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Why Don’t You See Baby Pigeons?

Pigeon Squab

If you live in a city or large town, then you’ll know that there are pigeons almost everywhere. Huge numbers gather on the ground, particularly around tourist attractions looking for easy sources of food.

Some can look pretty worse for wear with raggedy feathers and even missing legs and feet, yet somehow they manage to survive despite these impediments. What you’re unlikely to see though, among these vast flocks, is a baby pigeon.

The feral pigeons that dwell in cities are descended from domestic pigeons that have returned to the wild. The domestic pigeon is the world’s oldest domesticated bird, with evidence suggesting that domestication occurred as early as 10,000 years ago.

They were domesticated for a variety of reasons, including food, pets, sport, religious ceremonies and rituals, science and research, particularly into bird intelligence, exhibitions, and post carriers.

Homing pigeons are trained to return to a base even if they are released from a location they have never visited before. Historically they were used to send messages, and were particularly useful in times of war. Homing pigeons are still used for pigeon racing and while homing pigeons are sometimes used in ceremonies for decorative effect, such as at weddings and funerals.

Over the years, many domestic pigeons have escaped, and this has led to the large populations of feral pigeons that can be found the world over living alongside humans. They are incredibly adaptable and populate virtually every corner of the globe except the Sahara Desert and the two ice caps.

Domestic pigeons were bred from wild rock doves, or rock pigeons, that have a natural range in western and southern Europe, North Africa, and South Asia. Rock doves live in rocky areas, giving rise to their name, and avoid densely vegetated areas. In the wild, they build their nests high up on cliff faces and caves, as well as on rocky slopes and canyons.

Feral pigeons have thrived in towns and cities which provide artificial rock formations in the form of tall buildings, as well as an abundance of food. But without real cliffs and canyons, they have had to improvise when it comes to constructing their nests.

Without any natural nesting sites, pigeons have had to improvise and build their nests on window ledges of tower blocks, on scaffolding and cranes, in chimneys and churches, and under bridges and roof tiles.

This means that pigeons’ nests can be difficult to spot, and it is very unusual to come across a nest of baby pigeons.

The male chooses the nesting site and sits in it cooing to attract a mate. Once he has done so, the female replaces him and waits as the male brings material, such as stems, sticks, and straw to her one piece at a time.

From this, she constructs a loose platform, sometimes as basic as a pile of twigs, and often in a seemingly precarious position. While birds that nest in the branches of trees need to construct elaborately woven nests to prevent their eggs and chicks from falling out, the large, flat surfaces on which pigeons lay their eggs in the wild are usually sufficient without needing much additional material.

In cities, pigeons are simply doing what they would do in their natural habitats, and often need to make even less effort, as many human-built structures have ledges and ridges that prevent the eggs from rolling away.

Pigeons lay two white eggs, that measure about 39 mm x 29 mm and weigh around 18 g, which are incubated by both parents for 16-19 days. The male incubates from mid-morning to late afternoon, while the female takes her turn in the late afternoon, and overnight until mid-morning.

What do baby pigeons look like?

Pigeon chicks are known by various names including peeps, pipers, squeakers, squealers, and squabs, the former of which are clearly due to the almost incessant cheeping baby pigeons make from the moment they are born.

The etymology of squab, though, is not so clear. It has been used to describe a very young bird since the late 1600s but before that was a term for a short, plump, bulky person. It is also the name for a thick cushion, in particular one that covers the seat of a chair or sofa, and is likely to be Scandinavian in origin, deriving from the Swedish skvabb, meaning “loose fat flesh”.

A baby pigeon has dark or pink skin and is almost bald, except for some patchy yellow fuzz that will eventually grow into feathers. The long, flat beak is pink, it has fleshy nose wattles, no feathers under its wings, and the feet are grey, and relatively large in proportion to the body.

Hatchlings are altricial which means they are almost completely helpless and rely on their parents for care and food. The eyes are closed and do not open until they are about 5 days old. Unlike many other birds, pigeons do not gape to be fed. Instead, the parent bird takes the baby’s beak into its mouth and feeds it ‘crop milk’ which is a secretion from the lining of the parents’ crop that is high in fat and protein, and looks a bit like cottage cheese. After a week or so adult food is introduced and by the end of the second week baby pigeons will be eating this alone.

Nestlings have most of their feathers and a short tail but may have some of the yellow fuzz remaining around the head and neck.

Pigeon Squabs

Squabs don’t fledge until about 6 weeks after hatching which is about twice the length of time of most garden birds. By then they will have developed feathers and have grown to almost the same size as adult birds which makes it hard to spot baby pigeons amongst a busy crowd of squabbling birds.

There are a few tell-tale signs though if you know what you’re looking for. Juvenile pigeons may have some down still poking through their feathers, they lack the green and purple iridescence on the neck, their heads are smaller in proportion to their bodies, and the cere, the fleshy covering at the base of the upper beak, is dull pinky-grey instead of white.

What should I do if I find a baby pigeon?

If you find a baby pigeon on the ground, then you should broadly follow the advice given here. However, if a baby pigeon falls from the nest before it is fully fledged its parents will not recognise it and will abandon it. If you can find the nest, pop it carefully back inside – don’t worry, the parents won’t mind that you’ve handled it. If you can’t find the nest and even if the parents are nearby then you will need to contact a wildlife rescue centre that will be able to take care of it.

5 Responses

  1. A pair of pigeons built a nest in our grape vine in our garden. This morning we saw 2 tiny heads poking up waiting for Mum to fly back! Good to know if they fall out, we can out them back without causing a problem with their parents

  2. I swear there used to be a Bradford & Bingley ad about not seeing baby pigeons (and something about radiators too) but I can’t find any evidence about it online. I came across this sight when looking for it. Does anyone remember what I am talking about?

    1. I do! I wrote the ad with my work partner many years ago. Also had lines like, ‘What was the best thing before sliced bread.’ ????

  3. I feel like pigeons are having babies all year round. I live in a city on the top floor & the pigeons are always mating & I hear the babies squeaking – they are soooo loud & they drive me crazy! I thought birds only bred in Springtime but not these city pigeons. Always at it. Always making babies. Aaaaaaargh  – please be quiet.

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