This may seem like a simple question and simple answer. However, the topic of pigeons raises some interesting facts.
What do we mean when we use the term pigeon? Is it a Rock Dove or Feral Pigeon? What is the difference between white and albino? And lastly, how do pigeons become either white or albino?
Read on for all the answers to the questions you never knew you had about pigeons!
Try to look at this pigeon with fresh eyes. It has a gentle expression and gorgeous pink feet. The coat is a steel gray, and they all have varying amounts of iridescent green, pink and purple coloring.
If you saw this bird for the first time, you would have to agree that it is beautiful.
Is a Pigeon Really a Dove?
Firstly we need to sort out the difference between the “flying rats” (Feral Pigeons) that we see in city centers decorating statues and bugging us when we are eating lunch and the species of bird known as the Rock Dove.
The Rock Dove (Columba livia) is a bird species like any other, and it nests in crevices and overhangs on cliffs and hillsides. Initially, it spread through Europe and into Asia. The eBird Range Map below shows the ancient populations of the Rock Dove in purple.
The interesting part starts when we consider these orange markings on the map. Over a thousand years ago, Europeans realized these birds were placid, easily tamed, and had some fantastic qualities.
Its sense of direction was the best; it could find its way home from wherever it was. And so royalty and important people started to use them to transfer messages. They were the earliest form of post! We have all heard of carrier or messenger pigeons, which were still used in 20th Century conflicts as they were so reliable.
No plan is perfect; birds gradually escaped or were abandoned, and another quality shone through – adaptability. The pigeons just set up where they were and started to breed in new populations. The orange on the map shows this kind of ‘feral’ population, where domesticated birds established themselves in rural or, more often than not, urban areas.
Buildings, particularly roof cavities, became the new nesting places, and if they discovered an abandoned building, they moved right in. They are omnivores and will eat anything they can find – another excellent quality for a bird species. Food in urban areas is abundant if you are not fussy.
Birds and Human Relationships
Now, if we look at the world map for the Rock Dove, it clearly shows how successful they have been.
European settlers imported them from Oceania, southern Africa, and the Americas, and Feral groups took hold and spread rapidly. And so, the Rock Dove became the Feral Pigeon. It was a victim not only of its success but also of human interference.
Even in areas marked in purple, large percentages of Rock Dove populations are considered part of the feral classification. The Feral Pigeon is now found in every region that is not too cold or hot (even Feral Pigeons have some boundaries!).
The American Birding Association (ABA) lists 21 species in the Columbidae family of pigeons and doves that are reported in the United States. As we delve into coloration, we will only consider Columba livia and Columba livia domesticus. Hence, we will collectively group Rock Doves and Feral Pigeons and refer to them as pigeons.
What is Leucism
We have all seen odd-looking pigeons, and I once saw an entirely pink wild pigeon in Barcelona, which was very odd. Anyway, there is a term for pigeons and any animal or bird that is partly white – leucism.
Leucism is a genetic condition that affects the melanin and other pigments in the animal. Melanin is a naturally occurring pigment; when inhibited, the skin, hair, and feathers do not have pigment and appear white.
If you start to look carefully, you will find dark birds with a single white feather or a blotch. This is leucism. It doesn’t hurt the animal but may cause difficulty when hiding from predators or attracting a mate.
Some pigeon breeders have purposely bred pigeons to be white. They are now known as White Doves, but they are really pigeons. They have become symbols of peace and unity and are recognizable everywhere. Suddenly, the humble pigeon is attractive!
Although the pictured pigeon is all white, it is not an albino bird. It is still leucistic.
What is Albinism | Albino Pigeon or White Pigeon
Albinism is caused by the lack of melanin in an animal (or human).
Take a look at the photo of this albino squirrel. It is pure white, and the distinctive feature is its pink eyes. Leucistic animals do not have pink eyes (see the photo above).
White animals are often mistaken as being albino but rarely are. As I researched this article, I found hundreds of images of ‘albino pigeons,’ but I couldn’t satisfy myself that they were as they all had dark eyes. Hence, the squirrel.
To this day, humans keep pigeons as pets, to show them off and to race them. There are many breeds of domestic pigeons, and it is a thriving culture. The white dove seen at ceremonies and weddings is a leucistic pigeon bred to be white. And there is nothing wrong with that.
But lurking in the background is the specter of culling urban pigeons, which seems a bit mean given that humans encourage them by feeding them scraps and are responsible for them being in the wrong place anyway, and it just seems a bit harsh.
For white pigeons (including albino ones), it is doubly hard. So, spare a thought for the humble feral, white, or albino pigeon. They are quite beautiful and very smart birds if you look closely at them.
I hope you enjoyed reading about pigeons, leucism, and albinism. Next time you see a Feral Pigeon, try to find its natural beauty. And if you find an albino pigeon, buy a lottery ticket too!
How rare is it to see an albino pigeon?
Less than 1% of all birds are all-white, so it is very rare. That number also includes partially white birds (leucistic), so the actual percentage with albinism is even less. I don’t think I have ever seen an albino bird.
Are albino pigeons doves?
No. We get a lot of things mixed up. Pigeons and doves are in the same family but are separate groups of birds. White (not albino) pigeons are bred for commercial purposes and called doves because that is more attractive to consumers one-one wants their wedding celebrated by the release of white pigeons!
What do white doves (pigeons) symbolize?
Historically they have come to symbolize luck, love, and prosperity. Cynics would say it is all commercial nonsense, but who am I to argue?
Why are feral pigeons such a big deal?
Because of their success and sociability, Feral Pigeons like to gather in groups, and humans introduced them to urban areas. So, they gather in urban areas, and humans then feed them. And so on and so on. The problem is that where pigeons go, poop follows. And big groups of pigeons mean a lot of poop, which is very bad as it is poisonous to humans.