When was the last time you said something nice about a pigeon? Or wished pigeons would come to your bird feeder? Or just hoped you’d see a pigeon on the way to work?

Right. Pigeons are pretty much dismissed as city-park layabouts begging for sandwich scraps.

In truth, our pigeons, officially known at rock doves, are members of a large and successful family of birds. One or more of the 308 members of this family are found throughout the world, almost everywhere there is dry land.

That includes inside the parking garage in downtown Wayzata, which is where I often see them.

Pigeons are not native to North America. European settlers brought them here. Pigeons are “largely defenseless and highly edible,” according to Les Beletsky, author of “Birds of the World.” That’s not a good combination, probably explaining why they were baggage.

Their family, Columbidae, includes pigeons (the larger members) and doves (smaller). The name rock dove refers to favored nesting sites — cliffs, or reasonable facsimiles like highway bridges, ledges on tall buildings and parking ramps.

Pigeons choose sites with flat surfaces because they build poor excuses for nests. Flat means eggs are less likely to roll away.

Perhaps you have noticed that pigeons bob their heads when they walk. It looks funny, and seems like it would be disorienting. It’s the opposite, actually. According to a Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology website, “the head actually stays in one place while the body walks past it. It then is jerked forward and put in front of the body and the body walks past it again.”

Picture that. It sounds like a weird dance move, but it keeps the head still and in one spot as long as possible. The bird thus sees things more clearly. Give it a try. No music required. Privacy might be a good idea.

At least two of those 300-plus species are well known for unfortunate reasons: the dodo (dead as a) and the passenger pigeon. We drove both to extinction.

Pigeon literature occupies a long shelf. They are among the most intensely studied of all birds. Richard Johnston, who wrote the “Birds of North America” monograph on rock doves, says that pigeons have contributed to knowledge of avian flight mechanics, thermoregulation, water metabolism, endocrinology, sensory perception, orientation and navigation, learning (they were the original subjects in Skinner’s famous studies), genetics of color, pattern, behavior and evolution.

Pigeons come in endless combinations of white, black, gray, blue and brown. They can be crossbred to create amazing feather types (long, curly, etc.) and odd flight behavior (tumbling).

We raise them as decorative and racing pets, for their beautiful flight and homing instincts as well as for the table. (Remember Marlon Brando as Terry in “On the Waterfront?” He raised racing pigeons on the roof of his apartment building.)

It’s all pretty impressive for birds living in parking ramps.

North America has rock doves, mourning doves, Inca doves, spotted doves, white-tipped doves, plus band-tailed, red-billed, white-crowned pigeons and Eurasian collared-doves.

None are as numerous as rock doves. Mourning doves are local feeder birds. Collared-doves are recent émigrés to Minnesota. That species, originallyAsian, slowly moved across Europe, introduced to the Bahamas in the 1970s. It found Florida in 1982, Minnesota in 1998. It is expansion-oriented.

If you keep lists of birds seen here, a collared-dove is often a new check mark. That’s almost as good for some of us as seeing a pigeon on the way to work.


Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at woodduck38@gmail.com. Join his conversation about birds at www.startribune.com/wingnut.