by Frank Mosca

I don't intend to get too technical in any of these articles, but I'd like to make sure we're all starting from some sort of common ground. If any of this is too basic for you, skip it and forgive me. It may not be so basic for someone else.

The bird we're discussing is the domestic pigeon, (Columba livia), which has been bred for various purposes for three thousand years or more. It's descended from a cliff dwelling Eurasian species (the rock dove or rock pigeon) with many close relatives, the closest of which is likely the stock dove (Columba oenas).Various forms of the domestic pigeon exist. Some are bred for their flying abilities. These include tumbling or rolling (somersaulting in the air), diving (coming down from extreme heights at high rates of speed and this diving may or may not be combined with aerobatic maneuvers); and homing (returning at sustained speeds of 45-50 mph to the home loft from distances up to 600 miles). Others are bred for their voice (Trumpeters and Laughers), their great beauty, their feather ornaments or uniqueness. The Fantail, Jacobin, Wing Pigeons and Swallows, as well as the various Color Pigeons stand not only as testaments to the breeder's art, but also as full-fledged contributions to humanity's love of beauty. (Check your local library for: The Encyclopedia of Pigeon Breeds by Wendell Levi or Fancy Pigeons by Erich Muller & Ludvig Schrag to see hundreds of these breeds in color.) You can also check out my links page and look for the links to Color Pigeon clubs both here and abroad. American contributions to the pigeon world include the King - both show and utility, the Domestic Flight and the Texan.

While all domestic pigeons are edible, most of today's show forms are seldom bred for food. However, pigeons are still bred for the table and such birds (Squabbing Pigeons) are normally much bigger than most show or flying breeds. These birds are bred for rapidity of production and size of dressed squab. The largest domestic breed, the Runt or Roman pigeon may reach weights of up to 3-5 lb. (1.5-2.25 kg) and have a three foot (1 meter) wing span. In the U.S., though, it is seldom bred in its pure state for squabbing purposes. It has become more a show bird. The most common squabbing breeds are the Texan, an auto-sexed breed,( i.e., a breed in which sex can be determined at hatched because of the different colors of the cock and hen as a result of the action of Faded, an allele of Almond.) the Utility King and the Utility Carneau (car-no). Anyone interested in further information on utility breeds may want to check out Wendell Levi's books, The Pigeon and Making Pigeons Pay.

Basic pigments/Colors

The basic pattern of Columba livia in its wild type and domestic form is "blue bar". This is a subtle intermix of the pigment, melanin, which produces dove gray and black. A green/purple iridescence caused by the structure of the feather, itself, is seen on the neck and chest front. Males tend to show more of this iridescence than females, but the difference is sometimes subtle. The blue bar pattern gets its name from two black bars which cross the wing toward the back. There is also a sub-terminal tail bar about a quarter inch (6 mm) from the end of the tail. Personally, I find the blue bar pigeon so attractive that I'm sure if pigeons weren't so ubiquitous that birders would count themselves lucky to catch a glimpse of such a beautiful creature.

Another very common pattern is checker (chequer, check). This is similar to the blue bar pattern but also has many little black marks across the entire wing shield. Checker exists in a few different alleles (alternatives) and may range from light to T-Patter (a very dark check which almost totally covers the light blue of the shield.) Barless, a pattern with no black bars or checks across the wingshield, is rare and found mainly in breeds of Central European ancestry. Each of these three patterns may also be found in the other two pigment series which the domestic pigeon has. The other series are Ash-red and brown. Birds are normally designated by both their color and pattern, e.g., a red bar; brown check, dark blue check, etc. Because the history of the pigeon encompasses many lands and even more centuries, breed traditions sometimes dictate a difference in color/pattern names. A red bar pigeon with some white on its head is often called a silver (or mealy) pied by a racing homer breeder but the same colored bird would be known as a silver badge by a Birmingham roller breeder. Because of this, in these articles, I will be using the genetic designations of color, pigment and pattern and explaining their usage as I go.

Other common colors include white, black, recessive red, pied, splash, grizzle, as well as fantastic and subtle colorations produced by many modifying mutations. These mutations, coupled with the selection of three millennia of breeders worldwide, have produced birds which in pattern, color, feather ornaments, body type and behavior could easily be mistaken for wild species. Some types are so unique that most people don't even realize they're looking at pigeons when they first see them. Some of the links I've provided on the index page will take you to picture of these. So will a trip to your library to find the Levi or Muller book mentioned in the section above.

ADDENDUM - 04/98

A few of you have noted that I forgot to include some very basic stuff, like how to tell males from females. You're right. When I remember back to my first month or so with the birds, it was very confusing (sometimes, it still is.) Anyway, below is an answer I wrote to one gentleman who asked that question. Hope it helps.

Question: How do I tell males from females? Answer: It's a harder question than you know. Trouble is, it's fairly easy to spot sex differences in homer or roller type birds and a lot harder in some of the fancy show breeds - Basic differences are size; cocks are usually a bit larger and more robust; hens a bit finer, especially in the head. Best differences are behavioral or, occasionally, color, e.g., an ash-red (brick red) bird with any black flecking in the ashy color of the wings or tail is invariably a male. Birds without such black flecking may be either, but about 70% will be female just because of the breeding practices of most guys. Behavioral differences are easy to note once you've gotten to know your birds. Cocks strut, coo and spread their tail into a full half moon shape and often turn a full circle when they do; females will swell their crops with some air but usually stand at a more upright angle (45 degrees or so) when they do it, as opposed to the cock who almost bows to the floor. In a mated pair, cocks sit on the nest from about 10 am to 5 pm; hens the rest of the time. Cocks drink by sticking their beak in the water almost up to their eyes and gulping; hens - except when desperately thirsty ususally tend to drink by sticking on the first half of their beak in the water and almost sip it, as opposed to the cock's gulp. Hope this helps.

Breeding & Incubation

The domestic pigeon normally reaches sexual maturity at about five to six months of age. Depending on the local temperatures and food supply, they may breed all year round. Many fanciers, however, prevent them from breeding continuously -- either by separating the sexes, or by letting mated pairs sit on wooden (dummy) eggs.

Once mated, the male (cock) will begin to hunt for a suitable place to make a nest and rear young. Domestic pigeons do not nest in trees as do many other doves. They are descendants of a cliff dwelling species and prefer their nest to be on a solid surface. Most fanciers (breeders) also provide a nest bowl and some nesting materials (pine needles, tobacco stems, etc.) for the birds to use. The nest bowl helps to ensure that the eggs do not roll out from under the pair and chill.

Both male and female take part in the incubation and rearing of the young. Females lay their first egg about 10 days after mating, usually in the late afternoon or early evening. A second egg is laid about 44 hours later. Two eggs is the normal clutch size. Incubation commences with the laying of the second egg. The male (cock) bird usually broods from about 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., the female (hen) the rest of the time. Hatching normally occurs 18 days from start of incubation. Youngsters are fed by both parents -- and here is where pigeons/doves are unique. The parents need not even leave the nest to hunt down insects, etc., as do many other genera or species. Instead, they feed their young on a glandular crop secretion called "pigeon milk". It is not actually milk, and there is no lactose in it, but its production is stimulated by prolactin, the same hormone which stimulates milk production in mammals. Pigeon milk looks more like a cream-colored cottage cheese and is a high protein food which is fed to the youngsters from hatching till about ten days old when regurgitated grain and grit replace it as the major food source. Domestic pigeons usually have a seamless aluminum identity band placed on their leg at about ten days of age. This band is coded with year of hatch, club identification and a number. Youngsters fledge at about 35 days. However, when the young are about eighteen days old, the parents will often commence to renest. It is not uncommon for one round of youngsters to be fledging at the same time that next are hatching.


Pigeons are grain eaters. Most feed stores stock an adequate mix for them. Depending upon the time of year and whether breeding youngsters or not, the birds usually get a mix which ranges between 12% and 17% protein. Protein percentages higher than that for long periods of time often lead to gout or other problems for the birds. Pigeons also need a mineral grit mixture (chicken grit is not suitable for pigeons). This grit mixture, too, can be purchased at most feed stores. Pigeons also need clean water daily. All three items are usually fed separately. Pigeons appreciate green food: romaine lettuce, etc., but this is not necessary and millions of birds have been reared without it. It is essential that every effort is made to keep the water, feed and grit clean with no contamination allowed. If this is done, pigeons are extremely hardy animals. If not, the breeder is leaving his stock open to various bacteriological and parasitic infections. But then, this is just common sense. Unless you're a dung beetle larva, the idea of fecal pellets for breakfast is not particularly appealing.

The most important requirement as to pigeon housing is that the interior always be kept dry. Dampness brings disease. Pigeons are not ducks. Accommodations for pigeons range from luxurious racing lofts which costs upwards of a half million dollars to converted tool sheds. So long as feed is kept clean and the interior dry, each houses the birds just fine. The Levi books mentioned above, as well as others available from pigeon supply companies, show many ideas for loft construction.


Most breeds of pigeon have their own specialty club which promulgates a show or sporting standard of perfection. Breeders strive to raise birds to this standard. There are also groups for sporting breeds such as the Tippler (a pigeon known for endurance flying -- world record is in excess of twenty-three hours), the Birmingham Roller (an acrobatic flyer which performs rapid backward somersaults), and the Racing Homer (a bird which can return rapidly from distances in excess of five hundred miles [700 kilometers]). The major U.S. racing organizations are the
American Racing Pigeon Union (A.U.)
and the
International Federation of Homing Pigeon Fanciers (I.F.);

in Canada, the Canadian Racing Pigeon Union is the group to contact.

In the United States, many show/fancy pigeon groups are affiliated with National Pigeon Asso.


Text copyright 1997 by Frank Mosca. This work may be downloaded or copied for non-commercial individual use only. All other rights under copyright are retained by the author.

(Last updated: 23 April 2003)