Columba livia Gmelin, 1789
Other names: feral pigeon, domestic pigeon, racing pigeon, rock dove, homing pigeon, street pigeon
Geographical variation: 14 subspecies are recognised globally. No subspecific status has been assigned to New Zealand birds
The rock pigeon is a familiar species to most New Zealanders, given its distribution from Northland to Southland, and being present in both urban and rural areas. While rural birds are usually quite timid, flying off at close approach, urban birds are often quite the opposite, walking about at one’s feet and even alighting on people to take food. It is a gregarious species, often roosting, commuting and foraging in flocks.
Wild rock pigeons in New Zealand are the result of introductions for aviculture and racing. As a result, they occur in a wide variety of plumages, including entirely black, the wild type of predominately grey with black wings bars, red-brown, buff, and white, and pied variants of each of the colour forms. The wild-type rock pigeon is blue-grey, with lighter tones over the back and wings, has a white rump, and the tail has a black terminal band. There are two black bands over the inner portion of the upper-wing, and the outer flight feathers are black or dark grey. There is a broad band of iridescent purple-green over the neck, upper mantle and chest. The bill is grey-black, the cere white, feet pink to red-pink, and the eyes red. Juveniles are smaller and slimmer than adults, with duller plumage lacking iridescence, feet grey to pink-grey, bill pink or grey-pink, eyes brownish, and cere pink or grey.
Voice: a variety of “coo” calls are given, often associated with male courtship displays and at potential nest sites, but also when alarmed and in defence of the nest. Although not a vocalisation, wing claps over the back are often given when birds first take off from a roost, particularly at the start of a flight display.
There is no other species that is similar in appearance to the rock pigeon in New Zealand.
The rock pigeon occurs from Northland to Southland, and is largely confined to towns, cities and agricultural land. There are few records of its occurrence in the central North Island and along the West Coast of the South Island. Rock pigeons, including ‘lost’ homing pigeons, have been recorded as vagrants on the Chatham, Snares and Antipodes Islands.
In urban and rural environments, rock pigeons utilise a wide variety of habitats in which to forage, roost and nest. Although developing and mature seeds of grasses and various weeds are obtained from lawns, gardens and along roadsides, the bulk of food eaten by rock pigeons is purposely or inadvertently provided by people in towns, cities and on farms. In addition, rock pigeons forage along the high-tide line of beaches. Rock pigeons roost and nest on and in buildings, both disused and in use, under bridges and wharves, and on ledges of cliffs and caves.
Rock pigeons are widespread and regionally abundant, particularly in association with large cities and extensive arable farmland. The population is expanding, which is apparent when the distributions of this species from the 1969-79 and 1999-2004 Ornithological Society of New Zealand’s atlas schemes are compared.
Ecological and economic impacts
Urban residents often have a love-hate relationship with rock pigeons, which are the most abundant bird species in many city centres. Their faeces can spread diseases such as salmonella, and can cause fouling of buildings, statues, vehicles and footpaths. Control programmes are occasionally undertaken by or for city authorities, usually using the toxin alphachloralose applied to grain. Such programmes are often controversial, especially if dead and dying pigeons are encountered by people who value them. Large amounts of money are also spent ‘pigeon-proofing’ buildings and other structures, usually by installing fine wires and spikes to prevent birds accessing potential roosting or nesting sites. Rock pigeons in rural areas can cause considerable damage to newly-sown crops of peas, maize and beans. Domestic forms of the rock pigeon are widely kept as pets, display birds and homing pigeons.
Most nests are situated on ledges in buildings, caves or cliffs. A variety of materials are used to form the nest, including twigs, grass stems, plastic drinking straws, bits of paper and even just the accumulated dried faecal material deposited by previous broods. Rock pigeons are able to initiate a nesting cycle in any month, but most clutches are laid in spring and summer. Clutch size is typically 2 eggs, although occasionally 1-, 3- or 4-egg clutches occur. Pair members share incubation and care of young. Chicks start flying when about 30 days old, but remain near the nest for another week before dispersing with their parents. Some pairs with large young in one nest will start incubating a new clutch in a separate nest or even in the same nest. Nesting success was 76% of eggs in Hawke’s Bay (rural), and 57% in Wellington (CBD), with mean brood size at fledging being 0.9 and 0.8 respectively.
Behaviour and ecology
When commuting between roosting and foraging sites, rock pigeons fly directly and quickly with steady-paced wing beats. They may travel several kilometres to reach foraging sites. Rock pigeons generally forage in pairs or as a loose flock, with almost all searching for food being carried out while walking about on the ground. Often during spring and summer, males at foraging sites will court females. This involves the male standing erect with head bowed, plumage puffed out and tail fanned, walking and running about the female while cooing loudly. Nest sites are vigorously defended, sometimes resulting in fights for occupancy.
The successful colonisation of most continents and climates by the rock pigeon relates in large part to its ability to feed on a wide variety of foods, particularly human foods. In urban areas the diet consists mainly of food refuse and scraps, and in rural areas mainly commercial grains (peas, maize, barley, wheat, oats, and clover), either newly-sown or among stubble. In addition, pigeons forage along the high-tide line for food items washed ashore. Invertebrates, such as earthworms and snails, make up a small portion of the diet.
Dilks, P.J. 1975. The breeding of the feral pigeon (Columba livia) in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand Notornis 22: 295-301.
Dilks, P.J. 1975. Diet of the feral pigeons (Columba livia) in Hawkes’ Bay, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Agricultural Research 18: 87-90.
Heather, B.D.; Robertson, H.A. 2005. The field guide to the birds of New Zealand. Viking, Auckland.
Higgins, P.J.; Davies, S.J.J.F. (eds.) 1996. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Vol. 3, snipe to pigeons. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
Moeed, A. 1975. Food of skylarks and pipits, finches and feral pigeons near Christchurch. Notornis 22: 135-142.
Robertson, C.J.R.; Hyvonen, P.; Fraser, M.J.; Pickard, C.R. 2007. Atlas of bird distribution in New Zealand, 1999-2004. Ornithological Society of New Zealand, Wellington.
Powlesland, R.G. 2013. Rock pigeon. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online.www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz
- Social structure
- Breeding season
- Nest type
- raised platform
- Nest description
- Simple platform built of material readily available such as twigs and grasses in rural areas, and occasionally artificial objects in cities such as plastic drinking straws, bits of paper, feathers, or even just accumulated dried faeces from previous nestings at the site.
- Maximum number of successful broods
- Clutch size (mean)
- Clutch size (min)
- Clutch size (max)
- Mean egg dimensions (length)
- 39 mm
- Mean egg dimensions (width)
- 29 mm
- Egg colour
- Egg laying dates
- Interval between eggs in a clutch
- About 2 days
- Incubation behaviour
- Incubation length (mean)
- 17.4 days
- Incubation length (min)
- 17 days
- Incubation length (max)
- 19 days
- Nestling type
- Nestling period (mean)
- About 28 days
- Age at fledging (mean)
- About 35 days
- Age at independence (mean)
- Age at first breeding (typical)
- Maximum longevity
- Maximum dispersal