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When does a dove become a pigeon?

Posted on 31st August, 2019

Usually when it becomes a pest; there is no scientific difference. If we like it, or it has positive connotations, we call it a dove. Doves are symbolic of good things in many religions – in Christianity it is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The turtle dove is a symbol of love, to be given to one’s heart-throb on the second day of Christmas, and we persist in releasing Doves of Peace (or are they just white pigeons?) on special occasions or to commemorate the dead. Mediaeval manor houses had dovecotes in which they reared pigeons to provide fresh meat in the winter – a good thing before the days of the freezer, hence they were called doves. Most UK doves/pigeons will lay successive clutches of two eggs throughout the year, so our ancestors could fetch fresh squabs from the dovecote for a warming winter casserole.


An increasingly frequent visitor to our gardens is the woodpigeon, once called the ring dove until it became an agricultural pest after country people stopped catching them for the pot. Their numbers have gone up dramatically so that they are the fifth most-likely species to visit gardens according to the RSPB. I have a regular pair, plus their frequent offspring, in mine. 

The collared dove is another frequent (and, because of its repetitive call, some find irritating) visitor. As it is a relatively recent arrival in the UK (the early 1950s) and was much sought-after by birders it is still called a dove.

The feral, or town, pigeon (descended from the now scarce rock dove) needs no introduction. Unfortunately they are easily, and usually are, confused with the stock dove.



Stock doves are common in rural areas – I have a pair nesting in my garden – and they usually reveal their presence with a soft, deep “coo-roo”. Unlike their town cousins they don’t foul buildings as they nest in holes in trees (tree trunks were referred to as stocks in days gone by, hence the name). Although superficially similar to ‘town pigeons’, stock doves all resemble each other: a largely uniform soft grey back, pinkish underside, an iridescent patch on its neck and a black eye. It has a single pair of black, ‘wonky’ quotation marks (‘ ‘) towards the back of its closed wing. Like all their relatives, they feed their young on ‘pigeon milk’ secreted from glands in their throat until the young birds are able to cope with solid food.


Stock doves are on the amber list of conservation concern, but I’ve no doubt many are mistakenly killed by shooters targeting woodpigeons and feral pigeons; perhaps shotgun licences should only be granted to people who can tell the difference? Meanwhile, if you are lucky enough to have them in your garden, marvel in the symmetry of their mainly monochrome plumage, and admire their gentle, peaceful demeanour.

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