I often get asked what many might view as a simple question:
“How can you tell if a pigeon is male or female?”
Telling the sex of a pigeon is actually quite difficult. Even with years of experience people can still get it wrong. However, there are two methods that give good results.
One is to have the bird DNA sexed (from blood, feathers or the eggshell), which I believe is a safer and less intrusive option than surgical sexing. For more about DNA sexing please visit these websites: http://www.avianbiotech.co.uk/dna_sex_testing.asp and http://www.dnasexing.com/index.html
The other method is even less intrusive: Simply wait to see if your pigeon lays an egg!
I’ve had a look through the few books I have about pigeons and found this about sexing fancy pigeons (not ferals):
“Sexing young birds with any certainty is 50-50 at best. … Older birds of some breeds can be more reliably sexed, once you gain a little experience. In most breeds, the male’s head is fairly round, but the top of the hen’s skull will typically have a flattened area. In some birds this can be quite pronounced, but again, this is not true in all breeds. The only surefire way to tell a bird’s sex is obvious – the one that lays the egg is the hen, for sure!” (Vriends and Erskine, 2005, page 11 and 14)
“With pigeons the difference between males (cocks) and females (hens) is difficult to see. Sometimes the cocks are a little bit rougher around the edges and a little heavier. The head also offers some clues when trying to determine the gender. This however does depend on breed. The real difference can only be determined through their behaviour. A cock only shows that he is a male when he becomes an adult.” (Rijs, 2006, page 48)
Many people will tell you their method of sexing pigeons is the way to go, such as checking the shape of the head, tipping the bird onto its back (please check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5I4iU4KTJRo), checking the length of the toes, etc., however, I believe that there is no real science behind those methods and you may get an incorrect answer. This is obviously bad if you’re trying to buy a mate for your single pigeon.
Generally speaking male pigeons behave differently than females. When they become sexually mature they’ll start to look for a mate. Hinsaw Patent (1997, page 39-38) has this to say about feral pigeons in the city: “Almost any time a flock of pigeons walks about on the sidewalk pecking up bits of food, at least one male bird will be trying to impress a female. He puffs out his neck feathers so they gleam in the sunlight, and he coos softly as he struts about. The females are just as likely to ignore him as to pay attention.” Sound familiar?
Males will do their strutting dance to females, so if you see the dance, it’s usually a male pigeon. For illustrations and videos of the courtship dance, please visit: Pigeon courtship – romance is alive!
However, just to confuse you, I have found that tame/imprinted female pigeons will behave like males towards humans. So you may think you have a tame male pigeon who is cooing to you and dancing about, but in fact it may be a female pigeon who’s trying to get your attention. And since you’re obviously not giving her the right pigeon mate signals, she’s taking on the male role to ensure the relationship is going ahead.
If you have a tame pet pigeon who thinks you’re his or her mate, they will soon want to mate with you and, if they’re female, lay eggs. From my experience with tame pigeons, if the pigeon mates with your hand or an object (by rubbing its vent against you or the desired object) then the pigeon is male. If, when you pat its back, the pigeon crouches down and presents its vent to you (flattening its back and moving its feathers away from the vent) then you have a female pigeon.
Example of female presenting (0:08 and 0:34):
Example of male mating (Elmo isn’t too good with his balance so he cannot actually rub his vent against us – which is good for us!):
And of two pigeons mating (0:29):
Did you notice the male pigeon crouch down (0:42) when the female was walking towards him as if he was presenting himself? Interesting behaviour from a male.
The topic of sexing pigeons is discussed at length in this forum: http://www.pigeons.biz/forums/f5/can-you-tell-male-from-female-5146.html
And the wonderful people at Pigeon Angels suggest presenting a mirror to the pigeon to see if they coo and dance to it (male) or if they ignore the mirror (female): http://www.pigeonangels.com/t2254-how-do-i-tell-the-sex-of-my-pigeons
I’ve not tried the mirror method with my pet pigeon, Georgie, because she cannot see properly anyway – and we know she’s female already because she lays eggs. Elmo ignores the mirror but we know he’s male, so you can take what you want from all of the sexing methods. If in doubt, DNA sexing is your best bet!
I love what this man has written about the subject – point three is excellent! – but I don’t suggest the first method at all:
Posted by Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten on Apr 15, 2007
It is very difficult to determine the sex of a pigeon. There are three ways to do it:
1 – Check their reproductive organs
Not the outer ones but the inner ones. Pigeons genitalia all look alike so you will have to cut them open to actually see what you want to see.
2 – See who goes on top
There isn’t much variation in the sex life of a pigeon. Males go on top. No Kama Sutra here. Fortunately all they do is eat and, well you know, so you won’t have to wait very long to see that happen. But you do need 2 pigeons and some patience.
3 – look at their faces
Yes, pigeons have faces just like humans.
It takes years to be able to read the face of a pigeon. I kept up to 30 pigeons as a kid so I can tell the sex of any pigeon just by looking at it for 2 seconds. Just like with most humans. Humans have the added benefit of clothing, hair and breasts (or not) but even without that a face looks feminine or masculine.
I thought about that as I was watching the Dutch version of Dragons Den. The investors try to look under all those feathers but up close all excel sheets look the same. They try to see who goes on top but then you would have to wait until the entrepreneur meets an actual client.
But once you have met enough starting entrepreneurs one look at someones face is usually enough. You know what you have got and who is a good bet and who isn’t.
Just like with pigeons.
- Vriends, M.M. and Erskine, T.E. (2005) Pigeons. A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual. Hauppauge: Barron’s
- Rijs, A. (2006) Fancy Pigeons. Prague: Rebo Publishers
- Hinshaw Patent, D. (1997) Pigeons. New York: Clarion Books