The Difference Between a Dove and a Pigeon Explained


What is the difference between a dove and a pigeon?

The general view is that doves are beautiful, soft-looking birds, a symbol of love and peace, while pigeons are somewhat reviled, a feral bird often thought of a vermin found in mainly gray, brown and blue colors.

The fact is, however, that doves and pigeons are in the same taxonomic family. All doves and pigeons descended from the wild Rock Dove and there are 344 known species, of which 13 are now extinct.

The distinction is made harder through language as expressions are not consistent.

In English, the larger species tend to be called pigeons and the smaller ones, doves. This doesn’t feature in other languages.

The Germanic word is dove, which refers to the bird’s diving flight, while the French use pigeon, which is derived from the Latin word pipio, which means “peeping” chick.

Individuals all over the world also have their own linguistic views without scientific or taxonomic knowledge, so what one person may call a dove, another will call a pigeon.

Characteristics of The Columbidae Family

The taxonomic order that pigeons and doves belong to is known as Columbiformes.

Within this order, there is only one family and that is Columbidae which contains all known species of pigeons and doves.

Pigeons and doves share certain features which is why there is no strict division between them. These features are: 

  • Short, stout/rounded bodies with dense soft feathers
  • Short , scaly legs
  • Small, rounded heads
  • Small, slim beaks with a small fleshy patch at the base
  • Tapered wings
  • Soft, dense feathers
  • Crooning or cooing calls

There are of course variations to these rules.

Some have developed different calls and others have developed extravagant feathers in some areas such as the frillbacks and fantails.

Essentially though, they all conform to the basic characteristics.

They are also similar in certain behaviors: 

  • They eat the same diet – seeds and fruit (see note below)
  • All breeds build relatively flimsy nests
  • Egg clutches are one or two and both parents take on caring responsibilities
  • Both sexes also produce crop milk to feed the young

In terms of diet, there is some distinction in that the various breeds can be classed as either granivorous or frugivorous.

  • Granivorous are seed-eating and typically feed on the ground
  • Frugivorous are fruit and mast eating and typically feed in trees.

Now we know the similarities, let’s examine some of the key ways in which some differ.

Differences Between Doves and Pigeons

The differences between doves and pigeons essentially fall into four key areas, some of which have been generalized above:

  • Size and appearance
  • Diet and predators
  • Habitat
  • Calls

1. Size and Appearance

The majority of the biological diversity between doves and pigeons is in their size and tails.

There is a considerable variation in size across the full range of species, with lengths ranging from 6 to 30 inches (15 to 75 centimeters).

The smallest breed is the New World Ground Dove which measures as little as 5 inches (13 cm) and weighs less than one ounce (22 g). The largest species is the Crowned Pigeon of New Guinea. This is as big as a turkey, weighing between 4 to 9 pounds (2 to 4 kg).

Most breeds have 11 feathers in their wings which are large in comparison to their overall size.

They have what is known as low wing loading which is what makes them such excellent and in some species, acrobatic fliers. When it comes to tails however, it is mostly doves that win out.

Although there are breeds of fancy pigeons, such as the fantail, doves generally have the more expressive and bigger tails.

While on the subject of feathers, marked differences can also be seen between the granivorous species and the frugivorous species.

The former tend to have duller plumage while frugivores are more brightly colored. Various species of fruit doves from Fiji and the Indian Ocean are the most brightly colored.

2. Diet and Predators

As mentioned previously, diet enables the classification into either granivores or frugivores. These diets give rise to some anatomical differences. In granivores, the gizzards have thicker walls in their gizzards, esophagi, and intestines.

Their intestines are also longer than those of the frugivores. Another morphological adaptation to enable diet is that frugivores can cling to branches and hang upside down to reach fruit.

Although much smaller in number, some species eat food items other than seeds and fruit. Quail doves and ground doves, for example, eat worms and insects.

The Atoll Fruit Dove likes to eat small reptiles as well as insects. Other species eat insects, moths, and snails including Ruddy Ground Doves. White-Crowned Pigeons, and Orange Fruit Doves.

With regard to predators, pigeons are at the mercy of large birds with better dive velocity, particularly the Peregrine Falcon and other hawks. This applies to doves too, but the “ground” species are at risk of having their eggs eaten by rats and snakes.

Humans can also be considered one of their predators – particularly for common pigeons.

3. Habitat

Pigeons and doves have adapted to almost all types of environments which is why species are found all over the world including the remotest places of Eastern Polynesia, Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean, and The Azores.

Places where they haven’t been able to establish are the High Arctic, the Sahara Desert, and Antarctica.

There is no real distinction in habitats. All pigeon and dove species can be terrestrial, semi-terrestrial, or arboreal.

They can live in temperate woodlands, tropical forests, on sandy atolls and rocky mountains, in grasslands, savannah, and deserts, and of courses, towns and cities. .

Although they are found in any habitat, ranges vary among the species. Some have very large ranges. For example, the Eurasian Collared Dove can be found from China to India and the Middle East, to Europe and Britain. The Eared Dove can be found across the whole of South America.

Other species have more restricted ranges, some being found in just one place. For example, the Whistling Dove is only found on Kadavu Island in Fiji and The Grenada Dove is only to be found in the country of the same name.

Others are even more restrictive. The Somali Pigeon only lives in a tiny area of Northern Somalia, the Black-Banded Fruit Dove lives only in Arnhem Land in Australia, and Moreno’s Ground Dove is only found In a small area of Northern Argentina.

The Rock Dove – which as you recall all doves and pigeons are descended from – has the largest distribution. Its range stretches from Ireland to China.

4. Calls 

Doves have long been associated with a melodious cooing but pigeons also make this sound. The coo can vary according to different situations. For example, the coo make become something like “oorh” when the bird is alarmed.

Some breeds have developed unique vocalizations that are significantly different to the coo. Trumpeter pigeons are so called because their call is more of a low laugh than a gentle coo. Several domesticated breeds of fancy pigeons are called trumpeters.

Much like humans, pigeons/doves are the same in the scientific way (on the inside) but can look different on the outside.

So next time someone is talking about a pigeon, you can let them know that the dove is the same thing. 

Recent Content