Doves and pigeons are very peaceful and those kept as pets will even seek out affection from their human family!

Domesticated doves and pigeons like human contact. They are quiet and peaceful, and make wonderful pets. Pet Pigeons and all types of doves have a subtle appeal due to their special characteristics. Most have a pleasant voice. It is generally a ‘cooing’ sound and most have about 4 or 5 types of calls. The strut of these adorable birds is accompanied with head nodding.

When pigeon breeds and doves take flight, they take off with a whirring sound. These breeds were noted early on for their flying behaviors which include aerial acrobatics as well as a homing instinct. These birds can be quite entertaining as well as useful. Throughout history they have been used to carry messages, and were known as carrier pigeons. The homing instinct is still employed today.

The homing instinct is demonstrated today in the popular use of white pigeons for wedding releases. (Note: the birds used in Weddings are White Pigeons, not White doves. White Pigeons are a larger bird with a developed homing instinct that the White Dove lacks.) Itt has also influenced the popular sport of racing pigeons, or ‘Pigeon Racing’.


   Doves and pigeons are found throughout the world except in the polar regions. A large portion of them are established in the Oriental and Australasian regions.

It is not known when these birds first became kept in captivity, but they have been bred and hybridized for various purposes for thousands of years. Specialized traits such as the homing instinct, aerial acrobatics, and unique feather structures have been developed (or diminished) through selective breeding over many years.

It is not known what the total number of doves and pigeons is, though there are over 305 described living species. In the pigeon fancy alone there have been over 200 different breeds developed.

Dr. Matthew M. Vriends, a world-renowned expert in tropical orthinology and aviculture, gives us some very insightful information about pigeon breeds and types of doves.

In this book, “Pigeons, Everything About Purchase Care, Management, Diet, diseases, and Behavior of Pigeons”, Dr. Vriends tells us that there are over 200 domesticated pigeons, and that there are as many as 1250 varieties of all these breeds. He says that all the doves and pigeons, through selective breeding over about 50 centuries ….have come from a single species of wild pigeon, the Rock Dove, Columba livia.

Paintings and hieroglyphics have many references to doves and pigeons from today back to as early as about 2600 BC. Aristotle writes about pigeon sports around 350 BC. These birds have been used for thousands of years for food, sport, and as message carriers.

Pigeon Racing is a worldwide sport developed due to the homing instinct as well as acrobatic flying abilities. These birds were selectively bred to intensify these as well as other traits and there were many local strains. The first exhibits were held toward the end of the 19th century.

Wild pigeon sitting on a fence
Image Credit: Anette Meyer, Pixabay


 There is no scientific separation between doves and pigeons. They are often simply recognized as one or the other by the common names given to them over the years. In general the term ‘pigeon’ is usually applied to the larger species and ‘dove’ to the smaller species.

  • Pigeon and Dove Sizes:
      These birds come in a vast array of sizes, from those that are about the size of a sparrow to those that are the size of a large chicken.
  • Pigeon and Dove Colors:    Though they are not the most brightly colored birds, many doves and pigeons are very attractive. There is a variety of colors and color patterns, ranging from whites to blue-grays and any shade in between, and a variety of uniquely feathered types.
  • Pigeon and Dove Shape:
    Doves and pigeons generally fall into one of two body types, those with a long slender body and those that are short and plump. The larger birds are especially characterized by deep-chested bodies and are fairly muscular. They all have relatively small heads and short, usually scaled legs. Their beaks are relatively small, short, and narrow with a tip that is slightly bent down. Their nostrils are wide open and the cere is featherless.
  • Pigeon and Dove Life Span:
      Doves and pigeons will live for a relatively long period of time, generally about 10 to 12 years with some living quite a bit longer. A Turtle Dove was recorded to have lived for 34 years.

There are many pigeon breeds and types of doves available. A wide variety of pet doves, as well as pet pigeons and and show pigeons, can be found in the pet industry and through breeders. The types of doves and pigeon breeds include:

  • Barbary Dove
  • Diamond Dove
  • Green Wing Dove
  • Mourning Dove
  • White Dove
  • Ringneck Dove
  • Senegal Dove
  • Spotted Dove
  • Bleeding-heart Pigeon
  • Brunner Pouter Pigeon
  • Budapest Tumbler Pigeon
  • Chinese Owl Pigeon
  • Crested Pigeon
  • English Trumpeter Pigeon
  • Indian Fantail Pigeon
  • Maltese Pigeon
  • Old German Owl Pigeon
  • Oriental Frill Pigeon
  • Purple-breasted Fruit Pigeon
  • Rock Pigeon – Common Pigeon
  • Valencian Figurita Pigeon
  • West of England Tumbler Pigeon

Care and feeding

   In the wild doves and pigeons feed on seeds, berries, fruits, green leaves and shoots, spiders and other insects. The birds we are describing here are the seed eaters in the subfamily Columbinae. The fruit eaters are in the subfamily Treroninae, but are not often seen in captivity probably because feeding them is much more difficult.

The seed eaters fall into three categories; those that feed only in trees and shrubs, those that are ground feeders, and those that feed in both places.

  • Bird Food:
       A dove and pigeon diet consisting of a basic commercial mix supplemented with greens rich in minerals is generally regarded as suitable. Greens can include such things as lettuce, endive, chickweed, clover, watercress, and spinach. Some fruits are berries, apple, and pear. For smaller doves and pigeons you can use a budgie or canary mix. The smaller birds will also enjoy millet spray.
      Foods available for doves and pigeons include seed only diets, formulated diets that are either pelleted or extruded, and commercial mixes generally consisting of seed, cereal, and legumes. The commercial mixes and the seed-only diets require supplements for complete nutrition.
      Though formulated diets offer the same nutrients as commercial mixes as well as the necessary vitamins and minerals, they have been found to cause loose stools. This is probably because of the addition of molasses, but because of this problem they are not widely used today.
  • Supplements:
    • Grit and Gravel: Because they eat seeds whole, doves and pigeons need grit and gravel. The little stones and the grit help grind up harder seed in the gizzard.
    • Vitamins: Vitamins can be added to the water or sprinkled on food in a dry form about once a week.
    • Calcium: Offer calcium in the form of crushed oyster shell, grit, and even cuttlebone for the small birds.
    • Other Supplements:Some folks like to occasionally offer game bird crumbles, water soaked dog biscuits, and water or milk soaked bread as well
  • Water:
       Fresh water must be provided every day. Doves and pigeons drink water by sucking it up and swallowing it rather than throwing their heads back like other birds do. One of the best ways to provide water, and to keep the birds from soiling it, is to use a so-called ‘automatic’ waterer, an upside down container that feeds into a tray type base.
  • Bird Baths:
      The personal hygiene of doves and pigeons includes a bath followed by sunning and preening themselves. Some like to bathe while others prefer a shower, and then there are some who like a dust bath. A shower can be accomplished with either a hand held sprayer or a hose with a fine spray head and lukewarm water.
  • Bird Grooming:
       When they preen themselves, many have ‘powder feathers’ rather than an oil gland found in many other birds. They use their beak to spread the powder over their feathers. They molt once a year replacing just a few feathers at a time, not all at once. During this time the molt starts with the wing feathers first, the body molts throughout the period, and the tail feathers molt last.
       Wing clipping is not necessary and is not recommended for doves and pigeons. Unlike the parrot families, these birds cannot climb to safety and depend on flight.
ringneck dove bird perched
Image Credit: Kyle Logan Laskey, Shutterstock


   In all cases the size of the dove or pigeon determines the size of its home, they must be able to flap their wings without hitting the sides. Small birds such as the Diamond dove can be housed in a cage. The medium and larger sized birds will do much better in an aviary. Birds that are allowed free flight will need a dovecote. Unlike the larger birds, many of the small doves have very poor homing instincts and will not do well if released outside. They are not good candidates for free-flight housing.

  • Bird Cages:
       Generally a rectangular cage is better than a square one and the bar spacing must be small enough that the bird cannot get its head through. Because many of these birds spend a good deal of time on the ground, a wire bottom cage should have part of it covered with paper or even grassy sod. They also prefer a partially enclosed or box-type cage for a sense of security. Keep the cage in a bright draft-free area but not in direct sun. Normal room temperatures are fine with humidity at 50-70%.
       Some people wish to cover the cage at night. This is not necessary unless the cage will be in an area where the lights will be turned on and off at night. A cover in this case can help keep the bird from getting frightened.
  • Aviary:    An outdoor or breeding aviary needs to have a protected shelter that can be heated and cooled where necessary. Orienting the aviary to the south or southwest helps as these birds need good daylight and will avoid dark areas.
       The shelter should be taller than the flight area as many of these birds will seek out the highest place to roost for the night. A good shelter size is about 6′ (2 m) square and 8′ (2.5 m) high. Provide a flat shelf mounted as high as possible for roosting and for nest building, as well as some regular perches or natural branches. Provide some nest boxes for those birds that prefer an enclosed nest. A platform with a rim, mounted about 3′ above the ground, is a good place for food and water.
       The flight area is a good place to provide a shallow pool for bathing and will need perches. You can provide nesting boxes in the flight if you locate them in areas where there are trees and bushes close by so the birds get a sense of security. Leave plenty of room for flying. Flight areas for small birds can be about 6′ (2 m) long, 3′ (1 m) wide, and 6′ (2 m) high. For medium size birds it can be about 9′ (3 m) long, 6′ (2 m) wide, and 6′ (2 m) high. For the large birds it can be 15′ (5 m) long, 6′ (2 m) wide, and 6′ (2 m) high.
  • Dovecote:
      Free flight birds will need a dovecote. For many years doves and pigeons have been allowed free flight. ‘Dovecotes’ or ‘pigeon lofts’ were included as an integral part of many buildings throughout Europe. Originally these were built for utility purposes and later became more ornamental. There are many examples of these still today. A dovecote is a natural way to keep birds that have a homing instinct and will return to the dovecote each evening.

       For free flight birds, probably the most important thing to consider is safety! Free flight birds can be at risk from a variety of predators. Birds that are not use to free flying are especially at risk.

      Free flyers must first be accustomed to their home before allowing them to fly. If they are new to the dovecot, you can put a mesh cover around it until they become familiar with their accommodations. Once they know their home and where their food is they will return in the evening. It is recommended that you feed them sparingly in the morning, providing the bulk of their feed in the evening to encourage them to return.

       We must stress that many of the small doves have very poor homing instincts! Putting small doves, like the domestic White Dove and Ringneck Dove, in a free flight situation could mean the loss of your pet. These birds would likely be lost, possibly perishing of starvation, predation, or exposure.

    • Wallcote: The larger birds are ideal for free flight, especially the acrobatic flyers. They enjoy it and it is good for their health. For a small number of birds a wallcote is probably the most practical.
        Built against the side of the house, preferably facing south or southwest, a wallcote is a waterproof shelter consisting of compartments and a porch or landing board. The compartment size is dependent on the the type of bird.
         For a medium sized pair of birds a compartment can be about 26″ (67 cm) wide, 18″ – 20″ (46 – 51 cm) deep, and 16″ (41 cm) high with an entrance that is about 5″ – 6″ (13 – 15 cm). The landing board can be about 8″ (20 cm) wide and can also serve as a place to put heavy crocks for food and water.
         You can add more compartments as the number of birds increases.
    • Polecote:
         Another type of dovecote is the polecote. This is a shelter and landing platform mounted on a free standing pole. This type of cote is often more decorative than practical however.
    • Garden Cote:
         An aviary that is opened up and allows for free flight is sometimes referred to as a garden cote.
Diamond Dove bird perched
Image Credit: Wang LiQiang, Shutterstock


   The basic bird cage or aviary care includes daily cleaning of the water and food dishes, and bathing bowls. Weekly you should wash all the perches and platforms. Periodically disinfect the entire bird house and accessories with a mild bleach solution. A total hosing down and disinfecting of an aviary should be done yearly, replacing anything that needs to be freshened such as old dishes, nests, and perches.

Social Behaviors

   In the wild all types of doves and pigeon breeds are known to flock, some do it only seasonally while others flock year round. Most species will live together peaceable if they are given plenty of room. In too small an area they can be very aggressive as well as during breeding season. All doves and pigeons can be somewhat territorial, and there are some species that are extremely so and very aggressive. Be sure to research the behaviors of the birds you want before putting them together with others.

Be very careful about adding a new bird to a cage with existing birds. Most doves and pigeons are territorial by nature. They may be protective of their space and will not appreciate a new roommate, possibly even killing the newcomer.

Many species can be house with other birds in an aviary, such as finches and parakeets, but aggressive species should be housed separately. Doves and pigeons do not mix well with cats, nor do they do well with dogs.


   Young birds that are raised in an aviary can become very affectionate once they get used to their home and their family. This is the ideal pet as it will become quite tame and devoted while wild doves and pigeons generally remain cautious and on their guard. The wild birds will be shy and reserved and will seldom become overly affectionate.

When you first bring your bird home, give it about a week or so with very little disturbance and don’t let it out of its cage. There is much for it to become familiar with just being in its cage. Give it a chance to know you and get comfortable.

After it is comfortable with you and its accommodations, then you can let it out to start exploring the rest of the home. Doves and pigeons enjoy time out of the cage daily. A pet dove can become very people oriented.

dove on a bird feeder
Image Credit: chrisjmit, Pixabay


   Most doves and pigeons are seed eaters and thus ground dwellers. They like to walk around and will roost higher up. Some are free flyers that like to travel around. All these birds will need flight space. If you keep your bird in a cage they will need time out everyday to fly or walk about.

When resting, doves an pigeons do not tuck their head under a wing like many birds do, rather they hunch down pulling their head between the shoulders.


   Doves and pigeons have a very strong reproductive drive and many will breed indoors. In general the tropic or subtropic species are the easiest to breed. All the birds in this family are monogamous, meaning they mate for life. However they will generally take another mate if something happens to permanently remove the chosen mate. Sometimes a male will kill his mate.

  • Sexing:   For pigeon and dove breeding you will need a sound compatible pair. Many doves and pigeons are not easily sexed though there are a few species that are dimorphic, having distinctive markings differentiating the male from the female. If the sex is not visually obvious, it can be be determined by either a surgical probe, endoscopy, which can be done by many veterinarians or by a DNA testing, usually a blood sample or a few plucked feathers sent to be diagnosed in a lab.
       Most breeders will keep young birds in a pen together until after the first molt and let them pick their own mate. This usually works, though sometimes what you think is a pair is two of the same sex. If a pair lays three or more eggs, then you have two hens.
  • Nest:
       These birds are noted for building rather flimsy nests. In the wild they will construct a nest or platform using a few twigs, grasses, roots, and maybe a few leaves. They will often build their nest on a rocky ledge or in the branches of trees or shrubs, but sometimes they just use the old nest of others doves and pigeons or other birds.
       For many species you can provide a nest platform or a shallow box, pan, or basket. For the hole nesting birds provide a nest box. Nesting materials for the smaller species can be such things as grass hay, coconut fibers, and moss. For the larger species it can be twigs, pieces of willow, birch, moss, and straw. Fill half the nest with material and put some on the platform to encourage nesting. Both parents will help with the nest building to some degree.
  • Egg Laying and Hatchlings:
       The female will generally lay two eggs and both parents will incubate (though the female does most of it) for 13 to 19 days. There is usually one of each sex if both eggs hatch The hatchlings are fed by both parents on a special food called ‘crop milk’ for the first 4 or 5 days, and then the crop milk becomes mixed with more solid food. Crop milk is a combination of partially digested food and a curd like substance from the parents crop. The young will fledge in about 12 to 20 days. It is important to provide plenty of water for the parents when they are feeding young.
  • Pigeon – Dove Breeding Problems:    There can be difficulties in breeding if the pair is very young. There are some species such as the Bleeding-heart Pigeon, that are difficult to breed or may abandon their eggs or hatchlings. In this case you can often successfully foster the eggs or young to other birds that are not so particular about breeding and are good parents. This can work if the eggs or hatchlings are within 4 or 5 days of the foster parents own. You must also be sure they eat a similar diet and that they are similar in size. Some very good foster parents include the Barbary Dove, Diamond Dove, Senegal Dove, Spotted Dove and some of the fancy pigeons.
       Due to their very high reproductive drive, hybridization from cross-breeding two species can happen in a community aviary. Be sure you take precautions to keep the birds you want breeding within their own species.

Potential Problems

   Doves and pigeons are very hardy birds. Seldom do they get sick if they are well cared for. Many are very cold hardy but they do not handle being in an environment that is wet, cool, and drafty.

  • Signs of Illness:
      Some of the signs of illness to be aware of are abnormal behavior such as sitting for longer than usual or being abnormally quiet, closed eyes, fluffed feathers, head nodding or head to one side, balance problems, sharply protruding breast bone, dirty vent, and slimy droppings.
  • Common Illness:    Some of the more common illnesses your dove or pigeon could contract are pigeon pox, internal parasites such as threadworm, roundworm, or tapeworm, external parasites such as mites or ticks, wounds, salmonellosis, and parrot fever also known as psittacosis. An ailing dove or pigeon should be taken to a avian veterinarian for diagnosis and treatment.
Mourning Dove bird resting
Image Credit: Bonnie Taylor Barry, Shutterstock


   Some doves and pigeons are readily available at a pet store, but there are so many varieties that many can only be found through bird shows, bird clubs, or breeders.

Featured Image Credit: Drakuliren, Shutterstock