimates of its weight reaching up to 28 kg (61 pounds).

One of the most remarkable traits of pigeons and doves is their production of ‘pigeon milk.’ Both male and female birds produce a nutrient-rich substance in their crop, which is an expanded, muscular pouch near the throat used for storing food. This ‘milk’ is regurgitated and fed to the young chicks and is rich in protein and fat, vital for their growth and development.

Pigeons and doves are known for their strong homing instinct, with some species, particularly the homing pigeon or rock dove (Columba livia), being used in pigeon racing and as message carriers due to their exceptional navigational abilities. They can return to their nest and mate over incredible distances, making them valuable to humans throughout history.

Sadly, not all species within this order have thrived. The dodo, for example, became extinct in the late 17th century due to overhunting by sailors and the introduction of invasive species. The Rodrigues Solitaire, another extinct species, shared a similar fate on the island of Rodrigues.