Family Columbidae (Doves and Pigeons)

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   Pigeons and doves are in the order Columbiformes and family Columbidae. There are five subfamilies within Columbidae, 42 genera and 308 species. They are easily recognizable and have a world-wide distribution (although they are not found in Antarctica). They live in almost all types of terrestrial habitats from desert to dense forest and large urban areas. Pigeons and doves are stocky birds that range from 15 to 75 cm long. Many of the seed-eating columbids are buff, grey and brown colors, while the fruit-eaters are often more brightly colored. Many have ornamentation and iridescent feathers on the neck, breast, back, wings and face. They range from solitary to extremely social; the now extinct passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) are reported to have occurred in flocks of up to two million birds that were so dense that they blocked out the sun.

Geographic Range

   Pigeons and doves are a cosmopolitan family (although they are not found in Antarctica or the high arctic). The highest diversity of columbids occurs in South America, Australasia and the Pacific Islands. Some species (for example, Rock Doves (Columba livia)) have been introduced throughout much of their range.


Columbids are found in almost all terrestrial habitats from temperate areas to the tropics including: lowland rainforest, highland forest, tropical deciduous forest, riparian forest, boreal forest, savanna, desert, cliff, chaparral, coral atolls, mangroves, swamp forest, woodland edge, agricultural areas, suburban and urban areas. The highest diversity of pigeons and doves occurs in tropical rainforests. They can be found from sea level to 5000 m and their excellent flying abilities have allowed them to colonize oceanic islands.

Systematic and Taxonomic History

   Pigeons and doves are in the order Columbiformes and family Columbidae. There are five subfamilies within Columbidae: Columbinae (typical pigeons), Otidiphabinae (pheasant pigeons), Gourinae (crowned pigeons), Didunculinae (tooth-billed pigeons) and Treroninae (fruit doves). There are 42 genera and 308 species within Columbidae.
   There is disagreement as to which groups are most closely related to pigeons and doves. It has been suggested that columbids are closely related to gamebirds, buttonquails, parrots, shorebirds and sandgrouse (sandgrouse are sometimes included in the order Columbiformes). Dodos are now extinct, but were closely related to pigeons. Some researchers actually grouped dodos in the family Columbidae, while others placed them in the family Raphidae within Columbiformes. Recent DNA evidence suggests that there are no extant relatives of pigeons and doves and that they should be the only family in Columbiformes.
   Characteristics that distinguish pigeons and doves include: palate schizognathous; pelvic muscle formula A(B)XY+; internal caeca small or absent; syrinx with asymmetrical extrinsic muscles; schiorhinal, impervious nares, with a fleshy cere over the slit-like nostrils; two carotids; hallux incumbent; flexor tendons type 1; tarsi covered laterally and behind with hexagonal scales; thick plumage, feathers set loosely in skin; diastatxic; 11 primaries; 12-20 retrices; airshaft small or absent; caeca small, not functional; well-developed bi-lobed crop; produce pigeon milk from crop lining for feeding young; oil gland naked or absent; nidicolous young hatched blind and without true down; drink by sucking or pumping (from Sibley and Ahlquist 1990, pg.421).

Physical Description

   Pigeons and doves are stocky birds that range from 15 to 75 cm long and weigh from 30 to over 2000 g. The smaller species within Columbidae are often called doves and the larger species pigeons, but these names do not necessarily reflect true differences and are often used interchangeably. Columbids have small heads and short beaks and legs. Their flight muscles may make up to 44 percent of the birds body weight and allow them to have excellent flying capabilities and maneuverability. Wing-shape is often a good indicator of the species migratory behavior. They have soft skin at the base of their bills and a ring of bare skin around their eyes that can be red, blue, yellow or white. Columbids have a bilobed crop that produces crop-milk (or "pigeon milk") that they feed their young.
   Columbids can be divided in to seed-eating and fruit-eating species. Many of the seed-eating columbids are buff, grey and brown colors while the fruit-eaters are often more brightly colored. Typical pigeons (subfamily Columbinae) are usually grey, brown and/or pink. Fruit-eating pigeons (subfamily Treroninae) are more colorful with oranges and greens. Crowned pigeons (subfamily Gourinae) are grey with pink or chestnut underparts and a white wing patch. Tooth-billed pigeons (subfamily Didunculinae) are chestnut colored on the back and wings and dark green elsewhere. Many doves and pigeons have ornamentation (such as crests and colorful eye rings) and iridescent feathers on the neck, breast, back, wings and face. They range from sexually monomorphic to sexually dimorphic, and molt annually after breeding.


   Pigeons and doves are monogamous, and many have the same mate from year to year. They have numerous displays that are performed either on the ground or in the air. For example, while on the ground, males of some species squat, lift their tail, lower their head, twitch their wings and scratch the ground with their feet while calling. Some species have aerial displays that usually involve wing claps (most forest and ground living species do not have aerial displays). Aerial displays are used in courtship and to indicate territory boundaries. During a pre-copulation display, a male inflates his crop, bows, spreads his tail feathers, pirouettes and calls. This display varies among species, and birds with ornaments and colorful plumage usually show them off during the display. Some species of pigeons and doves also engage in courtship feeding and/or mate guarding.

Food Habits

   Pigeons and doves can be seen feeding in flocks. They are primarily grainivorous and frugivorous, but occasionally they eat insects, snails, worms, lizards, leaves, buds and flowers. Seeds are picked up off the ground and eaten whole and fruits are plucked from trees. Grainivorous species have specialized gizzards, intestines and esophagi that help them eat and digest seeds. Grain is stored in their crops and ground by the grit in their gizzard. Grainivorous species need to drink a lot of water in order to digest seeds. Desert species get their water from succulent plants and have the ability to drink saline water. Columbids drink by submerging their beaks into the water and sucking the water up, they do not scoop water in their beaks and lift their heads to swallow like most birds.
   Size differences among columbids often reflect dietary differences and allow for resource partitioning. Larger birds eat larger fruit than smaller birds and smaller birds can feed on thinner branches and reach fruit that the larger birds can not reach.

Subfamily Columbinae - Typical pigeons & doves
Subfamily N.N. - Bronzewings and Relatives
Subfamily Leptotilinae - Zenaidine and Quail doves
Subfamily Columbininae - American Ground doves
Subfamily N.N. - Indopacific Ground doves
Subfamily Otidiphabinae - Pheasant pigeon
Subfamily Didunculinae - Tooth-Billed pigeon
Subfamily Gourinae - Crowned pigeons

Subfamily N.N. ("Treroninae") - Green and Fruit doves and Imperial pigeons
Subfamily Raphinae - Didines

   On materials: http://www.azpigeons.org/birds.htm, http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/index.html.

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