pigeon, common name for members of the large family Columbidae, land birds, cosmopolitan in temperate and tropical regions, characterized by stout bodies, short necks, small heads, and thick, heavy plumage. The names dove and pigeon are used interchangeably, though the former generally refers to smaller members of the family.
All pigeons have soft swellings (ceres) at the base of the nostrils, feed their young with "pigeon's milk" regurgitated from the crops of the parents, and have specialized bills through which they can suck up water steadily, unlike other birds. They eat chiefly fruits and seeds. From ancient times, pigeons—especially homing pigeons, which are also used as racing birds—have been used for carrying messages. Although electronics has largely replaced them as messengers, they are still of experimental importance. It is thought that they may navigate by the sun. Monogamous and amorous, pigeons are known for their soft cooing calls.
The most common American wild pigeon is the small, gray-brown mourning dove Zenaidura macroura (sometimes called turtledove), similar to the once abundant passenger pigeon, which was slaughtered indiscriminately and became extinct in 1914. Other wild American species are the band-tailed, red-billed, and white-crowned pigeons, all of the genus Columba, and the reddish brown ground-doves (genus Columbina ). The Australasian region has two thirds of the 289 species of pigeons, of which the fruit pigeons are the most colorful and the gouras, or crowned pigeons, the largest (to 33 in./84 cm). In Europe the turtledove, rock pigeon or dove, stock dove, and ringdove or wood pigeon are common. The rock dove, Columba livia, of temperate Europe and W Asia is the wild progenitor of the common street and domestic pigeons. Domesticated varieties developed by selective breeding include the fantail, with numerous erectile tail feathers; the Jacobin, with a hoodlike ruff; the tumbler, which turns backward somersaults in flight; the pouter, with an enormous crop; and the quarrelsome carrier, with rosettelike eyes and nose wattles.
Many species are valued as game birds; their close relationship to the Gallinae (e.g., pheasants and turkeys) is illustrated by the sand grouse, an Old World pigeon named for its resemblance to the grouse. In religion and art the dove symbolizes peace and gentleness, and in Greek mythology it was sacred to Aphrodite. The long-extinct dodo and solitaire birds were members of this order.
Pigeons are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Columbiformes, family Columbidae.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Vertebrate Zoology