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Pigeons and doves constitute the family Columbidae within the order Columbiformes, which include some 300 species of near passerine birds. In general parlance the terms "dove" and "pigeon" are used somewhat interchangeably. In ornithological practice, there is a tendency for "dove" to be used for smaller species and "pigeon" for larger ones, but this is in no way consistently applied, and historically the common names for these birds involve a great deal of variation between the term "dove" and "pigeon." This family occurs worldwide, but the greatest variety is in the Indomalaya and Australasia ecozones. The young doves and pigeons are called "squabs."

Pigeons and doves are stout-bodied birds with short necks and short slender bills with a fleshy cere. The species commonly referred to just as the "pigeon" is the feral Rock Pigeon, common in many cities.

Doves and pigeons build relatively flimsy nests from sticks and other debris, which may be placed in trees, on ledges, or on the ground, depending on species. They lay one or two eggs, and both parents care for the young, which leave the nest after 7 to 28 days.[1] Doves feed on seeds, fruit and plants. Unlike most other birds (but see flamingo), the doves and pigeons produce "crop milk," which is secreted by a sloughing of fluid-filled cells from the lining of the crop. Both sexes produce this highly nutritious substance to feed to the young.



Pigeons and doves exhibit considerable variations in size. The largest species are the crowned pigeons of New Guinea, which are nearly turkey-sized, at a weight of 2-4 kilograms (4.4-8.8 lbs.) The smallest are the New World ground-doves of the genus Columbina, which are the same size as a House Sparrow and weigh as little as 22 grams.[2] With a total length of more than 50 centimeters (19 in) and weight of almost a kilo (2 lb), the largest arboreal species is the Marquesan Imperial-pigeon, while the Dwarf Fruit-dove, which may measure as little as 13 centimeters (5.1 in), has a marginally smaller total length than any other species from this family.[2] Smaller species tend to be known as doves, while larger species as pigeons, but there is no taxonomic basis for distinguishing between the two.

Overall, the Columbidae tend to have short bills and legs, small heads on large compact bodies. The wings are large and have low wing loadings; pigeons have strong wing muscles (wing muscles comprise 31–44% of their body weight) and are amongst the strongest fliers of all birds. They are also highly maneuverable in flight.

The plumage of the family is variable. Granivorous species tend to have dull plumage, with a few exceptions, whereas the frugivorous species have brightly coloured plumage.[2] The Ptilinopus fruit-doves are some of the brightest coloured pigeons, with the three endemic species of Fiji and the Indian Ocean Alectroenas being amongst the brightest coloured. Pigeons and doves may be sexually monochromatic or dichromatic. In addition to bright colours pigeons may sport crests or other ornamentation.

Distribution and habitatEdit

Pigeons and doves are distributed everywhere on Earth, except for the driest areas of the Sahara Desert, Antarctica and its surrounding islands and the high Arctic. They have colonised most of the world's oceanic islands (with the notable exception of Hawaii), reaching eastern Polynesia and the Chatham Islands in the Pacific, Mauritius, the Seychelles and Réunion in the Indian Ocean, and the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean.

The family has adapted to most of the habitats available on the planet. The largest number of species are found in tropical forests and woodlands, where they may be arboreal, terrestrial or semi-terrestrial. Various species also inhabit savannas, grasslands, deserts, temperate woodlands and forests, mangrove forests, and even the barren sands and gravels of atolls.

Some species have large natural ranges. The Eared Dove ranges across the entirety of South America from Colombia to Tierra Del Fuego, the Eurasian Collared Dove has a massive (if discontinuous) distribution from Britain across Europe, the Middle East, India and China, and the Laughing Dove across most of sub-Saharan Africa as well as India and the Middle-east. Other species have a tiny restricted distribution; this is most common in island endemics. The Whistling Dove is endemic to the tiny island of Kadavu in Fiji, the Caroline Ground-dove is restricted to two islands, Truk and Pohnpei in the Caroline Islands and the Grenada Dove is restricted to Grenada in the Caribbean. Some continental species also have tiny distributions; for example the Black-banded Fruit-dove is restricted to a small area of the Arnhem Land of Australia, the Somali Pigeon is restricted to a tiny area of northern Somalia, and Bare-eyed Ground-dove is restricted to the area around Salta and Tucuman in northern Argentina.

The largest range of any species is that of the Rock Pigeon (formerly Rock Dove). The species had a large natural distribution from Britain and Ireland to northern Africa, across Europe, Arabia, Central Asia, India, the Himalayas and up into China and Mongolia. The range of the species increased dramatically upon domestication as the species went feral in cities around the world. The species is currently resident across most of North America, and has established itself in cities and urban areas in South America, sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The species is not the only pigeon to have increased its range due to actions of man; several other species have become established outside of their natural range after escaping captivity, and other species have increased their natural ranges due to habitat changes caused by human activities.


Seeds and fruit form the major component of the diet of pigeons and doves. In fact, the family can be divided into the seed eating or granivorous species (subfamily Columbinae) and the fruit eating or frugivorous species (the other four subfamilies). The granivorous typically feed on seed found on the ground, whereas the species that feed on fruit and mast tend to feed in trees. There are morphological adaptations that can be used to distinguish between the two groups, granivorous species tend to have thick walls in the gizzards, whereas the frugivores tend to have thin walls. In addition fruit eating species have short intestines whereas those that eat seeds have longer ones. Frugivores are capable of clinging to branches and even hang upside down in order to reach fruit.

In addition to fruit and seeds a number of other food items are taken by many species. Some species, particularly the ground-doves and quail-doves take a large number of prey items such as insects and worms. One species, the Atoll Fruit-dove is specialised in taking insect and reptile prey. Snails, moths and other insects are taken by White-crowned Pigeons, Orange Doves and Ruddy Ground Doves.

Evolutionary speculationsEdit

This family is a highly coherent group with no members showing obvious links with other bird families, or vice versa. The dodo and solitaires are clearly related, as discussed below, but equally lacking in obvious links with other bird families. The limited fossil record also consists only of unequivocal Columbidae species. Links to the sandgrouse and parrots have been suggested, but resemblances to the first group are due to convergent evolution and the second depend on the parrot-like features of the Tooth-billed Pigeon. However, the distinctive features of that bird seem to have arisen from its specialized diet rather than a real relationship to the parrots.

The family is usually divided into five subfamilies, but this is probably inaccurate. For example, the American ground and quail doves which are usually placed in the Columbinae seem to be two distinct subfamilies.[3] The order presented here follows Baptista et al. (1997) with some updates (Johnson & Clayton 2000, Johnson et al. 2001, Shapiro et al. 2002).

Note that the arrangement of genera and naming of subfamilies is in some cases provisional because analyzes of different DNA sequences yield results that differ, often radically, in the placement of certain (mainly Indo-Australian) genera. This ambiguity, probably caused by long branch attraction, seems to confirm that the first pigeons evolved in the Australasian region, and that the "Treronidae" and allied forms (crowned and pheasant pigeons, for example) represent the earliest radiation of the group.

As the Dodo and Rodrigues Solitaire are in all likelihood part of the Indo-Australian radiation that produced the 3 small subfamilies mentioned above with the fruit-doves and -pigeons (including the Nicobar Pigeon), they are here included as a subfamily Raphinae, pending better material evidence of their exact relationships.

Exacerbating these issues, columbids are not well represented in the fossil record. No truly primitive forms have been found to date. The genus Gerandia which most likely belongs to the Columbinae has been described from Early Miocene deposits of France. Fragmentary remains of an indeterminate (probably "treronine") Early/Middle Miocene pigeon were found in New Zealand. Apart from that, all other fossils belong to extant genera. For these, and for the considerable number of more recently extinct prehistoric species, see the respective genus accounts.

References Edit

  • Baptista, L. F.; Trail, P. W. & Horblit, H. M. (1997): Order Columbiformes. In: del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. (editors): Handbook of birds of the world, Volume 4: Sandgrouse to Cuckoos. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN 84-87334-22-9
  • Gibbs, Barnes and Cox, Pigeons and Doves (Pica Press 2001) ISBN 1-873403-60-7
  • Johnson, Kevin P. & Clayton, Dale H. (2000): Nuclear and Mitochondrial Genes Contain Similar Phylogenetic. Signal for Pigeons and Doves (Aves: Columbiformes). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 14(1): 141–151. PDF fulltext
  • Johnson, Kevin P.; de Kort, Selvino; Dinwoodey, Karen, Mateman, A. C.; ten Cate, Carel; Lessells, C. M. & Clayton, Dale H. (2001): A molecular phylogeny of the dove genera Streptopelia and Columba. Auk 118(4): 874-887. PDF fulltext
  • Shapiro, Beth; Sibthorpe, Dean; Rambaut, Andrew; Austin, Jeremy; Wragg, Graham M.; Bininda-Emonds, Olaf R. P.; Lee, Patricia L. M. & Cooper, Alan (2002): Flight of the Dodo. Science 295: 1683. Template:DOI (HTML abstract) Supplementary information


  1. Template:Cite book
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Baptista, L. F.; Trail, P. W. & Horblit, H. M. (1997): Family Columbidae (Doves and Pigeons). In: del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. (editors): Handbook of birds of the world, Volume 4: Sandgrouse to Cuckoos. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN 84-87334-22-9
  3. Basically, the conventional treatment had 2 large subfamilies, one for the fruit-doves, imperial pigeons and fruit-pigeons, and another for nearly all of the remaining species. Additionally, there were 3 monotypic subfamilies, one each for the genera Goura, Otidiphaps and Didunculus. The old subfamily Columbinae consists of 5 distinct lineages, whereas the other 4 groups are more or less accurate representations of the evolutionary relationships.

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