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What I am about to write may ruffle a few feathers in the bird/pigeon world, however, I feel I must address the issue. I apologise if anyone is offended – this is not a personal attack on anyone, just a subject I have been meaning to write about for a while now. I will try to be as objective as I can, however, emotion will also govern my opinions.

Is it right to hand-rear a pigeon on its own and therefore potentially cause them to become imprinted on humans?

Some people might not know what imprinting means, or know the difference between imprinting and taming. Imprinting is very different to taming.

  • Taming is the process in which an animal is regularly exposed to humans and thereby becoming used to their presence and trusting them. The animal keeps their identity but simply chooses to become friendly with humans. Not all animals can become tame. Some are just too wild.
  • Imprinting means that an animal identifies itself as the same species as to that which reared him, e.g. a human being. Not all animals will become imprinted. It mainly occurs in bird species, especially ducks and other precocial birds (i.e. birds that are born with feathers, able to walk and to feed themselves shortly after hatching).

Although pigeons are not precocial, rather altricial (i.e. born helpless and greatly dependant on their parents), they can become imprinted on humans if reared on their own without any other pigeons to interact with. An imprinted pigeon will identify itself as being human and will not socialise properly with other pigeons and cannot be released into the wild (since it would not survive out in the wild if left to its own devices).

Not all lone hand-reared pigeons become imprinted – some just become tame. I don’t know why some do and some don’t. I guess it’s just down to their individual experience and personality.

An imprinted pigeon would need to live with humans its whole life since it will identify a human as its mate (since pigeons pair for life this is a great commitment). However, how much of their needs can we satisfy as humans? We cannot lay eggs and incubate them. Breeding is very strong in pigeons and they’ll want to mate with you and make a nest.

Over time an imprinted pigeon may learn to be a pigeon – if kept in the company of other pigeons and has limited human contact (I haven’t tried this so I cannot say for certain) – however, the welfare of the imprinted pigeon would need to be assessed constantly – is the pigeon happy living with other pigeons? Is it forming a friendship with them? Is it on its own looking depressed?

I totally understand how someone might decide to raise a baby bird if they find one orphaned – since they can be very cute and endearing. Baby pigeons are particularly sweet because they squeak and waggle their wings at you at a young age. Who couldn’t resist raising one? However, the fact is that unless you are prepared to give the pigeon a home for the rest of its life (and you can expect an average of 15 years in captivity) it is best if a pigeon-friendly animal rescue centre rears the pigeon. That way the pigeon has the best chance of knowing it is a pigeon and being released when older.

Ok, so say you are prepared to give the imprinted pigeon a home for the rest of its life. Does it still make it right to imprint an animal? You’re basically warping their self-image and making them think they are something they aren’t. I guess it all comes down to how you view animals (non-human animals that is) and what role you believe they play in human society.

I know this all might sound very hypocritical of me since I have two imprinted pigeons living with me – however, I didn’t raise them – only acquired them after the ‘damage’ had been done. This is not to say that imprinted pigeons are totally damaged and have no quality of life because they think they’re people. Not at all. Both Elmo and Georgie are healthy, happy beings and other imprinted pigeons I’ve seen have been too. People just need to be aware of the problems they may have on their hands if they imprint an animal and then try to release it into the wild, thinking that it can survive and will be happy. That is animal abandonment and in some countries a prosecutable offense.

I hope what I’ve written is food for thought. Many of us love animals and want to do the right thing. If you have an imprinted pigeon on your hands and need to give it up for some reason then please take the time to find him or her a good home to live in.

Please note that the above can also be applied to tame pigeons – as was the case with Dora – however, more on this later.

Note: Elmo is definately imprinted. Georgie is imprinted but I think she’d like another pigeon if they would give her a chance. Both Dora and Minnie are tame not imprinted.