Species Spotlight: The Rock Pigeon and Spotted Dove
August 01, 2023
Often found on paved streets, building beams, or squatting on outdoor stairways, the city pigeon bobs its rotoscope-like head with every flat-footed step, marching forward to an offbeat tune that no one else can hear.
The metropolis of Hong Kong is just as much ours as it is theirs. Matted with pigeon poo are the bricks of tree planters, marking their territory on shared ground, and sometimes, on you. Of the many urban and rural critters that inhabit this diverse ecosystem, spotted doves and domesticated pigeons are met with slight scowls and panicked dodging upon a sudden flyover.
This month's series spotlight features Hong Kong’s most common flying city dwellers, who have made an excellent home out of our concrete jungle. The Beat Asia explores the history of pigeons in Hong Kong, debunking common misconceptions, and sharing some fun trivia about our avian friends.
History with Humanity
While we don’t know for certain when the first wild bird was tamed for human use, experts agree that the discovery of duck and pigeon remains from the first millennium lends itself as a credible clue. Mosaics, figurines, and coins have also portrayed domestic pigeons as early as 4500 BC (Mesopotamia).
In Ancient China, pigeons were used as messenger birds to deliver important messages across long distances in politics. The sport of pigeon racing, where pigeons are released from specific locations to their home roost, also found its’ start in the later years of the Ming Dynasty.
Where do pigeons live? - Location
Spotted doves are widely distributed. While they are native to southern Asia, they have also been introduced to many other countries. Feral and domesticated pigeons are equally international, having conquered most of the world, save Antarctica.
How can I spot a pigeon? - Identifiers
Most people lump the spotted dove and the feral pigeon under the same umbrella – but their differences in plumage, size, and shape make it easy to tell them apart.
The spotted dove (Spilopelia chinensis) is a medium-sized bird with light brownish-reddish plumage and a longer tail. As the name suggests, its neck is adorned with a spotted black and white scarf, complete with distinct red booties.
Feral pigeons (Columba livia domestica), as they are commonly referred to in Hong Kong, are descendants of domestic pigeons, derived from the wild rock pigeon. Typically, feral pigeons possess a higher variation in colour and pattern than rock pigeons – despite being the same species. With greyish plumage and a larger, stubbier frame, these pigeons are identified through their almost iridescent green-blue-purple neck feathers.
Pigeons in Hong Kong
Like its human population, the urban birds that populate the streets of Hong Kong have no sense of personal space. Having been accustomed to the presence of mankind over many years of living alongside one another, the local pigeons do not typically shy away from people.
Up until 2016, the animal welfare network in Hong Kong had a glaring gap when it came to common urban birds. When domestic or feral pigeons were injured, they were usually taken in to be euthanized by the relevant authorities. In 2017, the Hong Kong Pigeon and Dove Rescue Group was founded, providing practical and useful rescue information for readers who stumble upon an injured dove or pigeon.
Should you feed pigeons?
A resounding 'no', it seems. While it might sound like a cute idea to spend an afternoon throwing crumbs at a flock of pigeons, it is not only illegal, but it can also have some long-standing negative effects for the pigeons themselves.
Processed breadcrumbs and leftover meals are not nutritionally compatible with the pigeons' diet of insects, seeds, and grains. By giving pigeons an all-access pass to foods you like, it may chip away at the pigeons' ability to find food naturally and fend for themselves. Feeding pigeons can also encourage ecological problems – such as tipping the balance of other species' populations, by encouraging other critters to come out of hiding to indulge in the freebies.
Misconceptions About Pigeons
Pigeons get a bad rap for being a 'spreader of disease', unkindly referred to in Hong Kong as 'rats with wings'. Generalized as small-brained, uncaring, and stupid creatures, the pigeon faces a highly defamatory PR crisis
The truth is far from these commonly held misconceptions. While pigeons do carry pathogens that could be harmful to humans, contracting pigeon-related diseases is quite rare. Pigeons are also considered among the smartest creatures on Earth, remembering images for several years (even their own!) - something that cats, dogs, and infant humans generally have trouble with.
Did you know…
- Pigeons have extraordinary navigational abilities. It is believed that they use a combination of magnetic fields, visual landmarks, olfactory cues, and social connections to follow their 'remembered' routes.
- Pigeons form monogamous pairs that mate for life, until one of them dies. The pair also take turns in caring for offspring, with both sexes being able to produce and feed the chicks 'pigeon milk'.
- Pigeons can hear lower frequencies than humans, allowing them to hear distant storms and volcanoes.
- Researchers from Stanford studied the skeletons and feathers of common pigeons and used their findings to recreate similar mechanics in a propeller-driven drone. The 'Birds Aren't Real' conspiracy of 2017 doesn't seem too far off now, does it?
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