Vijay Kumar Makwana feeds bread to pigeons near the Rossyln Metro Statiion last fall in Arlington, Virginia. Pigeons can be found in big cities all over the world. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Some people feed pigeons bread crumbs or keep them as pets in rooftop coops. Others see the animals as pests, carriers of disease or simply “rats with wings.” But whatever you think about these birds, there’s one fact no one will argue: Pigeons are everywhere.

Have you ever wondered how one kind of bird managed to take over urban areas as far apart as Washington; London, England; Mumbai, India; and Melbourne, Australia? Or why it is that pigeons are so plentiful in cities and not eagles, turkeys, hummingbirds or vultures?

Well, the first thing you need to know about pigeons is that they’re actually doves. Or doves are actually pigeons. Scientifically, there’s no difference between the two.

“In some languages, there isn’t even a separate word for ‘pigeon,’ ” said Colin Jerolmack, a scientist at New York University who studies human societies.


Pigeons came from North Africa and other areas around the Mediterranean Sea, where they liked to nest on hard surfaces such as rocky ledges and cliffs. Today they nest alongside buildings. (TerryJ/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

There are still pigeons living in the wild today. They evolved on the shores of North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea, where they make their homes on rocky ledges and cliffs. And it was this natural love for hard surfaces that made them a perfect fit in urban areas.

“They actually really like concrete, marble and stone, so they prefer to live and build nests not in the trees and shrubs and grass, but alongside buildings,” said Jerolmack, who wrote a book called “The Global Pigeon.”

But perhaps the biggest reason you’ll find pigeons in cities around the world is because humans brought them there.

At least as long as 5,000 years ago, the people of an ancient Middle Eastern civilization known as Mesopotamia started putting out houses for these birds. As the birds became more tame, people began breeding them for food in areas where other wild animals had become scarce.

Later, people learned that they could also use pigeons to carry written messages over long distances, thanks to the birds’ homing instinct.

“You can take a street pigeon in D.C. and drive it down to North Carolina and release it, and, more often than not, it’ll find its way home,” Jerolmack said.

As you can see, pigeons can be quite useful. It’s been only in the past 80 to 100 years that people started disliking the birds, Jerolmack said. And much of the dislike comes from misunderstanding.

For example, there’s really no solid evidence that pigeons pass diseases on to people. And once you get to know them, you might change the way you think.

Did you know that pigeons mate for life, for instance? Or that once their chicks hatch, both parents take turns feeding their young a liquid produced in their digestive tract called “crop milk?”

Anyway, humans have only themselves to blame for the pigeons cooing on every corner.

“We bred them and domesticated them, and kept them in cities as we developed cities,” Jerolmack said. “So they’ve always been here, from the beginning.”