A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching

Getting to Know the World's Most Misunderstood Bird


By Rosemary Mosco

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Part field guide, part history, part ornithology primer, and altogether fun.

Fact: Pigeons are amazing, and until recently, humans adored them. We’ve kept them as pets, held pigeon beauty contests, raced them, used them to carry messages over battlefields, harvested their poop to fertilize our crops—and cooked them in gourmet dishes. Now, with The Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching, readers can rediscover the wonder. Equal parts illustrated field guide and quirky history, it covers behavior: Why they coo; how they flock; how they preen, kiss, and mate (monogamously); and how they raise their young (on chunky pigeon milk). Anatomy and identification, from Birmingham Roller to the American Giant Runt to the Scandaroon. Birder issues, like what to do if you find a baby pigeon stranded in the park. And our lively shared story together, including all the things we’ve taught them—Ping-Pong, for example. “Rats with wings?” Think again.
Pigeons coo, peck and nest all over the world, yet most of us treat them with indifference or disdain. So Rosemary Mosco, a bird-lover, science communicator, writer, and cartoonist (and co-author of The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid) is here to give the pigeon's image a makeover, and to help every town- and city-dweller get closer to nature by discovering the joys of birding through pigeon-watching.



Basic Pigeonology

Why Pigeons Are Dinosaurs, Doves, and Puppies

What is a pigeon? Where did the name "pigeon" come from? Who are a pigeon's closest relatives, and why are there pigeons everywhere? Before you start watching these birds in earnest, you need to know what the heck you're looking at. Here's a quick pigeon primer.

Pigeons Are Dinosaurs

Dinos walk among us.

It's true. Pigeons are birds, and birds evolved from dinosaurs—more specifically, from a group of dinosaurs called theropods, of which Tyrannosaurus rex is the most famous member. If you want to see incontrovertible evidence of this bird-dino connection, look to the exquisitely preserved fossils of feather-­coated dinosaurs that paleontologists began to unearth in China in the 1990s. Chickens, sparrows, parrots, crows, and all the other birds we see around us every day are dinosaurs as well, scientifically speaking. We live in Jurassic Park. (Hold on to your butts.)

Pigeons and dinosaurs share another special connection. Many dinosaurs had two feathery wings. But back in the Cretaceous period, certain dinos, known as microraptorians, had four "wings": Their legs sprouted asymmetrical winglike feathers that may have helped them glide. Though the microraptorians are extinct, some fancy pigeon breeds—like the beautifully named fairy swallows—are able to grow wing feathers on their legs. It's as if pigeons and dinosaurs are high-fiving each other across the mists of time.

Scientists aren't sure when the first pigeons strutted onto the scene. Birds emerged in the Jurassic period, some 150 million years ago. There aren't many ancient pigeons in the fossil record, but DNA evidence suggests that the earliest pigeons may have evolved roughly 60 million years ago, six million years after a catastrophic asteroid strike wiped out so many of the critters we associate with dinosaur times. The age of non-bird dinos was over, but the glorious reign of the pigeons had just begun.

Pigeons Are Doves

Try this: Think about what the words "pigeon" and "dove" mean to you. Many people think of pigeons as dirty and doves as peaceful, elegant, and even holy. But you've been fooled by Big Dove. Technically speaking, pigeons and doves are the same thing.

All species of pigeons and doves belong to a scientific family of birds called Columbidae. What's a scientific family? Here's a refresher from biology class: Scientists split living things into groups based on what they're related to. There are groupings within groupings, nested like a set of Russian dolls. A species is a group of very closely related living things that can breed with each other and make offspring that can breed, too. You belong to the species Homo sapiens. A group of closely related species is called a genus (plural, genera). Neanderthals and other early humans were part of the genus Homo. A group of genera is called a family. Humans belong to the great ape family, along with chimps, orangutans, and gorillas. A group of families is called an order . . . and there are larger and larger groupings until you get to the largest and most basic group: all living things.

Yup, there's no difference.

Pigeons and doves all fall within the Columbidae family, but inside that family, there's no real distinction between the birds we call pigeons and those we label doves. They're not two separate groups, genetically or evolutionarily speaking. In general, people tend to call the bigger members of Columbidae pigeons and the smaller, daintier birds doves, but there are plenty of exceptions. Consider the hefty wompoo fruit-dove, which can measure 18 inches (46 cm) in length, longer than a loaf of bread. Then there's the wee dwarf fruit-dove, which can be 6 inches (15 cm) long, about the length of a dollar bill. Plus, the "doves" that we release at weddings are either white domesticated rock pigeons or white domesticated ring-necked doves. Most people can't tell the difference. (Don't release doves. When we toss these gentle pets into unfamiliar surroundings, they tend to starve, get hit by cars, or succumb to predators.)

Swimming Pigeons

The name for the pigeon family, Columbidae, comes from the Latin word for pigeon, columba. It's a twist on an ancient Greek word for swimming and diving, kolumbaō. Maybe the ancient Greeks thought that pigeons in flight looked like they were swimming through the air. Or perhaps the head-bobbing pigeons reminded the Greeks of swimmers ducking their heads below the water. (Psst—pigeons don't really bob their heads. See Head Bobbing to learn more!)

Since there's no evolutionary distinction between the birds called pigeons and those called doves, these aren't scientifically valid categories. So, why the heck does English have two different words for the same bird? The confusion may date back to the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The invading Normans spoke French, so once they arrived, French words began to work their way into the English language. The word "pigeon" is French and originates from the classical Latin word pīpiāre, meaning "chirp" or "cheep." "Dove," on the other hand, has Old English, Norse, and German roots and may come from a word for "dive" or "dip," perhaps a reference to the birds' head bobbing or their ability to dive through the air. As English-speaking people encountered various species of doves and pigeons, they named them one or the other, somewhat indiscriminately. What a mess. Pigeons/doves aren't the only critters that have two names in English, one coming from French. For example, the word "cow" has English roots, but slaughtered cows become beef (from the French boeuf).

Peristeronic Pedantry

If you want to make your pigeon-watching habits sound fancy, describe them as being "peristeronic." This term was invented in the mid-1800s by a founder of an English pigeon club. Searching for a grand title for his group, he invented the word "Philoperisteron," from Greek words for love of (philo) and pigeon (peristera). The Philoperisteron Society later became known as the National Peristeronic Society, another odd but grand-­sounding mix of English and Greek. It's all nonsense, but it's pretty nonsense.

The Pigeon Family Is Weird and Wonderful

Regardless of what you call them, the members of the family Columbidae are diverse and amazing. They share some general characteristics: These species tend to have short, skinny beaks, stubby necks, and stout bodies, and many of them build messy, haphazard nests and eat fruit or seeds. But they come in a mind-blowing variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. Here are a few of the strangest species.


Yes, the world's most famous extinct bird was a flightless pigeon. Poor dodos don't deserve their reputation as slow, stupid birds—they were agile, and their flightless wings were muscular, possibly helping them maintain their balance as they ran through the forest.

Nicobar Pigeon

The dodo's likely closest living relative is also the world's most spectacular pigeon, the glam rocker of Columbidae. Native to southeast Asia, it's an iridescent rainbow of a bird. A long mane of plumes spills down from its storm-gray head. Just wow.

Galápagos Dove

The Galápagos Islands are full of animals found nowhere else—including a unique pigeon. The Galápagos dove has striking blue eyeliner, rosy legs, and a streaky brown body. It munches on seeds, insects, and cactus blossoms.

Victoria Crowned-Pigeon

This is one of the heftiest pigeon species, weighing up to nearly 5.33 pounds (2.4 kg). It's also one of the fanciest, with dark eyeliner and a crest like an exquisitely sewn doily. It lives in New Guinea, where its population is declining because of habitat loss and poaching.

Laughing Dove

The laughing dove's call sounds like someone going "woo-hoo-HOO-hoo-hoo!" But the reason for its chortling is deadly serious: It's trying to woo a mate. The laughing dove is an abundant, commonly seen bird, laughing it up across Africa and parts of Asia.


A New Zealand species, the kererū is a colorful, portly bird that loves to eat fruit from native plants like mahoe and non-native species like cherries. Sometimes the fruit ferments inside its crop, and the bird gets drunk on its own homebrewed alcohol. It can get so intoxicated that it passes out and falls from its perch. Wildlife care centers often become inundated with inebriated birds brought in by concerned citizens.

Orange Dove

Found in Fiji, this striking bird looks like a huge ripe orange with a tiny lime on top. It mostly eats fruit, so maybe it's also fruit-flavored? (Please don't eat it.) The orange dove's peculiar call sounds like a metronome ticking away.

Luzon Bleeding-Heart

Like other bleeding-heart doves, this species looks like it's been shot through the heart (and you're to blame). But that red patch is made of feathers, not blood. Native to the Philippines, the Luzon bleeding-heart dove is shy and hard to spot in the wild. All of the bleeding-heart doves are threatened with extinction; the Luzon bleeding-heart is the least endangered.

Sadly, about a third of the members of Columbidae are in trouble, threatened by overhunting and our insatiable appetite for land. But there's one species of pigeon that you'll see almost everywhere you go. It's a stout-bodied bird with plumage that varies from white to brick red to gray to black. You'll find it in big cities and under highway overpasses. You'll spot it in rural areas, especially where there's grain to eat. It lives on every continent except Antarctica. And it's the topic of this book.

Let's home in on this special bird.

Meet THE Pigeon

So, what should we call this bird? It really depends on who you ask. English-speaking people call it by several names, including rock pigeon (since it sometimes lives on rocky cliffs), rock dove (since pigeons are also doves), and common pigeon (because it's common, which is accurate but honestly so bland). Bird enthusiasts frequently engage in heated debates about the "right" name. The American Ornithological Society, which compiles the official bird checklists of North and Middle America, currently goes with rock pigeon. A 2018 proposal to change the name to rock dove (to avoid confusion with an Australian bird called the rock pigeon) was struck down, but not before ruffling some feathers.

Our hero.

This problem isn't limited to pigeons. Many other plants and animals have a slew of common names. Consider the large brown North American mammal that burrows in soil and eats your garden plants: In English, you'd call it the groundhog, or, alternately, the woodchuck, wood-schock, whistle pig, whistler, red monk, Canada marmot, thickwood badger, or, amazingly, land beaver. And there are plenty of non-English names, too. Whoof.

Scientists, in a desperate attempt to bring some clarity to this classification problem, developed their own naming system called binomial nomenclature. These "scientific names" consist of two words. The first word is the name of the critter's genus, and the second is the specific epithet, which distinguishes that species within the genus. To make these scientific names stand out from common names, scientists write them in italics, with the first word capitalized, Like this. So, when the German naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin first provided an extensive scientific description of the pigeon in 1789, he called it:

Fancy, right? The genus name Columba comes from the Latin word for dove. The species name livia refers to its dark, leaden hue. As scientific names go, it's not bad. It's clear, descriptive, and pretty easy to pronounce. (This isn't always the case. Consider the critter with the longest scientific name, the myxobacterium Myxococcus llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogery­chwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogochensis, which recently edged out the fly Parastratiosphecomyia stratiosphecomyioides for longest on the books. Or ponder purely hilarious names like the beetle Agra vation and the snail Ba humbugi.)

So, this book focuses on the species Columba livia, but let's keep things simple and step away from the Latin. Many people just call Columba livia "the pigeon," since it's the pigeon species that most people see. That's how we'll refer to it from here on out: the pigeon. Just don't forget that it's not the only pigeon; it's Columba livia, one of many species in a big, beautiful pigeon family.

Pigeons Are Puppies

If you're a dog owner, you've heard this story. Once upon a time, thousands and thousands of years ago—we're not exactly sure when, or whether it happened multiple times—some wolves hung out near humans and slowly turned into domestic dogs. Humans chose wolves with particularly desirable traits (gentleness, or protectiveness, or strange-looking fur) and bred them together to produce a variety of groupings, or breeds, that shared common characteristics. Nowadays, dogs come in hundreds of breeds, from tiny Chihuahuas to powerful rottweilers to curly-haired poodles. Most of them are a far cry from those rugged ancient wolves, especially when we dress them in little tutus.

Who's a good pupper?

The story of pigeons is pretty much the same. Thousands of years ago in the Fertile Crescent, some folks realized that pigeons were easy to care for. Again, we're not exactly sure where or when this happened, and it probably happened multiple times. But we do know that these pigeon-keeping people built special houses where pigeons could nest. They chose birds that had desirable traits (meatiness, or gentleness, or pretty feathers) and mated them together, developing hundreds of breeds to serve all sorts of purposes.

For most of us, these varieties are less familiar than dog breeds, but they're no less weird and wonderful: the droopy-faced scandaroon, the enormous American giant runt, the goofy-sounding Thai laugher. As with dog evolution, most pure­­bred birds are a far cry from those rugged ancient pigeons, especially when we dress them in rhinestone diapers. (We really do this—see The Glitzy Tale of the Rhinestone Pigeon.)

As these pigeon-loving people have traveled over millennia, they've taken their birds with them. They even carried them to new continents; European settlers brought pigeons to North America at the start of the seventeenth century. Wherever pigeons went, some of them escaped. That wasn't unexpected—domesticated animals often run loose and set up thriving "wild" populations. We have a word for these creatures: ferals. The world is full of feral dogs, cats, pigs, horses, and goats. Pigeons followed the same path. When they escaped, they didn't go far; bred to live alongside humans, they nested on our houses and ate our grain and trash. It was what they knew.

Other Feral Fauna

Cats released on islands have contributed to the extinction of many birds, such as the island of Réunion's portly Réunion pink pigeon, driven to extinction around 1700.

Dogs have learned to ride Moscow's subway system, begging for treats and pats from riders.

Donkeys, descendants of the African ass, wander the American West.

Rabbits were intentionally set free on Japan's Okunoshima Island, the former site of a chemical weapons plant, and they now attract tons of tourists.

Water buffalo were introduced to Australia, where they trample and muddy precious wetlands.


  • “This book will change what you think about pigeons! With loads of eye-opening pigeon science, delivered in playful and engaging style by Rosemary Mosco's text and illustrations, A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching will help you gain a whole new appreciation of these smart, savvy, and adaptable birds whose lives are so intertwined with ours.”
    David Allen Sibley, author of The Sibley Guide to Birds

    “Crammed with witty writing and charming cartoons, this cute book is a fun and entertaining invitation into the fascinating world of pigeons”

    "Mosco...has written the most perfect of popular science titles, one that teaches readers everything about a topic in an accessible, funny, and charming manner. A must-read for bird lovers and urban wildlife watchers."
    Booklist, STARRED review 

    “We scorn pigeons for their commonness, but their ubiquity speaks to their talents. Past civilizations domesticated them and brought them wherever they went, for pigeons were loved and prized—as messengers, as producers of fertilizer, as meat on the plate. With her trademark wit and artistic charms, Mosco gives us a hundred reasons to rekindle the love affair. A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching is part field guide, part history, part ornithology primer, and altogether fun!”
    Mary Roach, New York Times bestselling author of Stiff and Grunt

    "So joyful that it’s almost effervescent, A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching will convert even the grumpiest pigeon skeptics into being, at the very least, pigeon-curious. Readers will never hear the cooing in a city park or watch a preening flock of pigeons the same way again."
    Foreward Reviews 

    “A gifted communicator, Rosemary Mosco makes every science subject both fascinating and fun—as they should be. This delightful look at the world of pigeons is a treasure.”
    Kenn Kaufman, editor of Kaufman Field Guides

    A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching is my favorite kind of book: one that teaches you everything you could want to know about a single fascinating topic in a way that is accessible, charming, and hilarious.” 
    Ryan NorthNew York Times bestselling author of How to Invent Everything

    "Sparkling, witty prose, loaded with relatable pop-culture references and enhanced with charming cartoons, A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching is a seductive draw into the multilayered world of pigeons. This little book will sneak up and drop a load of solid ornithology on the unsuspecting reader."
    Julie Zickefoose, author of Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-luck Jay

On Sale
Oct 26, 2021
Page Count
240 pages

Rosemary Mosco

Rosemary Mosco

About the Author

Rosemary Mosco is a science communicator, acclaimed cartoonist, and speaker on all things bird. She's the creator of the webcomic Bird and Moon and has authored many science books for young people, including co-authoring the bestselling Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid. She lives in Massachusetts.

Learn more about this author