Pigeon vs Dove: 2 Key Differences Explained

Written by Hannah Ward
Updated: April 11, 2023
© A-Z-Animals.com
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Key Points:
  • Despite their differences in appearance and starkly different treatment by humans, pigeons and doves are actually the same species of bird.
  • No matter what you choose to call them, they are some of the heartiest and most adaptable avian species on the globe.
  • Other than the coloration of their feathers, there are other key differences in the birds’ identities and behaviors that make them distinct.
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When we think of pigeons and doves we probably imagine completely different birds.  In fact, the term “dove” has become synonymous with world peace and we often think of them as being these majestic pure white birds.  However, pigeons and doves are both members of the bird family Columbidae.  More than that, they are both technically the same birds as there is no scientific difference between the two.  So, why do we use two different names if they’re both the same bird, and how do we distinguish between what people call a “dove” and a “pigeon”?  Join us as we find out what the key differences really are between pigeons and doves.

Comparing Dove vs Pigeon

There are more than 300 species in the Columbidae family. They are found everywhere except Antarctica, the high Arctic, and the driest areas of the Sahara desert.  They have adapted to almost every habitat and live in areas such as grasslands, savannahs, deserts, woodlands, forests, and urban areas.  Pigeons and doves typically have small, rounded heads with short bills.  They also have compact bodies and short legs, tapered wings, and soft feathers.  They all eat a similar diet of fruit and seeds, and they all build relatively flimsy nests.

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Name OriginOld English / Old NorseFrance
SizeUp to 0.5 poundsUp to 9 pounds
TailLarge and fanned outSmaller and straighter

The 2 Key Differences Between Pigeons and Doves

While doves and pigeons come from the same family of birds, generally doves are smaller while pigeons are the larger species. The other key difference is that pigeons have straighter tails while doves’ are more fanned out.

There is absolutely no scientific difference between doves and pigeons.  Instead, which bird is called a dove and which is called a pigeon usually comes down to a few things.  The most confusing factor is actually language – different countries tend to prefer different terms.  However, broadly doves are generally described as being the smaller members of the Columbidae family, while pigeons are often referred to as being the larger birds.  

Pigeon vs Dove: Size

Most Expensive Birds-Racing Pigeon
igeons are usually described as the larger members of the Columbidae family and the largest can reach up to 9 pounds

©Ruth Swan/Shutterstock.com

There is a massive variation of size within the Columbidae family.  The smallest member of the family is the New World ground dove which weighs as little as 0.06 pounds and is only 5 inches long.  However, the largest is the crowned pigeon which is often described as being as big as a turkey. Crowned pigeons are around 30 inches long and weigh up to 9 pounds.

With this kind of size range in mind, broadly doves are described as being the smallest members of the family, with weights up to 0.5 pounds. On the other hand, pigeons are generally the largest species with weights from 0.5 to 9 pounds.  However, it is important to stress that this is only a very broad difference and is not a set rule for the entire family.  Additionally, there are some birds that are called both names which bucks the trend completely.  One example of this is the common pigeon (Columba livia) which is also called a rock dove.  These birds generally weigh between 0.5 and 0.8 pounds.

Pigeon vs Dove: Tail

Doves generally have a more exuberant and fanned out tail than pigeons

©Dennis Jacobsen/Shutterstock.com

Another difference between pigeons and doves – although again only a general guide – is their tails.  Although there are exceptions to the rule on both sides, doves are generally perceived to have larger and more expressive tails than pigeons.  Dove tails are often described as being longer and more fanned out than that of a pigeon, particularly during flight.  Pigeons tails are usually not as long or as fanned out.

FAQ’s (Frequently Asked Questions)

Are doves always white?

No, although the common image that comes to mind when we think of a dove is a beautiful white bird with a fanned tail, doves are not always white.  In fact, their colors can vary widely between grey, brown, white, or with mixed markings – just the same as pigeons’ appearances vary.

Why are pigeons often called pests?

Just like the dove has the label “peaceful” attached to it, pigeons also often have a label attached to them. However, the pigeons’ label is not as favorable.  Pigeons are often described as pests because they often nest and flourish in urban areas. Besides, who hasn’t been accosted by a few pigeons desperate for scraps of food at some point in their life?  The truth is, pigeons are often labeled as pests because they can be seen in great numbers in urban areas scavenging for food.

What does it mean when pigeons and doves are described as being granivorous or frugivorous?

The main diet of pigeons and doves is seeds and fruit.  Grainivorous birds are those that feed predominantly on seeds, while frugivorous ones are those that eat fruit and insects or worms.  The Columbidae family can actually be divided based on this, with granivores making up the Columbinae subfamily while the other four subfamilies are frugivores.  Interestingly, both “doves” and “pigeons” as we have loosely defined above are present in both groups.

What are homing pigeons?

Homing pigeons are domesticated common pigeons or rock doves.  They have an innate homing ability, which means that they can find their nests and return home to them even from thousands of miles away.  Nowadays, they are more often used for pigeon racing.  However, during wars – particularly World War I and II – they were used to carry important messages. This is because there was less chance of them being intercepted by the enemy than radios.  This was commonly known as “pigeon post” or “war post”.

How Long Do Pigeons Live?

In the wild, the average life expectancy for pigeons is anywhere from 3-6 years, with that number decreasing to closer to 2 years in heavily industrialized areas. However, if pigeons are raised by experienced owners they can increase their lifespans dramatically, with most pigeons in captivity living 15 years or longer. Some statistics report that doves kept in captivity can live even longer lives, averaging about 12-20 years.

If left untended by humans in an urban environment, pigeons face their lowest survival rates.

©Alice Arts Bar/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

I have been writing professionally for several years with a focus on animals and wildlife. I love spending time in the outdoors and when not writing I can be found on the farm surrounded by horses, dogs, sheep, and pigs.

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