Doves and Pigeons have long been recognized as the bird of peace, and have been considered holy since the biblical times. There are over 300 species of Doves and Pigeons, inhabiting almost every continent except Antarctica. A basic Dove or Pigeon is classified by several things. Firstly, most doves have the same basic shape, a long, curving neck, puffy chest, short legs, and a whistling sound of the wings during flight. Also, doves all make cooing sounds, which greatly vary between species. Some species coo loudly or repetitively, and some calls are low pitched, some high. Both birds also nod their head when they walk, which is to retain balance, as the bird's balance changes as it moves. Doves also have a special way of drinking, they use their beak in a straw fashion, instead of throwing the head back to swallow. However, some people are confused by the two terms, Dove and Pigeon. They are basically one in the same, but 'Pigeon' typically describes the larger, stockier species, such as the feral street Pigeons often seen strutting around in cities and parks. Also, some may think that ordinary white Doves can be safely released in weddings, but this is a practice only to be done with Homing Pigeons! Pet doves do not have a homing instinct, and would not last long in the wild. The Dove's white plumage would make it very easy to spot in a tree or the grass, and make it a perfect target for predators.
Because of their unique, charming nature, Doves and Pigeons are often kept in the home as companions, showing or breeding. Doves are more commonly kept as companions, typically the Ringneck (Streptopelia risoria) species, which is available in roughly 40 color mutations, including orange pearled, white, chinmoy, pied, and tangerine. The Diamond dove (Geopelia cuneata), a small dove native to Australia, is kept for breeding and showing as well, and is available in over 20 color mutations. Other exotic species are kept as well, such as the Senegal palm dove (Streptopelia senegalensis). For a dove beginner, a Ringneck is recommended, as exotics are expensive and hard to obtain.
Dove species history
The most common domestic species, the Ringneck dove, originated from the African collared dove (Streptopelia roseogrisea). The original Ringneck variety, the Wild type (dark) resembles the ACD quite closely, and the two species share a very similar coo. Wild types are the only ringneck color variety that you can somewhat tell the genders apart. Males have a violet head and breast, and females generally have a more brownish head and breast.
Another well-known species, the Rock dove (Columba livia), is often seen strutting through city streets and parks, pecking at food scraps that humans leave behind. However, despite it's name, this bird is a Pigeon, and is sometimes called a 'city pigeon'. However, the true Rock dove lives in Africa and the Middle east, but escaped feral species have inhabited various parts of the world. The feral species are considerably different in appearance than the African birds, they are darker and have more 'glossy' feathers on their necks. Some think Rock doves are pests because they often eat food scraps, but these birds mean no harm, they prefer nesting in cities on the roofs of tall buildings, like the African species likes to nest on cliffs.
The Diamond dove (Geopelia Cuneata) is another well-known dove, and are commonly kept as pets. Diamond doves are among the smallest in the Dove family; they are roughly 6" in length, and weigh around 1.5 oz. They are named for the diamond like specks on the bird's wings. They have similar care to that of the Ringneck, though they should be housed in a smaller cage; a large cage may intimidate the bird. Diamond doves are fragile, and should not be housed with full-sized doves; even a well-meaning Ringneck dove could seriously hurt a tiny Diamond dove. Free-flight time with Diamonds should be closely monitored; being so tiny, the bird could get lost easily in the crevices of the home.
Ringneck doves, also called the Barbary dove, are popular cage doves. They are inexpensive, easy to breed and relatively low-maintenance pets. With proper care, they can live up to or over 20 years, though the average is 10-12 years. Ringnecks average at 10-11" from beak to tail, and weigh around 5-7 oz. Males are slightly larger than females, and are usually more playful, active and aggressive. Ringnecks are members of the genus 'Streptopelia', or turtle doves. This group includes Senegals, Lacenecks and Eurasian Collared Doves. These birds all one thing in common: they all possess some kind of neck ring. The following information refer to Ringnecks, though care for doves does not vary much between the species.
Selecting a pet
This may sound easy, but selecting the right pet for your needs can be difficult. Before purchasing a dove, you must keep in mind, do you have enough time to devote to your bird? Do you have any other pets that may endanger your bird (such as a cat or dog)? Will you be able to afford to care for the bird properly? Are you sensitive to sounds, and may become annoyed by persistant cooing? Are you or anyone else in your household allergic to bird dander? You must think over these and any other worries you may have carefully, if you have too many doubts, you should hesitate in purchasing a bird.
However, if you can comply to these, it is time to select your pet. You should decide firsthand what color mutation you want, most breeders have many color mutations and will most likely have the one you want. If they do not, they may be willing to breed one if you want to wait. Once you decide, the first thing is to find a place to purchase a dove. Doves are very difficult to find in pet shops these days, at least where I have shopped, and if there happens to be any, they may not have the specific bird you want. Even if you can find a bird through a pet shop, the available animals may not be the best health-wise, and it is best to purchase from a breeder. Breeders have the specific information about the bird's age and family lines, so you do not have to worry about the risk of inbreeding. Plus, pedigree birds make better, healthier breeders.
The second rule is, only buy a healthy bird. It may be tempting to buy a sick bird to try and nurse it back to health, but this can be costly and/or heartbreaking. A healthy bird is alert and active, with a tight covering of feathers and bright, lively eyes. A sick bird may be fluffed up, sitting on the bottom of the cage, listless, have dull eyes and plumage, have runny eyes, droppings or nostrils (nares), and show little interest in his or her surroundings. If you see a sick bird, do not linger, you may risk bringing the sickness home to your existing birds.
Bringing your bird home
If you buy a bird from a breeder, the chances are the bird will have to be shipped by mail. Shipping is not neccesary unless you cannot find any doves in your area. It is risky, and more stressful for the bird. Once at your home, bear in mind that the dove will be frightened. You should put the bird in it's new home with fresh food and water, and allow it to get used to it's surroundings. If the bird is stressed, perhaps you could play some music to calm it down. Once the bird has become comfortable in it's new home, it's a good time to start hand taming or bonding. Some doves are already hand tamed when you purchase them, but they still may need to get used to you. To get your dove to trust you, you must be kind to it, offer it treats, talk to it softly and handle it often.
Doves like a large amount of space around them for flight and moving around, so don't think you can keep your dove in a small parakeet or canary cage. Doves need cages that focus more on length than height; doves do not climb the side of the cage like parrots do. Doves also need cages with tightly spaced bars, a dove could get it's head stuck in the bars and hurt or even kill itself! An indoor dove should have some paper on the bottom of the cage so that droppings and food can be easily disposed when cleaning the cage. Make sure to secure the paper so the doves do not tear it apart!
Food and water
Doves do not have the kind of beak for bottles, so they need to have a dish or bowl of water. Water should be changed daily, or when the bird has defecated in it. As far as feeding, some owners feed their birds in dishes, but I feed my birds on the bottom. Though they may get soiled with droppings, this better suits the doves lifestyle as a bottom feeder. Most of the food that is put in a bowl ends up on the bottom, anyway. In addition to food, it is reccommended to purchase grit for your doves. Birds do not have teeth, and therefore need something to help grind up food during digestion. Most doves kept as pets are seed-eaters. They enjoy sunflower and safflower seeds or chicken feed, and the occasional peice of bread or muffin as a treat. Some doves like mealworms too, which is a great source of protein.
Doves, like any animal, have a variety of different ways of communicating through body language. A frightened dove will fly rapidly, not paying attention to where it is going, which results in the dove sometimes crashing into things. If it sees danger or hears a strange, startling sound, a dove will freeze, stand up tall, and pull it's feathers close to it's body. An angry dove will puff up it's neck feathers and stand low, and if confronted by another dove, give a laughing sound in challenge. In a fight, doves will peck, mainly around the eyes, and slap the other dove with their wings. The dominant male will jump on top of the lesser male, showing his dominance and laughing. Doves use this laughing sound for many kinds of communication. When it returns to the cage or aviary where it's mate is waiting, it will utter a 'return to perch' laugh. During copulation, if both doves's cloaca's come in contact, they will laugh to confirm that mating was successful. Doves do not become sad often, but a sad bird may sit quietly to itself. Doves become sad and lonely if they are not given enough attention. Doves that live without a mate or companion need more attention than ones who don't, a singleton has only one friend it can turn to for attention, and that is you. Do not purchase a dove if you are not willing to commit some time to your bird for handling and free-flight time.
You and your dove
Doves are flock animals, and they crave companionship, including that of humans. Doves will be perfectly content perching on your finger or shoulder, and being gently petted. Doves prefer to be touched gently with one of two fingers on the back; they do not like being touched on the head, belly or face. Ringnecks are naturally tame, and hand taming it most likely will not be much of a problem if the bird has been properly socialized and handled. Trustworthy doves will enjoy a treat from the owners hand, but this process may take longer than hand taming. However, be careful when handling, frequent handling can rub off he feathers on the wings due to the bird struggling to get away. If the bird is willing to perch on your finger, let it. Most birds are willing to do this instead of being held. This practice is crucial for those who show their doves, who need to keep the birds in the best shape.
Dove mating, courtship and breeding
To begin breeding doves, the basic, unwritten rule is, purchase a male and female that are unrelated. Some fanciers breed related birds, but this can cause birth defects or sickness, and is not recommended. Doves are monomorphic, which means their sexual organs do not differ between the sexes, and they will breed with one of the same gender. Same-sex pairs can become good friends, but this cannot be done if you are interested in breeding them. Even for breeders, Doves are generally difficult to sex unless they are sexually mature.
In male and female courtship, a male will begin by puffing up his chest, and bow up and down to the female while cooing rapidly. If she is impressed by this display, she will fan out her tail, and her wings will droop. The couple will then begin preening each other (mutual preening). The male may regurgitate food from his crop to the female, and this is usually followed by copulation. After 10 days or so, the female will lay 1-2 eggs, usually two, each egg being roughly a day apart. Once eggs are laid, both doves will incubate, the female usually at night, the male during the day. Incubation is a precious time for the couple, and they should be left alone in a low-stress environment.
After 14-16 days of incubation, the squab will begin hatching. 24-48 hours before hatching begins, a crack may appear on the surface of the egg, but do NOT help the squab hatch, this may tear the paper thin skin of the squab and cause its death. The squab knows what it's doing, and will break out by itself. Newborn squabs are altricial, meaning they are born blind, bald and helpless. Precocial chicks such as Ducks and Killdeer are born more independant, though they still need their parent's protection until they become adults.
Both parents will incubate the baby to keep it warm, and feed it a special, protein rich supplement called 'Pigeon milk', made in the crop. This 'Pigeon milk' is a method of feeding unique to Doves and Pigeons. During incubation, the crop lining thickens to prepare for feeding. In the first week, squabs should not be handled, they are fragile and need their parents's protection, and may be abandoned if handled by humans. Squabs mature fast however, by 6 weeks, they leave the nest, though it is often 1 year before they are sexually mature and able to breed. Many breeders band their birds, and this must be done when the squab is young; about 2-3 weeks old, while its feet are still small enough to fit through a small band. Bands tell information about the bird such as it's ID number, birthday and pedigree info.
A young adult bird, or "fledgling", still does not have a full sized tail, and lacks the expert ability of flight. They are able to fly, but are not very skilled at it. Because of this, you should take caution when letting fledglings fly. Young birds also may act strange, some hens will practice a bow-coo until she is sexually mature.
Many exotic, fruit-eating species are at risk due to habitat loss and introduced predators such as cats. One of the most famous and unbelieveable tales of extinction is that of the Passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). This medium sized dove, about 17" from beak to tail, was the most numerous bird in the United states, it's numbers of individuals exceeding that of all birds in the United states combined. A single flock sometimes consisted of several billion birds, and would block out the sun for days as it passed through. A nesting flock would stretch for miles, and break the branches of the trees under it's weight. The birds were a good source of meat, as well as a bother to farmer's crops, and because of this, the birds were killed rapidly. Sometimes up to 50,000 each day were killed in ways too cruel for many animal lovers to think about. As well as hunting, the forests they aquired their favorite foods from, acorns and beechnuts, were being cleared as well, and roughly 100 years later, only a few birds existed in the wild. Unfortunately, these birds could only breed in large numbers, and only laid one egg per year, and they could not reproduce quickly enough to recover. In 1900, the last wild bird was shot by a 14 year old boy in Ohio. The remaining birds now lived in zoos, and scientists tried to breed the birds, offering great rewards The last bird, Martha, died in 1914 at the ripe old age of 29, in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden, and is now on display in the Smithsonian's 'Birds of the World' hall. People that never lived in the time these birds existed now have a chance to see this beautiful bird in person.
Fortunately though, the Mourning dove (Zenaida Macroura) that exists today is the closest known relative of the Passenger pigeon. The Mourning dove is smaller and less colorful, but it has the black specked wings that the Passenger pigeon had. Mournings are a common sight in fields, gardens and cities, and are known and named for their beautiful, sad cooing. These doves can be kept in an aviary as well, and is a peaceful addition.
Another example is the Dodo bird (Didus ineptus) of Mauritius, which was discovered in the 1600's. This unusual looking cousin of Doves and Pigeons was flightless, it was heavy and had tiny wings that could not aid flight. Because of this, the bird was vulnerable once sailors introduced predators such as cats and rats. The new species ate their eggs, and their forest home was cleared, and less than 100 years later, the bird was extinct. There are no photographs of this bird known, but fossils and descriptions from those who have seen them provide a good enough description.
Breeders for those searching for doves