City pigeons are feral pigeons, the descendants of Eurasian Rock Doves (Columba livia) that were domesticated and then escaped back to the wild. In their natural habitat they build nests on ledges and in crevices on cliffs. This partly explains why we never see the babies. When pigeons nest, they seek out places that look like cliffs—inaccessible places such as ledges and sills on high rise buildings, rooftops, rafters, steel beams in warehouses and under bridges, the tops of air conditioning units etc.
Feral Pigeon Nests
When pigeons build their simple nests of twigs on window sills or on surfaces visible from nearby windows, people are treated to a good view of baby pigeons. Normally a pigeon pair will produce two eggs, which they take turns incubating for about eighteen days. Once the eggs hatch both parents feed their nestlings with a thick secretion that they produce in their crop and regurgitate for the young. Pigeon milk resembles cottage cheese and is high in fat and protein. After the first week, seeds and other foods that the parents have ingested are mixed with the milk.
See a Baby Pigeon
The adventurer determined to see a baby pigeon will have to find a nest. Look in typical places in the breeding season—spring and early summer. This is likely to be difficult and may even be dangerous because it’s so difficult to get close to nests built in high awkward places. Most people would be wise to settle for spotting a juvenile once it has left the nest.
Pigeon milk provides all the nutrients necessary for rapid growth—in fact, young pigeons grow so plump that by the time they leave the nest after about a month, they may actually be bigger than their parents. Thus, some of the pigeons flocking and feeding in the city at the end of the breeding season are actually juveniles that have recently fledged. People don’t realize this because the juveniles don’t stand out from the adults.
How to Recognize a Young Pigeon
Juvenile pigeons look almost identical to the adults, but they have features that help to identify them:
- Fledglings may retain some of their down, so look for bits of downy feather sticking out through the adult plumage.
- Look at the ceres, the heart-shaped structure at the top of the beak. In adults, the ceres are white; in young pigeons, they are dull grey.
- Look at the eye. An adult pigeon has red eyes; the young ones have brown eyes.
- The head of a younger bird may be narrower than that of an adult.
- Juveniles tend to be timid. When you throw out food, the juveniles are probably the ones that hang back.