Origin and evolution

The domestication of the rock pigeon appears to have occurred in the eastern Mediterranean region between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. The domestication probably occurred in two, slightly different ways.

One way in which rock pigeons could have been domesticated was for hunters to have captured rock pigeon squabs in nesting caves, to be held and fed in cages until they were large enough to eat. The additional step of keeping the birds captive until they matured and were able to reproduce was the key to domestication. Man probably also made nesting platforms in the caves, generating a primitive dovecote culture, and could thus have learned a good deal about reproductive behaviour and ecology of the wild birds.

Besides keeping birds and encouraging pigeons to breed in man made structures, the early cities of the Near East could have been colonized naturally by wild rock pigeons, which found the stone walls of human settlements suitable for nest sites. The wheat these people grew must been attractive as suitable nutrition to the wild pigeons as well. These synanthropic pigeons could have been taken into confinement in much the way described above for wild pigeons. And encouraged to nest in structures specially made for them as well. Both ways towards domestication must have occurred in prehistory.

Dovecote pigeons

It’s not sure if the Egyptians were the first to domesticate the wild rock pigeon, but certainly it is from them that we first learn how to keep and rear pigeons for profit. They breed, and reared the pigeons for their eggs, droppings and for food. The farmers prized the pigeon droppings which they spread liberally on their arid fields.

On the subject of the introduction of pigeons in Europe little is known. However, pigeon rearing was practised by the Romans for a very early date. And France especially has a long history of keeping pigeons in dovecotes, possibly inherited from its occupation by the Romans. Other countries with a dovecote history are Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and England.

It was the Normans who introduced the ‘art’ of pigeon keeping into England in the early 13th century. But together with that knowledge the Norman lords also brought their culture and manorial system with its feudal rights of keeping pigeons with them. Among the privileges of the lords and clergy was that of being the sole class of people to build great pigeon houses wherein the birds might live, and board free. This at the expense of the poor, industrious crop-raising tenant neighbours, who saw their crops being destroyed by flocks of thousands of pigeons.

The early dovecotes in England are massive, round and were usually associated with manor houses or monasteries. Often they were with little decoration, small doorways, and with few openings for light and air. But as architectural styles developed, and the laws of who could own a pigeon house changed in the 17th century, their construction and purpose altered and they became more flamboyant in design. Eventually the craze of pigeon rearing attained such proportions that by the 18th century over 26,000 dovecotes were recorded in England (information kindly supplied by Alan Whitworth, British Dovecote Society).

So huge amounts of dovecote pigeons lived in England and most of them only differed from the rock pigeon in their colour. Besides the original colour (blue) almost all of the dovecote pigeons were chequer. This colour is the result of a mutation what cause wider wing bars and black markings on the rest of the wing. Because the chequered pigeons were that common it was thought to be another species.

It was Blyth in 1847 who described and named the chequered dovecote pigeon as Columba affinis. By calling it affinis (Latin, related, allied) he seemed to know that these dovecote pigeons were close related to the wild rock pigeon. Now we know it is the same species and for that reason the dovecote pigeons/feral pigeons are named Columba livia as well (see also Taxonomy)

There is no reasonable doubt that the feral pigeons developed from the domesticated Rock pigeons kept in dovecotes. And probably also from synanthropic wild Rock pigeons that used the dovecotes as well, though their influence is likely neglect able.