Why did people stop eating pigeon?

Pigeon meat, commonly known as squab, was once a popular food in many cultures across the world. However, pigeon consumption has steeply declined over the past century. There are several reasons why eating pigeon fell out of favor.

Changing tastes and attitudes

One of the biggest factors was a change in tastes and attitudes towards pigeons in particular and food in general. At one time, eating pigeon was considered prestigious – it was served in royal courts and banquet halls as a delicacy. But as food supplies increased and became more consistent, pigeon was viewed as old-fashioned peasant food. The bird became more associated with being a common street pest than a luxury dish. This changing perception made it less desirable to serve pigeon at fancy meals.

Increased availability of chicken

The rise of chicken as a meat source also contributed to the decline of pigeon. As chicken farming became industrialized in the 1920s and 1930s, chicken meat became cheap and abundant. Chicken overtook pigeon as the bird meat of choice since it was equally versatile but more efficient to raise in large quantities. The consistency, affordability, and versatility of chicken made it far more popular than pigeon.

Urbanization and the growth of cities

Urbanization and city growth also diminished the popularity of pigeon meat. As cities grew, pigeons became viewed more as dirty urban pests that carried disease rather than food sources. And with fewer people engaged in small scale rural pigeon keeping, there was not as much ready access to squab. Pigeon fell out of favor and cuisine as cities expanded.

When and where was pigeon eaten?

Throughout history, domestic pigeon was an important food source in multiple cultures and geographic regions. Here is an overview of some of the most significant times and places where pigeon meat was commonly consumed:

Ancient Middle East

One of the earliest sites showing evidence of pigeon consumption is the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, dating back to 3000 BCE. King Ramses III of ancient Egypt also imported pigeon as tribute. The ancient Israelites consumed pigeon following the Exodus from Egypt.

Ancient Rome

The ancient Romans engaged in pigeon husbandry and considered pigeon meat a delicacy. Pliny the Elder wrote about feeding pigeons special meals of grain to fatten them. Pigeon meat was stuffed into dormice for an elaborate dish.

Medieval Europe

In medieval Europe, pigeon was a staple ingredient in dishes served at noble courts and monasteries. King Henry VIII was especially fond of pigeon pie. Pigeon husbandry became common from the 12th to 16th centuries.

Victorian Era

Squab remained a prestigious dish in the Victorian Age and was featured in cookbooks and banquet menus. Raising pigeons for meat occurred in dovecotes or specially designed houses. Squab was most popular in England and France.

Early 20th Century USA

In the early 20th century, squab was common on the menus of fine American restaurants and railroad dining cars. It was considered a delicacy. Squab slaughtering facilities operated to supply demand from restaurants. Prices for fresh prime squabs were highest from about 1910 to 1930.

Why were pigeons originally domesticated for food?

Pigeons were likely originally domesticated and bred for eating for several key reasons:

Readily available

The rock pigeon already lived in large flocks around cliffsides and caves. It was an abundant source of meat that could be captured easily. As an existing local bird, it was a convenient protein source.

Easily bred in captivity

Pigeons breed rapidly in captivity. By housing pigeons in dovecotes, substantial flocks could be maintained to produce squabs year-round. They provided a renewable, sustainable meat supply.

Adaptable birds

Pigeons are highly adaptable and can thrive in close proximity to people. They could be kept in small spaces in urban areas as well as rural settlements. Pigeon keeping was feasible for both peasants and nobility.

Mild-tasting meat

Squab meat is mild with a subtle gamey flavor. It adapts well to many cooking methods and absorbs the flavors of sauces and spices. This versatility enabled it to be incorporated into a range of dishes pleasing to many palates.

Nutritious meat

Squab provided a good source of nutrients to domestic pigeon raisers. The meat is relatively high in protein and low in fat compared to many food animals. Eating pigeon meat benefited human health and development.

How were pigeons raised for food?

Through centuries of pigeon husbandry, best practices developed for raising pigeons for their meat efficiently. Here are some key methods used:

Columbarium/dovecote structures

Special structures called columbariums or dovecotes were constructed to house domestic pigeon flocks. These were often circular or rectangular buildings with niches along the walls for nesting. Feeding and watering areas were also provided.

Breed selection

Certain breeds were selectively bred to produce the largest, meatiest squabs. The White King pigeon was a popular squab producer. Some breeds also optimized nesting behaviors.

Pairing/mating control

Mating pairs were managed to achieve the highest production. Often one male would be housed with two females to produce the most eggs and squabs. The healthiest, most fertile pairs were selected.

Nest boxes and perches

Optimal nesting materials and perches were provided. Nest boxes with laying bowls enabled monitoring eggs and squabs. Good perches kept the pigeons elevated off the ground.

Hygiene protocols

Coops were kept very clean to maintain bird health. Pigeon droppings were routinely removed and fresh nest materials added. Rotating pairs between breeding pens prevented overcrowding.


Pigeons were fed tailored diets with grains, calcium, protein sources, and supplementary nutrients. This maximized squab yields. Access to grit was also provided to aid digestion.

Squab harvesting

Squabs were taken from nests before they fledged and could fly. Typically harvested between 17-28 days old when reaching ideal market weight. Killing methods involved cervical dislocation or decapitation.

What role did pigeon keeping play in history?

Raising pigeons for meat and sport purposes occupied an interesting niche in human history for centuries. Here are some notable roles pigeon keeping played across different cultures:

Status symbol

Owning ornamental dovecotes and breeding high-quality racing or show pigeons demonstrated wealth, prestige, and sophistication in certain historical periods. Pigeons were a showcase animal.

Source of income

Pigeon breeding could provide supplementary income from selling the birds for meat, racing, carrying messages, or performing. Some monasteries generated revenue from pigeon sales.

Barter/trade commodity

In rural communities, excess squabs offered a useful trade item. Pigeons were easy transportable compared to larger livestock. They provided economic value.

Messenger pigeons in war

Homing pigeons carried vital messages in times of ancient and modern warfare due to their speed and navigation skills. Special pigeon corps operated in the military.

Sporting entertainment

Pigeon racing emerged as an organized competitive hobby. Dove releases were incorporated into ceremonies. These sports persist today and engage enthusiasts.

Tool for genetics study

Because they reproduce rapidly, pigeons enabled early studies of heredity and inheritance by Darwin and Mendel who observed breed variations.

Why did squab go into decline in the early 20th century?

Squab’s fall from favor in the early 1900s resulted from the convergence of various cultural and economic factors:

Rising chicken consumption

As chicken became cheaply available, it supplanted squab as the bird meat of choice. Consumers switched to the more cost-effective option.

Increased processing ofchicken

Whereas squab required small-scale breeding, chicken could be mass produced using developing technology. This allowed affordably priced chicken parts eto be marketed.

Urban spread

Denser cities meant fewer people kept pigeons at home. Rural smallholders were a key source of local squabs. Urban shoppers relied more on centralized chicken production.

Exotic meat trends

Some high-end restaurants shifted focus to very exclusive game meats and fish that conveyed sophisticated novelty more than squab. Standards of luxury dining evolved.

Street pigeon stigma

City pigeon overpopulation led to a negative public perception. Eating any pigeon seemed unfashionable and potentially dirty to some urbanites.

War hardships

The World Wars made pigeon breeding unfeasible for many European communities facing deprivation, rationing, and separation. Squab faded from daily life.


Pigeon meat was once treasured and remained popular for centuries. But a mix of cultural attitudes and practical circumstances caused squab to become old-fashioned. While specialty breeders keep the tradition alive on a niche scale, pigeon fell out of favor as a mainstream meat source. The efficient production of chicken and a faster pace of modern life impacted cuisine. Though squab is obscure today compared to its former glory, examining its unique history provides insight into evolving human-animal relationships.

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