BBC Earth sets out to answer those little,
inconsequential questions that secretly bother
By Henry Nicholls
8 September 2015
Visit any town or city, and you’re likely to see
them everywhere; pigeons, those most
ubiquitous of urban birds.
Those grey, white, black and brown-feathered
friends that sit or walk, bobbing their heads, on
pavements, walls, parapets and buildings cooing
sweetly, raining down their excrement and odd
In prehistorical times, baby pigeons were
often seen, and on the menu
But there is something odd about pigeons. We
see them old and hobbling, mature and wise,
young and a little foolish, playing a game of
proverbial chicken with the oncoming traffic. Yet
we never see their babies.
Which, given the abundance of pigeons, begs the
We asked you, our audience, on social media for
your thoughts . We also did a little research
ourselves. And here’s what we discovered.
“The more affluent pigeon parents tend to rent
high-end private maternity coops to give birth,”
suggests Thomas Keith .
Fledgling pigeons are everywhere, but
they are not easy to identify
It’s a nice idea. But as Jennifer Austin, Kelly
Mahan and others are correct to point out, the
answer is rooted in the origin of the pigeon itself.
Feral pigeons – the ones we see in our cities –
are descended from rock doves, and remain
essentially the same bird. Their tastes might be
a little more cosmopolitan, but when it comes to
reproduction they still take after their wild rock
dove ancestors, which are very secretive when it
comes to situating their nests.
The rock dove Columbia liva likes to construct its
nest on the ledges on cliff faces. “In its natural
and wild state,” we are told by William Yarrell in
A History of British Birds , the rock dove “inhabits
high rocks near the sea-coast, in the cavities of
which it lives the greater part of the year.”
On the island of Orkney, in Scotland, UK, for
example, 19th Century ornithologists observed
that the rock dove “is very numerous, breeding in
the crevices of the rocks, but the nests are placed
at such a depth that it is impossible to reach
When squabs finally fly the nest they are
Over on the neighboring Scottish island of
Shetland, others noted rock doves occupying
“deep subterranean caverns, the mouths of which
are open to the sea.”
Way back when humans spent more time
hanging in and around caves, nobody would have
batted an eyelid at the sight of a baby pigeon,
often called a squab.
In fact, the excavation of a cave in Gibraltar
reveals that Neanderthals were keen on eating
pigeons before modern humans even reached
Europe. Much later, after Neanderthals had
vanished and Homo sapiens took over this same
site, they too were dining out on pigeon flesh. In
prehistorical times then, it’s likely that baby
pigeons, or squab, were not only often seen, but
often on the menu.
But today, with an absence of edgy cliffs, rocky
crags and dingy caves in our cities, the feral
pigeon must make do, constructing its nest in
whatever out-of-the-way, covered spots it can
find, such as church towers, abandoned buildings
or beneath bridges.
Alison Goggin has only ever seen baby pigeons
once, “in a crack in the stone stairs” at
Carmarthen Castle in Wales. “Maybe they like the
security of out of the way places where they’re
difficult to see and get to,” she suggested on the
BBC Earth Facebook page.
Since we don’t often enter such spaces, we don’t
often get to see the contents of a pigeon’s nest.
You never know, when you look at a
pigeon it might be a baby in disguise
Perhaps this is just as well. As Sarah Rochelle
politely puts it, “They are butt ugly.”
What about young pigeons that have recently
fledged? Surely we see these?
Well, yes. Fledgling pigeons are everywhere, but
they are not easy to identify, as many of you
appreciated. This is largely down to the fact that
squabs, as if ashamed of their appearance, stay
in the nest for a very long time: the nestling
period from hatching to fledging typically lasts
more than 40 days, roughly twice that of most
During this time, the parents feed their chicks
with a regurgitated “crop milk” rich in protein
and fat. So when squabs finally fly the nest they
are fully grown and virtually indistinguishable
With a keen eye, however, it is possible to spot a
fledged but still-juvenile pigeon.
I left so that its parents could take over
the baby sitting
It won’t have the shimmery greens and purples
around its neck and the cere – that wattly growth
that sits on top of the bill – will be a pinky grey
rather than bright white as it is in adults.
“You never know, when you look at a pigeon
sitting on a window sill or under a park bench, it
might only be a baby in disguise,” writes Brian
In spite of the rarity of sighting a baby pigeon,
many of you have been lucky.
Gwen Obertuck ’s sister, for instance, had a pair
of pigeons nesting on her balcony in Germany.
Amy Dunkley got to watch the entire pigeon life
cycle from her bedroom window. “It was
wonderful,” she says.
The big window ledges outside one of the
libraries at the University of Texas in Austin are
perfect for nesting pigeons, notes Toni Salazar
Loftin. And only last month, Judi Mcintosh
encountered a baby pigeon – “half feathered and
half fluffy” – en route to the compost heap at the
bottom of her garden in Hampshire, UK.
“We had a quiet chat and then I left so that its
parents could take over the baby sitting,” she
writes. “It was gone when I went back hours later
so hope all was well.”