Introduced, Widespread, Successful… Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon)
The pigeons that are widespread in Australian cities, country towns and farms are feral domesticated birds originally introduced from Europe. They are descended from wild Rock Doves, which range from northern Britain and the Mediterranean region, through Arabia and North Africa to central Asia, and south to India. Pigeons have been kept for food, sport and recreation for thousands of years. Charles Darwin was so taken with the diversity of domestic breeds that he singled them out for special attention in his classic monumental study of evolution and natural selection, ‘The Origin of Species’. In the opening chapter concerned with variation under domestication, Darwin noted that domestic pigeons were used as food over 5000 years ago in Egypt, and that the Ancient Romans believed the performance of those bred for racing could be improved by selective breeding.
Feral Pigeons are normally well known and unmistakeable, typically blue-grey with a purple-green sheen on the neck. Sexes are similar with no seasonal variation and juveniles are similar to adults but duller. Plumages vary greatly and many resemble ancestral Rock Doves, with double wing bars and a dark tail tip. Intergradations with domesticated forms produce a wide range of plumage colours and patterns, and general colouration may be paler or darker blue-grey to nearly black, or red-brown to buff or nearly white, or a mixture of these; some are patchy white or even completely white.
The first recorded release of domestic pigeons in Australia was in Victoria before the first fleet arrived and since then they have been introduced in many regions. They are now abundant, with existing populations regularly augmented by abandoned, escaped or lost captive and racing birds. They have become established and successful but remain largely absent from unsettled regions.
Feral pigeons are largely vegetarian and eat mainly seeds of cereals and legumes, with some plant shoots and occasional invertebrates. Human refuse, scraps and handouts make up a large proportion of their diet in urban areas where they may become reliant on artificial sources of food.
Feral Pigeons are now integral players in urban ecosystems, not only in the cleaning up of waste but also as prey for urban predators such as Brown Goshawks and Peregrine Falcons. They also provide enjoyment and entertainment for people who feed them in city parks and open spaces, and may be the first significant contact with wildlife and nature experienced by inquisitive city children unable to spend time in wilder places.
However, they have become so numerous in urban areas and other sites of human habitation that they are now seen as pests by some authorities. They may carry diseases that can infect humans and poultry, and contaminate and cause wastage of stored grain and livestock food. Their untidy nests and droppings disfigure buildings, block gutters and create health hazards. Consequently, they are sometimes legally shot or poisoned to reduce their numbers. Despite these controls the national population now appears to have stabilised, is not at risk, and is of no apparent conservation concern.