Doves and Pigeons and Dodos, Oh My

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I was listening to A Way with Words podcast the other day, the discussion being about horses being named for their color – palomino, sorrel, bay, etc. I learned that the word palomino comes from the early 20th century Spanish palomino ‘young pigeon’, from Latin palumbinus ‘resembling a dove’. The name pigeon comes from late Middle English from Old French pijon, denoting a young bird, especially a young dove, from an alteration of late Latin pipio, ‘young cheeping bird’.

Dove comes from Middle English dove, douve, duve, from Old English dūfe (“dove, pigeon”), from Proto-Germanic dūbǭ (“dove, pigeon”), meaning to dive, and from Proto-Indo-European dewb (“to whisk, smoke, be obscure”).

Rock Pigeon

There’s no difference between a pigeon and a dove in scientific nomenclature, but colloquial English tends to categorize them by size. Something called a dove is generally smaller than something called a pigeon, but that’s not always the case. A common pigeon, for example, has been called both a rock dove and a rock pigeon.

Both doves and pigeons belong to the Order Columbiformes and to the only extant family in the order Columbidae. Columbidae comes from the Latin columbus, “a male dove”, itself the latinization of the Greek kolumbos, “diver”, from the verb kolumbao, “to dive, plunge headlong, swim”. There are 50 genera and about 340 species in the family, 13 of which are extinct. The Rock Pigeon, once called the Rock Dove and commonly termed city pigeon, is probably the best-known member of the family. It has been domesticated for at least six thousand years and have been a valuable source of food. They were imported into the U.S. from Europe in the 1600s to be raised as a barnyard animal for food. Then they escaped.

The Dodo, also in the order Columbiformes, was one of two species in a separate family Raphidae. “Dodo” comes from early 17th century Portuguese doudo ‘simpleton’ (because the bird had no fear of humans and was easily killed.) The birds were first seen by Portuguese sailors about 1507 and the dodo was exterminated by 1681. A few dozen species of doves and pigeons, mostly island dwellers, have gone extinct since the mid-18th century. Here’s a list.


Perhaps the most well-known pigeon is the Passenger Pigeon, an extinct species endemic to North America. Its common name is derived from the French word passager, meaning “passing by”, due to the migratory habits of the species. Migrating in enormous flocks, constantly searching for food, shelter, and breeding grounds, it was once the most abundant bird in North America, numbering around 3 billion, and possibly up to 5 billion.

Passenger pigeons were hunted by Native Americans, but hunting intensified after the arrival of Europeans, particularly in the 19th century. Pigeon meat was cheap food, resulting in hunting on a massive scale for many decades. Hunting and widespread deforestation caused a slow decline between about 1800 and 1870 and a rapid decline between 1870 and 1890. The last confirmed wild bird is thought to have been shot in 1901. Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died on September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Passenger Pigeon

If you have never heard the story of Cher Ami, a very famous carrier pigeon that delivered messages in WWI, you should.

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