Fact Check

Pigeons Were Domesticated and Abandoned by Humans, Leaving Them with No Survival Instincts?

The true history of how pigeons went from being prized possessions to "rats with wings."

Published May 8, 2024

 (Painting by Miklós Barabás, 1843. Artistic rendering by Snopes.com.)
Image courtesy of Painting by Miklós Barabás, 1843. Artistic rendering by Snopes.com.
Claim:
Humans originally domesticated pigeons to be companions and prized possessions, and now pigeons cannot survive without humans.
What's True

It is true that humans domesticated pigeons for centuries, and feral pigeons do largely stay in urban environments because we brought them there. They are highly trainable, and if fed by humans, they will stay close to urban environments. Pigeons also naturally prefer rocky ledges similar to the concrete, marble, and stone found in urban environments, as opposed to forests, shrubs, or grass.

What's False

The majority of pigeons are extremely adaptable and intelligent creatures, and it would not be accurate to say they have lost all their natural survival instincts.

Today, we install spikes to keep pigeons from nesting — or even resting — on buildings. They gather in flocks by the hundreds, particularly in urban environments, inspiring an entire industry dedicated to pigeon pest control. Even the idea of?birth control for pigeons?has been wildly popularized as a humane means to address pigeon "infestations." Pigeons are largely considered an invasive species due to their ability to "deface and accelerate the deterioration of buildings" with their droppings, according to the Nebraska Invasive Species program.?

However, humans' relationship to these "rats with wings," as some have described them, has not always been so antagonistic. For thousands of years, pigeons were prized possessions, an important food source, carriers of messages — companions, even. So where did it all go wrong?

According to X user @jacfalcon, "we got telephones and we threw them out like trash." The April 2024 post garnered more than 1.5 million views and 21,000 likes, as of this writing.

The full caption read as follows:

My friend grew up in New England where they have pigeons. Apparently they also hate them. He was always saying bad things about pigeons until I pointed something out that he never thought of before:

We domesticated pigeons. They are (nearly) all over the world because HUMANS BROUGHT THEM THERE. And, they were more than pets. They carried messages. People raced them. They lived spoiled lives as honored human companions for centuries.

Then we got telephones and we threw them out like trash.

Literally, we threw them away.

Their species had already been fully domesticated and they could not survive in the wild; they lost all their survival instincts during the centuries that they lived caged by people.

That is why they live in cities with people instead of in a forest somewhere. It's OUR fault. And not only did we throw them away, but now humans curse them as "winged rats;" casting them as pests.

But they don't know how to live without us, and their instincts tell us that they should trust us. So, they continue to come up to humans and beg for food, because it's the only survival skill left in their genes.

They love us because they were bred by us to feel that way, and yet we hate them.

Snopes looked into the claim, and we broke down our findings as follows:

We Domesticated Pigeons?

Humankind has indeed domesticated pigeons for thousands of years, possibly going back 10,000 years, according to "Pigeons" by Andrew D. Blechman.

First, there are more than 300 species of doves and pigeons, according to the?International Ornithological Committee. The pigeon most commonly found in urban environments is known as the rock dove, rock pigeon or common pigeon. Its binomial name is Columba livia.?

It is important to note the difference between "wild" and "feral" pigeons; wild pigeons evolved naturally and were never captivated, while feral pigeons were domesticated and then either escaped or were "thrown out" and now live and breed on their own. According to the Bruce Museum, "their feral nature is visible in the variety of colors they sport." There are wild rock doves that were never domesticated, and they are only found in the gray/black colors. However, wild rock doves have become increasingly rare as they interbreed with feral rock doves.

(Wikimedia Commons)

The rock dove originated in parts of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and parts of South Asia, not appearing in the Americas until the early 17th century aboard European ships, primarily intended as a food source. Pigeons?have, throughout history, thrived in a wide variety of environments and are now found on every continent except Antarctica. They live on grains, nuts, berries, seeds, and scraps of human food in urban environments.

(Viktor Kravtchenko)

Pigeons are considered highly intelligent. Their problem-solving skills have even been compared to artificial intelligence, according to a 2023 Ohio State University study.?"Homing" pigeons have been used as carriers of messages dating back as far as the Roman Empire, where they were employed to share news of who won Olympic games between different cities. The British military continued to use pigeons to carry messages up until 1948.

However, "average people weren't keeping them to send messages," wrote Lauren Gandara of the American Pigeon Museum via email. "They were showing them, racing them, or eating them."

Pigeons were also selectively bred as prized possessions. "In Europe," a study?(archived here) from the scientific journal Current Biology states, "the popularity of the pigeon hobby rose markedly in the 17th Century, and artistic depictions of some domestic breeds from this era already closely resemble modern forms."

The same article also found that "molecular evidence suggests that the racing homer, a breed that has regular opportunities to fly outside the loft and potentially escape, is a major?genetic?contributor to some North American feral populations."

They 'Lost All Their Survival Instincts Over the Centuries'?

The viral tweet in question asserted that pigeons "live in cities with people instead of in a forest somewhere" because they lost their survival instincts.

"This is not true," wrote Gandara from the American Pigeon Museum. "They live in cities because this species of pigeon, which is a domesticated rock dove, evolved on cliff sides and rock ledges near areas where seeds and grain grows. A forest environment doesn't offer grains and cereals. They don't eat bugs or fruit like other species and birds and some other species of pigeons, therefore, they don't live in forests."

In other words,?pigeons naturally prefer rocky ledges similar to the concrete, marble and stone found in urban environments as opposed to forests, shrubs or grass.

The tweet also claimed that "they don't know how to live without us, and their instincts tell us that they should trust us. So, they continue to come up to humans and beg for food, because it's the only survival skill left in their genes." This is an exaggerated claim; pigeons have maintained more survival skills than simply begging humans for food.

Pigeons are highly trainable, meaning that when humans and urban environments provide food, pigeons will adapt and remain close to these food sources. "We bred them and domesticated them, and kept them in cities as we developed cities," Colin Jerolmack, a scientist at New York University?who wrote "The Global Pigeon, said in an interview with The Washington Post?in 2019 (archived here). "So they've always been here, from the beginning."

If survival instincts can be measured in terms of ability to avoid predators, urbanized pigeons do score particularly low. According to a 2020 study?(archived here) published in scientific journal?PLOS Biology, "the decrease in antipredator traits was stronger for gregarious, urbanized species," such as feral pigeons. The study specifically notes that their focus was on urbanized birds in particular. It also found that?antipredator traits in urbanized animals were estimated to reach their lowest values after approximately 90 generations. Given that pigeons seldom live more than five years in an urban environment and can begin reproducing as early as six or seven months, this loss of antipredator traits would not have taken long to occur.

City-dwelling feral pigeons cannot survive without humans in the sense that they have adapted to a kind of co-habitation with humans; they survive on food scraps, rely on manmade structures for shelter, etc. However, given that city-dwelling pigeons live only a third of the average lifetime of a pigeon that is in captivity (approximately 15 years), the rate of survival in urban environments is still low.

On the other hand, domesticated pigeons — such as those trained for racing — cannot live without human care. According to the Open Sanctuary Project, escaped or abandoned "racing pigeons are often found with injuries or starving" because "they have never learned how to survive without human support."

In 2022, researchers from Oxford University found, through DNA testing, that "the wild ancestors of the common domestic and feral pigeons, now extinct in many parts of the world, are still living on islands in Scotland and Ireland" (archived here). This shows that, as of that writing, there were still pigeons living in the wild that were not yet touched by feral pigeon populations.

Rock doves found along the Scottish coast. (Getty Images)

In sum, pigeons have evolved and adapted to survive in urban environments after they were brought there by humans who domesticated them. As pigeons' usefulness to humans waned and their population swelled, their status as an invasive species was established. They prefer the ledges and hard-surfaced environment of urbanscapes as opposed to forested or grassy environments; hence, feral pigeons are largely found in urban environments throughout the world as wild pigeons have become increasingly uncommon.

Because humans did originally domesticate pigeons to be companions and prized possessions, and after being urbanized, largely live in close proximity to humans, we have rated this claim as "Mostly True."

Sources

Andrew D. Blechman - Author of LEISUREVILLE and PIGEONS. http://andrewblechman.com/pigeons/learn_more.html. Accessed 29 Apr. 2024.

'"Dim-Witted" Pigeons Use the Same Principles as AI to Solve Tasks'.?ScienceDaily, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/10/231025110653.htm. Accessed 29 Apr. 2024.

Domestic Pigeon | Feral Pigeons, Columbidae, Homing Pigeons | Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/animal/domestic-pigeon. Accessed 29 Apr. 2024.

'Ever Wondered Why Cities Have so Many Pigeons?'?Washington Post, 8 Nov. 2019.?www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/kidspost/ever-wondered-why-cities-have-so-many-pigeons/2019/06/07/ffad4918-83b9-11e9-95a9-e2c830afe24f_story.html.

Harris, Emma, et al.?Pigeons and People: Mortal Enemies or Lifelong Companions? A Case Study on Staff Perceptions of the Pigeons on the University of South Africa, Muckleneuk Campus.?core.ac.uk, https://core.ac.uk/display/43177924?utm_source=pdf&utm_medium=banner&utm_campaign=pdf-decoration-v1. Accessed 29 Apr. 2024.

Hausheer, Justine E. 'Where Did Pigeons Come From?'?Cool Green Science, 9 Aug. 2022, https://blog.nature.org/2022/08/09/where-did-pigeons-come-from/.

Hester, Jessica Leigh. 'The Case for Pigeon-Watching'.?Atlas Obscura, 29 Nov. 2021, http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/pigeons-birdwatching-rosemary-mosco.

'Https://Twitter.Com/Jacfalcon/Status/1777853894141657321'.?X (Formerly Twitter), https://twitter.com/jacfalcon/status/1777853894141657321. Accessed 29 Apr. 2024.

'Pigeon Museum | The American Pigeon Museum | United States'.?Pigeon Museum | The American Pigeon Museum | United States, https://www.theamericanpigeonmuseum.org. Accessed 29 Apr. 2024.

Science, Bruce. 'The Tragedy of the Most Hated Bird in America'.?STORAGE ROOM No. 2, 17 Apr. 2017, http://www.storagetwo.com/blog/2017/4/the-tragedy-of-the-most-hated-bird-in-america.

Shapiro, Michael D., and Eric T. Domyan. 'Domestic Pigeons'.?Current Biology?: CB, vol. 23, no. 8, Apr. 2013, pp. R302–03.?PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2013.01.063.

Stringham, Sydney A., et al. 'Divergence, Convergence, and the Ancestry of Feral Populations in the Domestic Rock Pigeon'.?Current Biology: CB, vol. 22, no. 4, Feb. 2012, pp. 302–08.?PubMed, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2011.12.045.

'The Most Effective Pigeon Control Solution'.?OvoControl?, https://www.ovocontrol.com. Accessed 29 Apr. 2024.

UI Study: Pigeons Use Same Basic Learning Process as AI | Iowa Now - The University of Iowa. https://now.uiowa.edu/news/2023/02/ui-study-pigeons-use-same-basic-learning-process-ai. Accessed 29 Apr. 2024.

Uteuova, Aliya. 'Pigeons Problem-Solve Similarly to Artificial Intelligence, Research Shows'.?The Guardian, 26 Oct. 2023.?The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/oct/26/pigeons-smart-ai-learning.

Taija PerryCook is a Seattle-based journalist who previously worked for?the PNW news site Crosscut and the Jordan Times in Amman.