Pigeons and doves can be found in all the tropical and temperate parts of the world. In fact, there are more than 300 different species of these birds, but only a few of them are found in the United Kingdom.
The names "pigeon" and "dove" are really interchangeable. There is no basic difference between them except the name "dove" has come to be used more often to describe the smaller species.
One of the most interesting species of pigeon is the carrier, or homing pigeon. When it is released, it has an instinct which guides it back to the home loft. This makes it very useful as a carrier of messages, and apparently man recognized this usefulness a long time ago.
Did you know that some of the Roman emperors used carrier pigeons to send messages to and from their armies in the field? And in the twelfth century, the Sultan of Baghdad maintained a regular postal system by using these birds! Probably their greatest use in modern times has been during wars, and they were found useful for sending messages even in World War II.
The Americans have had a curious and unfortunate experience with one particular kind of pigeon, the passenger pigeon. At one time, this bird could be found all over North America. In fact, during colonial days passenger pigeons were so plentiful that the trees bent beneath their weight. As many as 100 nests were found in a single tree. When a flock would take off, there would be a sound like a whirlwind and the sky would be darkened.
It is hard to believe that a bird so numerous at one time should now be extinct, but that's exactly what happened. These birds were shot, clubbed, netted, and sold in the markets in barrel lots. Year by year, during three centuries of hunting, the flocks grew smaller. Finally, in 1914, the last bird died in captivity in Cincinnati, Ohio. The passenger pigeon was about 16 inches long and had a slaty-blue color.
The mourning dove, which is about a foot long and has a very sad note, resembles the extinct passenger pigeon very closely, and is often mistaken for it. Pigeons, by the way, are not gentle birds. At mating time, they often fight and fly at each other angrily.