Editor’s Note: This article was reprinted with permission from Pinto & Associates.
We’re very familiar with the annoying habits of pigeons. Most of us know a bit about where pigeons like to roost and feed, but we’re not so knowledgeable about how and where they nest. Pigeon nests may not be noticed because they are hidden in protected places and because they tend to look more like a pile of debris than a bird’s nest.
The natural home for the “rock doves” that our pigeons descended from was rocky cliffs. They built their nests on flat ledges or in rock crevices or caves. Domestic pigeons, Columba livia, have adapted very well to living on building ledges and other high, narrow places instead.
THE NEST. For domestic pigeons, the primary requirement for the nest site is that it be a flat surface that is protected from wind and rain. Nests are usually built in or near roosting sites. A typical nest site would be on a ledge, balcony, windowsill or roof area under cover. Pigeon nests are also constructed under eaves or in rain gutters, in an attic or steeple, on decorative trim, on rafters, or under a bridge or overpass. Nests aren’t always high, however. A suitable site can be in a corner on the ground floor of an abandoned building.
A pigeon nest is constructed of materials such as small twigs, straw or grass stems, roots, pine needles, and leaves, with a small hollow in the center where two eggs are usually laid. The male pigeon selects the nest site and the couple builds the nest together. The male brings materials to the nest site one piece at a time, and the female arranges each piece to her liking. Nest building occurs in the morning over a three- to four-day period.
A newly constructed pigeon nest is fairly clean but nests are reused for each following brood with hardly any down time, and new nest material is just added on top of the old. Pigeons don’t remove hatchlings’ droppings from the nest, in fact the fecal pellets accumulate and actually help cement the nest materials together. A nest that has been in use for three or four years can be 7 inches (18 cm) high by 20 inches (50 cm) broad and can weigh 4.5 pounds (2 kg) or more. Older nests that are reused are those that offer the best protection from wind, rain and cold. Buried in the layers of a well-used nest you may find feathers, unhatched eggs and even the mummified bodies of dead hatchlings. A nest that is in use likely will contain various bird parasites such as bird mites, lice, bird ticks, the pigeon equivalent of bed bugs, as well as scavenger insects.
WHERE ARE THE SQUABS? If you ask people whether they’ve ever seen a young pigeon, the surprised answer is usually “no.” The reason is that by the time the young (squabs) leave the nest and are seen out and about, they are as big as the adults. There is one clue — for the first six months of life, pigeons have brown eyes. The eyes of the adults are usually orange.
A pigeon pair mates for life. Although they can breed year-round, especially in warm regions, in most areas there are two primary breeding seasons: March to June, and again in August to November. In general, eggs hatch 18 days after being laid and eggs for a second clutch are laid about 46 days after the previous clutch. In summer, there may be an overlap of clutches, with eggs of a second brood being laid in the nest before eggs of the first have hatched.
Incubation begins after the second egg of each clutch is produced, with both parents taking turns sitting on and guarding the nest. The male takes the day shift and the female spells him for the evening and night shift so that the eggs are covered 99 percent of the time. At night, the male roosts elsewhere. The pair takes turns feeding the young, too. For the first few days, the babies are fed “pigeon milk” which is a cheesy, pre-digested, high-fat, high-protein glop that is regurgitated from the parents. As a result, hatchlings grow quickly, almost doubling in size daily during the first week of life.
After the first five to seven days, the young squabs’ milk is gradually mixed with seeds and an adult diet is introduced after day nine. Squabs have a good growth of feathers by 14 days and walk well at day 18. They will try their wings at day 24-28 and can fly by day 30-32. Departure from the nest varies with the season, ranging from 25-32 days from hatch in summer, up to 45 days in winter. For a couple of days after, fledglings will return to the nest at night to roost until driven off by the busy parents. Young that leave the nest before they can fly often starve or fall to their deaths.