Before the Internet, before cell phones, carrier pigeons saved the day. These humble members of the Columbidae family were trained to carry messages written on thin paper rolled up and put into a tiny tube attached to one leg. Although popular press calls them "carrier pigeons," their actual name is homing pigeon or rock pigeon.
Rock pigeons have a long history of service. Hieroglyphics from Egypt suggest that man domesticated pigeons more than 5,000 years ago. The rock pigeon's history has been so intertwined with our own for so long that scientists have difficulty describing its original habitat with certainty.
Scientists believe that rock pigeons originally ranged western and southern Europe, North Africa and part of South Asia. They lived in rocky cliff areas which gave them their name.
It is easier to describe where rock pigeons do not live today than where they do. Imported into the United States in the early 1600s, pigeons can be found today in agricultural lands as well as almost every urban area in the world. They congregate in great throngs in open city squares when bird lovers set out food for them.
In the wild, rock pigeons will eat invertebrates, but they prefer nuts, seeds and fruits. In urban areas, however, pigeons will eat almost any human food they are able to get. They peck at food on the ground and drink by using their beak as a straw.
Carrier pigeons used in the military were carefully trained to perform their jobs efficiently. However, even without training, rock pigeons are able to find their way home. In tests, rock pigeons without training have been blindfolded then released far from home. Scientists believe that they navigate by sensing the earth's magnetic fields. Sound and smell might also aid their navigation, as well as using the position of the sun.