To city dwellers, it might seem that pigeons multiply magically: All the birds swooping down at us, or scurrying out of the way when we walk, are fully grown. How come we never see baby pigeons anywhere?
Rest assured, baby pigeons, or squabs, do exist—and there’s a good reason you’re not seeing them. It’s partially due to where the birds nest: Pigeons, also known as Rock Doves, build their nests in places that mimic the caves and cliffs that their ancestors used in the Mediterranean. “In New York City, they’re building their nests anywhere they can find, any opening on window sills, on roof tops, under bridges—preferably somewhat protected places,” says Charles Walcott, Professor Emeritus at Cornell University and former executive director of the Lab of Ornithology. “There are lots of nice artificial cliffs that people have erected in New York.”
The other reason why squabs are rarely seen is because of how long they stay in the nest—for about a month to six weeks, “until they are effectively an adult size,” Walcott says. City dwellers typically think of pigeons as rats of the sky, but it turns out that the birds are usually pretty good parents. “Both males and females tend the young and feed them,” Walcott says. “If one of the parents dies, it becomes tougher for the remaining one to raise the young. But often the young will survive.” Baby pigeons survive on a diet of pigeon milk—digested epithelial (or skin) cells made in their parents' crops—until they’re old enough to eat some solid food. “The parents regurgitate charming things like corn kernels and so on,” Walcott says. Pigeons are mostly grain-eaters, by the way (their ancestors foraged grain from fields), though according to Walcott, “McDonald’s French fries will do just fine, thank you.”
Once a squab leaves the nest, it ignores its parents, begins to feed itself for the first time, and joins a flock, which is "composed of the same birds day after day that hang out in a particular area and that will be distinct from what goes on a couple blocks away,” Walcott says. “City pigeons are fairly territorial. They have their own area where they hang out and if you take them away, they do return, although they’re in no great rush to do so."
It’s probably for the best we don’t see baby pigeons. They are, according to Walcott, “revolting. They are naked. They have little pink feathers and they’re sort of semi-transparent.” (You can see a rare squab on the streets of Brooklyn here. It's not pretty.) Still, you might have seen a juvenile pigeon and just not been aware of it. “You can often recognize a young pigeon because it will have a few little downy feathers poking out from the back of its head,” Walcott says. “That’s probably a young pigeon.”