For many of us, doves have a special symbolism: whether messengers of peace or (unwitting) wedding celebrants, doves have long been associated with all things serene, peaceful, and happy.
It’s no surprise that most birders are delighted to see and hear doves in the wild, whether perched in pairs on telephone lines, racing through cloudless skies, or just cooing from the tops of trees, almost perfuming the air with sweet song.
Beginning birders often have difficulty distinguishing doves from pigeons. If this is the case for you, don’t feel bad: pigeons and doves are quite closely related, and in fact the terms are often used interchangeably and imprecisely, much like “frogs” and “toads”.
At the risk of intimidating the novice birdwatcher, the dove and pigeon family, family Columbidae, is extraordinarily diverse, with nearly 350 species worldwide! It’s no surprise that there would be confusion among its members.
Only ten of these species are found in North America, but that doesn’t necessarily make identification easier, at least at first, because nearly all of these species are similar in size and shape, being rather stocky, short-necked gray or beige birds.
It may not always be easy to determine the exact species of bird you’re looking at, but with a few helpful pointers you can at least distinguish your doves from your pigeons, making a narrower identification all the easier.
The biggest difference between our native and naturalized pigeons and doves is one of size: no matter the species, pigeons tend to be much larger than doves. Other clues that may help you to determine your mystery bird’s identity are differences in plumage, habitat and behavior.
No one of these will apply to every species, but for any given species in the US, you should be able to make your distinction with reasonable certainty once you’ve finished this article!
Habitat & Distribution
Technically, three species of pigeon can be found in the United States – the Rock Pigeon, the Band-Tailed Pigeon, and the White-Crowned Pigeon – but the latter barely enters our range in the Florida Keys, so we can count on seeing one or the other, and if you’re east of the Rocky Mountains, you will only really see the Rock Pigeon, which is native to Europe and Asia.
There are seven species of dove in North America, of which five are native: the White-winged, Mourning, Inca, White-tipped, and Common Ground Dove. The Eurasian and African Collared-dove have both been recorded in the United States, but the African is a very rare escape from the pet trade, while the Eurasian is common and increasing throughout the country.
There’s no clear distinction to be made between the habitat preferences of pigeons and doves generally, but keep in mind that Rock Pigeons, our most common pigeons by a long shot, are strongly associated with urban areas – so if you’re in the eastern United States and outside a large town or city, you are almost certainly going to see doves, but not pigeons.
On the other hand, a few species of doves do make their homes in cities, including native species like the White-winged Dove and exotic species like the Eurasian Collared-dove. If you’re in an urban area, one thing to look for is flock size: Rock Pigeons stay in large flocks (so do Band-tailed Pigeons, for that matter), while most of our native doves tend to stick to small groups of less than a dozen birds. If behavior and habitat don’t clarify things, try comparing size next.
Size & Shape
The biggest difference between pigeons and doves is size. Pigeons are generally stockier, heavier, and larger overall than doves, which are comparatively slim. This distinction is only magnified by the preference of Rock Pigeons, our most common pigeon, for urban areas: birds in urban areas are even larger and stockier than their less well-fed counterparts, and the size disparity will be obvious at a glance.
The Rock Pigeon is, on average, 30 to 36 cm (12 to 14 in) long, and weighs between 250 and 350 grams (9 to 13 oz). Compare these measurements with the Eurasian Collared-dove, one of our largest doves: at 29 cm (11.5 in) long and 140 to 180 g (5 to 6 oz), even these comparatively large doves are never longer than pigeons, and only half the weight.
Shape is an important distinguishing characteristic as well. Most species in the pigeon family are the gazelles of the bird world: herbivores, prey animals, and extremely fast in flight – as they must be to escape from predators. However, pigeons in the United States are mostly descended from birds brought as domestic animals raised for food – and it shows! Pigeons are stocky, almost turkey-like in their bulk.
By comparison, doves are quite slim, with the main similarity being the enlarged chest, which is unusually strong in most Columbids to allow for rapid flight. Doves also tend to have longer tails than pigeons, often quite narrow, while pigeons’ tails are broadly fan-shaped.
Just as pigeons are bulkier and stockier than doves, their bills tend to be so as well. Rock Pigeons’ bills usually have a white spot at the base that marks them out easily (none of our native doves have similar markings), but this can be difficult to see and isn’t really necessary anyway: instead, look to see whether the bill is fairly long and thin, or shorter and thicker. The latter is indicative of one of our pigeons, whether native or introduced, while the former is more characteristic of doves.
There are many different species of dove, and while their plumages are similar, they’re certainly not the same – so it’s difficult to generalize about dove plumage. However, it’s worth noting the distinctive features of pigeon plumage, as only two species are likely to be found in the United States. If you can recognize these, then ruling them out will help you to narrow down your identification.
Most of us are familiar with Rock Pigeons and their highly variable plumage: anything from pure white to all-over iridescence is possible in these birds, with certain patterns being more common. Whole books have been devoted to their varying coats (including by Charles Darwin!), but the ancestral pattern includes iridescent feathers on the neck and dark gray wing bars. Not every individual will have both of these features, but most of them will, and because they are highly sociable birds you are likely to see at least a few “classic” patterns among the unusual variations.
The Band-tailed Pigeon, meanwhile, is much more consistent. It’s a fairly unremarkable bird in terms of plumage, but shares the slightly iridescent plumage of the Rock Pigeon on its nape and wings, and males have a dramatic iridescent patch on the backs of their necks. By contrast, no native doves have this iridescence, and many have distinctive plumage patterns of their own that set them apart.
It’s always a challenge to make easy generalizations about big groups of birds, especially when those groups are taxonomically very closely related. However, American birders are fortunate in that they aren’t subjected to the same variety of doves and pigeons as, say, Indonesians (where there are over a hundred species).
Since only two species of pigeon are commonly seen in the US, learning to identify these (or even just the Rock Pigeon, if you live outside of the West Coast) will make your job much easier: just ask yourself, “is that a Rock Pigeon?” If the answer is no, then it must be a dove.
However, even without being able to conclusively identify your bird, there are profound enough differences in coloring, size, and shape to reliably distinguish these groups of birds. With a little patience, you’ll soon have no trouble telling your pigeons from your doves, and you can birdwatch in peace once again.