One of my favorite fun facts to unveil whenever I’m strolling with a friend down a city sidewalk goes like this: “Did you know that pigeons are actually doves?”
About half the time, my friend couldn’t care less. (Their loss.) But sometimes, they’re taken aback. Doves are creatures of dignity and grace. They were considered good omens as early as ancient Mesopotamia, and today doves—especially white doves—are considered symbols of peace. Compare that to the city pigeon. Sometimes called “rats with wings,” the plump, typically gray birds with an iridescent neck-flash are scorned worldwide as pests.
Yet, it’s true: A dove of peace is a white pigeon, no more and no less. The two are interchangeable—there's no rhyme or reason why some of the 300-plus species in the family Columbidae are called pigeons and others doves—and yet we afford the dove some grandeur while the pigeon is relegated to the trash bin.
I’ve always felt the pigeon deserved more admiration. So I was flabbergasted in 2003 when the North American authority on bird names, the American Ornithological Society, officially changed the pigeon’s English name from the long-held Rock Dove to the Rock Pigeon. As if the birds didn’t suffer enough dishonor already! They should at least be allowed to share their English name with the rest of the dove family. But, no: The Brits had decided to rename the Rock Dove as the Rock Pigeon, and North American ornithologists had little choice but to follow suit.
This year, however, there is a revolution in the works. Terry Chesser, a bird taxonomist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, recently submitted a proposal to the American Ornithological Society’s classification committee to revert the species’ common name to Rock Dove.
When I asked Chesser if his decision had anything to do with restoring the Rock Dove’s dignity, he declined to comment. “It’s strictly a nomenclatural issue for me,” he wrote in an email to Audubon. You see, after the 2003 name change, it came to several ornithologists’ attention that there is an existing group of Australian birds (Petrophassa sp.) called rock-pigeons. So, calling the city pigeon Rock Pigeon was causing some confusion. The American Ornithologist Society classification committee will take up the proposal for a vote this year. (Update: The proposal was voted down, and the city pigeon remains a Rock Pigeon officially. Alas!)
You can imagine my surprise and delight at this news; after all, pigeons are doves, and deserve to be treated as such. Their only crimes against humanity appear to be their presence in our urban territory, and their spectacular success as a species.
Rock Doves survive on every continent except for Antarctica, in no small part because they breed excessively. Young birds can begin breeding after only five months, and a female may nest eight times per year with the same partner. (The species is monogamous.) Combine those traits with their highly adaptive diet—pigeons evolved tastes far beyond the seeds and grains scavenged in their native northern Europe, and into more exotic fare like popcorn, French fries, meat, and garbage—and you’ve got an evolutionary superstar.
No wonder Rock Doves strut around with their chests puffed out and colorful necks gleaming in the sunlight! And yet most people still consider them literal trash birds.
That’s a shame, because pigeons and people go together like doves and olive branches. “Pigeons seldom exist apart from people,” writes John Eastman in Birds of Forest, Yard, & Thicket. “The farmer is its friend, the city dweller its closest friend.” Evidence of our close bond can be found in the proclivities of pigeon fanciers, who have developed some two hundred different breeds of Rock Dove optimized for color, plumage, speed, and meat. And don’t forget homing pigeons' service to humankind during war. In World War I and World War II, pigeons delivered messages to the frontlines when other communication methods proved too dangerous; some 32 pigeons even received the Dickin Medal, awarded to animals who serve the United Kingdom, for their gallantry.
Which is all the more reason to return their common name to Rock Dove, indicating that they are a remarkable species that’s part of a much larger family of beautiful birds. I asked renowned ornithologist Kenn Kaufman, who’s also Audubon’s field editor, what he thought about the proposal to revert Rock Pigeons to Rock Doves. “People get bent out of shape about these things, and I really don’t care,” he said. “Pigeon and dove are two different words for birds in that family. It’s like egret and heron.”
Fair point; I'm probably going a little overboard here. But when pressed, Kaufman did get behind the idea. “Doves are symbols of peace, and pigeons are easy marks,” he said, reconsidering his position. “I like the dignity of it.”
So, there you have it: I think we can all agree that it’s time for the Rock Dove to have its respectability, and its proper name, restored.