The Life of a Pigeon

Since my childhood days, I have fed pigeons in the balcony of my home along with my father. Although I no longer do the same, years of feeding has deemed my home a safe haven among the pigeon community.

In all these years, I have witnessed five pigeon birth events, and I’m fascinated by their behaviour during those 48 days — from egg laying to the baby’s first flight. Noticing them keenly, one can learn a lot about how a family should be.

Pigeons reach mating age within 7 to 8 months of their birth. Their life expectancy varies between 5 to 15 years based on environmental factors. Once paired, they mate every consecutive season, and they mate for life. They only change their partner if their partner dies or is lost. In case of a lost partner, pigeons wait one entire season for them to return, before moving on. This behavior is absolutely stunning!

About eight to twelve days after mating, the female lays two eggs in a span of two to three days. Usually the male is around guarding while the female lays the eggs. The eggs are brilliant white, similar to chicken eggs, although significantly smaller.

Both male and female participate actively in incubating the eggs. The male does the day shift, sitting on the eggs from dawn. The female meanwhile gathers food for both of them, and takes charge from late afternoon to the next day’s dawn. The female gets its sleep during the day, while the male sleeps during the night. While one of them sits on the eggs, the other maintains vigil about 5 to 10 metres away. This behavior is extremely coordinated.

The male incubating the eggs.
The female maintains vigil a few feet away.

The eggs are incubated continuously and are protected from sunlight and other threats. Pigeons are quite concerned about their eggs, and will safeguard them unless the danger is imminent. The eggs are incubated for 15 to 18 days, before the first pigeon is born. The other egg hatches within a couple of days.

Pigeon babies (called squabs) are very delicate, and have yellow feathers. Their body is fleshy red and their eyelids are closed. About three days after birth they open their eyelids for the first time. The squabs also require warmth for a couple of days before their flesh adjusts to the climate, so the pigeon pair continue to incubate them.

Tender birth — A newborn pigeon. The dark mass is the eyelid.

Pigeons are extremely protective of their young, more than when the eggs weren’t hatched. The male is a bit timid, and will flee if anything comes close. The female however is the strong one and will even put up a fight to protect the newborns. The female tried to slap me with its wings while I was taking the above photograph. Unconditional love.

Pigeons are one of the only three birds known to produce ‘milk’ to feed their squabs. Pigeon milk is produced in the crop, a body organ which is used to store food before digestion. The crop milk contains ample amount of antioxidants and immunity boosting elements, helping the squabs grow strong. Once the milk is produced, it is regurgitated and fed to the squabs. The babies grow quickly — they double their size within a week.

Feeding time!

As time passes, the squabs’ feathers start changing their color from yellow to grey, completely transforming in about 10 days.

Changing colors

As the squabs grow, they become far more independent. About 2 weeks after birth, their legs are strong enough to bear their weight, and they take their first steps. The squabs are now left alone for longer periods of time, but they’re still fed by their parents.

In about 4 weeks, the squabs reach their adult size, with all feathers grown. They start leaving the nest and roam around on foot, for they haven’t yet been taught how to fly. They wouldn’t even fly if you try to catch them. I actually thought about holding one of them in my hands but I spared them the horror fearing they’ll fall off while attempting to escape.

Grown up!

The father usually takes up the job to teach them how to fly. Its not a dramatic father-child moment as such (at least not for humans), but the father makes sure the pigeons lose the fear of flying. One by one, both the children fly.

The now adolescent pigeons accompany their parents until they reach a maturing age. The parents meanwhile find a new place to nest and continue expanding the family. Pigeons reach mating age in about 7 months, and then this cycle repeats all over again.

And that’s the life of a pigeon!

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Rishabh Tatiraju

Rishabh Tatiraju

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Grad student at University of Florida. Computer Science. Astrogeek.